The Obamas, the Vineyard and Class

How the first family's vacation spot became the go-to summer destination for African Americans.

Gay Head Light and Aquinnah Cliffs at Martha's Vineyard (Thinkstock)
Gay Head Light and Aquinnah Cliffs at Martha's Vineyard (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — Although they skipped a lengthy summer vacation last year because of the election, this year the Obamas will be making up for lost time. The first family is scheduled to spend the week of Aug. 10 in Martha’s Vineyard.

The Obamas continue a long tradition of high-profile African Americans summering there, including a number of fellow political trailblazers. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., New York’s first African-American congressman, and Ed Brooke, the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate, both owned homes on the island.

As a testament to how closely identified Martha’s Vineyard is with the African-American experience, this week marked the start of the Harlem Fine Arts Show there. Authors and artists such as MSNBC host Touré and style expert, and The Root contributor, Harriette Cole are among the high-profile faces scheduled to headline events during the festivities.

So how exactly did Martha’s Vineyard become the go-to-place for African Americans in the summer, and why has it remained that way over the years? 

Although Harlem did not become a significant place in black history until the 1920s, the connection between African Americans and Martha’s Vineyard dates back to the 1800s. In an interview with The Root, historian Robert Hayden, author of African-Americans on Marthas Vineyard & Nantucket: A History of People, Places and Events, explained that in the late 19th century, the island emerged as an upscale summering resort for wealthy white Bostonians and those from Newport, R.I.

This laid the groundwork for the thriving black community that would ultimately emerge in places like Oak Bluffs (originally called Cottage City) on the Vineyard. “Many came with their employers from Boston or Newport,” Hayden said, referring to the early black Vineyard inhabitants. “They [white vacationers] would bring their black employees for the summer, and eventually that working class turned into a leisure class at the turn of the century.”

Now, more than a century later, many of the descendants of this black working class have continued the tradition of bringing their families to the island, although many of them have moved beyond the working-class ranks. By 1947 Ebony magazine referred to Oak Bluffs as the “most exclusive Negro summer colony in the country.” Years later, the exclusivity label is one that some who visit the Vineyard bristle at.

A 2009 New York magazine article by Touré ruffled feathers for highlighting some of the perceived elitism of the Martha’s Vineyard set. An unnamed Vineyarder was quoted as saying of the Obamas’ pending visit, “He doesn’t seem to identify with affluent black people. His wife definitely doesn’t; she is basically a ghetto girl. That’s what she says — I’m just being sociological. She grew up in the same place Jennifer Hudson did. She hasn’t reached out to the social community of Washington, and people are waiting to see what they’ll do about that.”