The Real Story of Black Martha’s Vineyard
Beyond the beautiful beaches and glitzy galas, Oak Bluffs is a complex community that elite families, working-class locals and social-climbing summerers all claim as their own.
As we celebrate and honor the experience of all Black Americans on Juneteenth, I’m proud to reissue this Narratively Classic, originally published on May 29, 2019. Like many people, I always thought of Martha’s Vineyard as a rich, white club — somewhere I didn’t belong. I was ignorant of the complex African-American history that existed here, and in so many enclaves within America. As a child growing up in a predominantly white community, I was often asked where I was “really” from, almost as a pejorative to insinuate that I didn’t belong. When I discovered the legacy that existed in Oak Bluffs, though, it reinforced the message that as Black people we are an intrinsic part of America’s narrative. This tiny corner of Massachusetts is more than a summer getaway — it represents the kind of freedom that our ancestors fought for. It represents home, belonging and the meaning of community.
Elizabeth Gates was 12 the first time she snuck out of her family’s summer house. From the balcony of their white antebellum home, Gates could hear Biggie rap lyrics pulsing through her window, and she quietly made her way down to the beach where a mass of people were dancing in the thick, steamy air. That was how so many summers played out until Gates turned 16, when she no longer had a curfew and could finally stay out all night reveling in the beach parties and bonfires that drew heavy crowds to Oak Bluffs, a quaint town on the northeastern shore of Martha’s Vineyard, a 96-square-mile island shaped like a shark’s tooth off the coast of Massachusetts.
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