Island Resort Boasts a Benign Racial Climate

Blacks and whites have summered together on Martha's Vineyard since the early 1900s

ON a warm summer afternoon, Lee Daniels takes out a book and sits on top of a wall overlooking sailboats plying Oak Bluffs Harbor.

Mr. Daniels, a black film producer from California, has been summering on Martha's Vineyard with his family since he was two years old. He comes here to enjoy one of the few places he knows where racial tensions seem relatively absent.

``In most neighborhoods,'' he says, ``when there is an infiltration of black people, white people tend to move on. Not here. Everyone seems to mix well.''

Like thousands of other black summer visitors from around the country, Daniels comes to be with his family and friends. His parents own a summer house here, as do his uncle and grandparents.

``I come here two months of the year just to chill,'' he says.

Oak Bluffs, Mass., is considered one of the oldest black resort communities in the country.

Black professionals - doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, artists, actors - come here. So do such celebrities as Spike Lee, who owns a house here, actress Jasmin Guy of the TV's ``A Different World,'' talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, and singer Diana Ross, to name a few. Other prominent visitors include US Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, former US Sen. Edward Brooke (R) of Massachusetts, and former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.

The first blacks to come to the Vineyard were probably slaves, as slavery was legal in the Bay State until 1783. In the 19th century, both whites and free blacks were attracted to the town's religious revival meetings, though blacks were once excluded from the popular Oak Bluffs Methodist campground founded in 1835.

Blacks continued to come to the Vineyard, as it was one of the few resorts free enough from racial prejudice that they could buy property. The first visitors were affluent Bostonians, including politicians, university professors, judges, and others. As time went on, more blacks came from other parts of the country and told their friends about the island. Some came just for the summer, while others stayed on year-round.

A KEY figure in the early years was the Rev. Oscar Denniston, a black minister who arrived in 1900 from Jamaica. Through his leadership and ministry work, according to Adelaide Cromwell, a longtime island resident who has written about the early settlement of Oak Bluffs, Mr. Denniston helped establish a black presence here.

Back in those days, summer visitors stayed in what is known as the Highlands region of Oak Bluffs and lived in cottages surrounding a Baptist tabernacle.

Doris Jackson owns and runs Shearer Cottages in the Highlands, where many prominent blacks still summer. Ms. Jackson's grandfather Charles Shearer who was born a slave, bought up land surrounding the Baptist church and started Shearer Cottages in the early 1900s.

``He bought a house on the top of the hill,'' Ms. Jackson says, ``and he also bought all the land surrounding it. And he brought his family down here to live and work, and soon many of his friends and relatives were coming to the island.''

Guests who spent time at Shearer Cottages included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., composer Harry Burleigh, and actor-singer Paul Robeson.

Today, blacks make up only 3 percent of the island's 12,000 year-round population. Several thousand more come here in the summer, when the island's population swells to approximately 100,000. While many stay in Oak Bluffs, others stay or own homes in other island communities.

``The island gets you away from the hustles and bustles of the city,'' says Jack Robinson, an island resort owner who has been summering here for the past 44 years. ``There is a different attitudinal approach in that you get away from most of the major crime that exists in the major cities today.''

Randi Vega, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, says she's lived on the island with her family for the past 12 years. Last summer, after renting a home for several years, she bought her own home in nearby Edgartown.

``It has been a very good experience for me and my family,'' says Ms. Vega, who is black. ``I moved here with my three young children in the early 1980s and so I raised my children here, and it has been a very good experience for them.''

Without saying the island is free of racial prejudice, Vega says it has been agreeable.

`TO say that Martha's Vineyard has no racial problems would be wrong,'' she says. But ``it's fair to say that Martha's Vineyard is a much easier place for black people to get along. And for the most part Martha's Vineyard was open to blacks for the past 100 years, where other places have not been.''

Carrie Tankard, vice president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, agrees. She first came here as a child. Later, during racial strife and riots in Newark, N.J., she brought her family and six children here to live. These days, she says, the year-round community seems to be diminishing.

``It's a wonderful place to raise children,'' Ms. Tankard says, but ``if they want to go on with their lives, they have to leave. There is no industry here, and there are no banks and insurance companies.''

Mr. Robinson says the number of black homeowners has diminished. Whereas 25 to 30 years ago, blacks could buy homes for $7,000 or $8,000, those houses now sell for $150,000 to $200,000, he says. But he is optimistic: Some 2,000 black professionals visited the island for the first time this past Fourth of July weekend.

``These blacks have discovered the island for the very first time,'' he says, ``and they will become owners in the future the way we did 40 or 50 years ago.''

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