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Obama's vacation spot has strong links to black history

By the 1800s, the servants of white summer residents of Martha's Vineyard were buying up land. In the 1950s, the island was popular with civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

By Tracey D. SamuelsonContributor / August 24, 2009

A storefront display on Martha's Vineyard features memorabilia and books on President Obama. He is just the latest high-profile African-American to visit the island.

Steven Senne/AP

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Rocky ocean cliffs and tangles of green foliage. Crowded Edgartown restaurants, large yachts, and even larger gray-shingle mansions. These are the images that many people equate with Martha’s Vineyard.

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What is less known is that the island has a long-enduring African-American history as well.

President Obama, who arrived Sunday on Martha’s Vineyard with his family for a week-long vacation, is helping to highlight that history.

Martha’s Vineyard is not a surprising choice for a presidential vacation. After all, former President Clinton has strolled its beaches with his family many times.

But Mr. Obama’s vacation shows a different side of the island.

“In some ways, I think the Vineyard is postracial,” says Dr. Elaine Cawley Weintraub, author of “Lighting the Trail – the African American Heritage of Martha's Vineyard.”

The first Africans on the island were slaves in the late 1600s. By the 1800s, the servants of the island’s white summer residents were buying up land in Cottage City, now known as Oak Bluffs and the unofficial capital of African-American culture there.

Oak Bluffs was a popular site for summer religious retreats. Charles Shearer, a former slave from Virginia, first came to the island in the late 1800s with his Baptist church group and later opened an inn to accommodate family and friends. His roster of guests reads like a who’s who of African-American culture at the turn of the 20th century: actors and singers like Ethel Waters, Roland Hayes, and Lillian Evanti; political figures like William H. Lewis, an assistant attorney general under President Taft; and the über-wealthy Madam C.J. Walker, who made millions in the beauty industry.

“It was a very cultural time for African-Americans to share with each other,” says Lee Jackson Van Allen, the great-granddaughter of Mr. Shearer who now runs her family’s inn. Her great-grandfather, she says, moved to the island “to expose his family to the ocean and certainly a population of African-Americans that aspired to do well and who were highly educated and prosperous.”

In the 1950s, the Vineyard was also popular with civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. Sen. Edward Brooke, the first African-American elected by popular vote to the Senate, owned a home in Oak Bluffs.

Islanders were “always aware of diversity,” Dr. Weintraub says. She credits the maritime whaling industry, as well as the island's native American population, for breaking down racial barriers. On whaling ships, whose logs included sailors of all backgrounds, “you didn’t care about race,” Weintraub says. “You cared about whether the guy behind you could do his job.”

Today, the island is still a popular vacation spot for wealthy and elite African-Americans. Film director Spike Lee is reportedly a frequent summertime visitor. Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. fled to the island after his controversial arrest outside his home in Cambridge, Mass., earlier this summer. Fellow Harvard professor Charles Ogletree is also a regular on the island, as well as a friend of Obama's.

Martha’s Vineyard also hosts an African-American Film Festival, has its own branch of the NAACP, and offers an African-American heritage trail, which chronicles of the experiences of blacks through 22 historic sites.

Yet despite the strength of the island’s African-American community, Obama’s vacation has another No. 1 priority.

“His desire in Martha's Vineyard is to get a little break,” said deputy press secretary Bill Burton, speaking to reporters in Oak Bluffs. “He certainly appreciates the hospitality of the folks who are here. But his desire here is to relax and spend time with the family.”