We Must Not Let the Sun Set on Historical Black Resort Towns and Enclaves

There are ongoing efforts to "reimagine" the histories of important Black vacation locations into new and incorrect narratives.

Recently, I was on Martha’s Vineyard for a much-needed weekend retreat with friends. After the Labor Day holiday, visiting the island is a good time to explore and enjoy the island without the large crowds. The idea of being on a small island with more than 200,000 people in August was not anything I was interested in this year, given the ongoing COVID pandemic crisis. 

When I visit the Vineyard, I enjoy hearing history from longtime residents and patronizing small businesses. It is from these two groups of individuals—business owners and residents—that you get a sense of the latest news and how island life is changing. This year, I received a surprise that took some wind out of my proverbial sail: There is an emerging narrative that is attempting to recast the Inkwell, a once-segregated beach in Oak Bluffs, as a so-called writer’s retreat and how the Black community created the name “Inkwell” to describe it. 

The erasure of Black resort areas and enclaves, along with attempts to wipe out these vacation locations’ Black history, has taken place throughout the United States over the past century. These moves tend to primarily be in concert with gentrification efforts. Idlewild in Michigan; Highland Beach near Annapolis, Maryland; Cape May, New Jersey; Sag Harbor, New York; the “Chicken Bone Beach” enclave of Atlantic City, New Jersey; and American Beach near Jacksonville, Florida are some of the historical Black resort areas whose history seems to fade away more each year (paywalled). 

Martha’s Vineyard has a long documented history of Black populations. The history of the enslaved is traced to the 1600s, while the history of Black land-owning residents and vacationers on the island goes back to the 1890s. Through the early to late 20th century and beyond, Oak Bluffs became branded as an enclave for the Black upper-middle class and upper class. Stories about this group’s elitism have been written in books such as Dorothy West’s The Living is Easy and The Wedding and Laurence Otis Graham’s Our Kind of People and fictionalized in movies such as Matty Rich’s The Inkwell starring Lorenz Tate. Among the celebrities and historical figures who have visited and lived on the island are Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Madame CJ Walker, Spike Lee, Vernon Jordan, and former President Barack Obama. 

Some Black well-to-do vacationers indeed subscribe to the elitist aspects. Yet, I believe most Black people who visit the Vineyard do so to relax and commute in a generally considered safe space for themselves and their children. To be able to rest and be at peace while on vacation is something that members of the Black community do not take for granted. Therefore, traveling to vacation in safe spaces remains a commonplace activity among millions of Black people. 

Like much of America, Martha’s Vineyard had a history of overt and covert segregation and racism (paywalled) through restrictive covenants and other exclusionary practices that prevented Black people from owning property in certain parts of the island. One of the island’s disputed historical matters is whether or not a small strip of beach in Oak Bluffs was deliberately segregated by whites on the island or if Black beachgoers adopted the space as a de facto safe place.

Attempts to change the core meaning of places like the Inkwell appear to be a deliberate attempt to commercialize the space and enact further erasure of the resort town’s Black history. It was rarely disputed until the past decade that the name of the beach—the Inkwell—was meant as a pejorative term to describe the so-called Black beach of Oak Bluffs. The new “writer’s retreat” narrative situates white people through a more positive lens within the Inkwell story. For example, during my visit a white jewelry merchant attempted to sell me a silver charm shaped like a fountain pen inkwell instead of the beach from which its name is derived. I saw strange and troubling commercial trinkets like this a few times. 

As Audre Lorde is credited with stating, “ Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The study of Black resorts can and should be incorporated more into Black liberation studies, American Studies, Ethnic Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, and other relevant disciplines to eliminate erasure. Some of the more compelling literature examines Black resort life as collective memory and third place sociability (paywalled) and Black feminist archelogies and geographies (paywalled). As summer concludes, we must not allow the sun to set on the history of these important and treasured spaces in Black American life and culture.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.