The alternative Martha's Vineyard that you won't read about in the press

With the media abuzz about yet another presidential vacation, meet the other people who will be on the island

Last year on his vacation on Martha's Vineyard, President Barack Obama ordered some food at Nancy's Resaturant in Oak Bluffs, Mass. This year he returns with his family for the longest vacation of his administration.
Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

OAK BLUFFS, Mass. — The nation’s publications are already bristling with tales of Martha’s Vineyard and the Obama family’s annual vacation there, which starts this year on Saturday, Aug. 9 and continues through the 24th, the longest summer vacation of the president’s administration. It’s already been noted that Hillary Clinton, his former Secretary of State, will be in town at the same time — on Aug. 13, when she ferries across to sign copies of her latest memoir.

But there will also be stories of movie stars and their vacation romps, calculations of the high number of venture capital magnates on the island, a discussion of multimillion-dollar homes with staggering beachfront vistas, and at least one article about the black elite of the African-American enclave that is Oak Bluffs. The names Kennedy, Belushi, Clinton, and Vernon Jordan will be bandied about and the annual feeding frenzy will begin.

However, while many islands breed mental insularity and closed-mindedness, the Vineyard looks outward to the world as well as in. Yes, in some parts it’s a millionaires’ retreat and a playground of the rich, but it’s also an island of diverse populations. Think of it as the Alternative Martha’s Vineyard, the people on this island of less than 100 square miles whom you rarely hear about.

The Native Americans

On the Vineyard, it all begins with the Wampanoag. They were the original inhabitants of the island and, on the mainland, the tribe that greeted the Pilgrims when they landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. There were more than 3,000 of them living on the Vineyard in the early 17th century when Europeans first arrived.

The view from Air Force One on Aug. 10, 2013 as the Obama family flew to Martha's Vineyard for their annual vacation.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP

They called the island Noepe meaning land amid the streams; they fished and farmed, including the cultivation of the three sisters corn, beans, and squash. With the arrival of the Europeans, all of that would change. Today, the Wampanoag are a federally recognized tribe with tribal land on the southwestern tip of the island at Aquinnah near the famous multicolored cliffs formerly known as Gay Head.  

It’s a small community, but it comes together once a week for pizza night at the Orange Peel Bakery. The event was begun several years back by baker Julie Vanderhoop. Now, it’s become a don’t-miss occasion on the weekly calendar when families get together in the yard surrounding the bakery to share tales of the week.

There, across generations they catch up on local gossip and muse about world doings over the pizzas that Julie bakes in the oven – you provide the toppings, she supplies the pizza dough rounds and it’s open to all. Julie created the event when she returned from living in Europe.

“When I was young here we had a lot of potlucks,’’ she said. “But when the church faded and dwindled down to six families in the 1980s all of that stopped. No one had anyplace to go. I wanted to meet my neighbors; I wanted to know everyone again.’’

The Vineyard branch of the tribe is now centered in the town of Aquinnah, where there is also the Vanderehoop Homestead near the cliffs, a museum that offers a a glimpse into life at a Wampanoag farmstead on the end of the island in the 19th century.

The African-Americans

The island has been long been home to African-Americans with documented history going back to the mid-18th century. While the Abolitionist presence was not as vibrant as it was on Nantucket (Frederick Douglass spoke there and they have an African Meeting House), there were strong roots. Most importantly, on the Vineyard, there is a continuing history. In the early 20th century, the island became home to an African-American summer enclave: Oak Bluffs. The Bluffs, as it is affectionately known, has been a summer residence for notables such as politicians Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Senator Edward Brooke, composer Harry T. Burleigh, and writer Dorothy West. Martin Luther King Jr. was an occasional visitor and penned some of his speeches sitting on an Oak Bluffs porch. 

A view of the 'gingerbread' cottages in Oak Bluffs, a historic community for the African-American elite who summer in Martha's Vineyard.
Paul Marotta/ Getty Images

Today, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Henry Louis Gates, and Spike Lee are numbered among those who spend time in the town known for its carpenter gothic “gingerbread” cottages and shady oak trees. Skip Finley, who follows in the footsteps of West as the Oak Bluffs columnist for The Vineyard Gazette, one of the two local papers, summed it up.

“What I love is the sense of freedom,’’ he said. “There’s racism everywhere, but here, they don’t look at you crossways.’’

But there are other forms of freedom as well, he added.

“I like looking up and seeing the stars at night and feeling a cool ocean breeze,’’ he said. “I like not having a key to my house and knowing that the car keys are always in the car.“

Finley, who morphed from a “washashore,” as summer residents are called, into a year-rounder, has spent 59 summers in Oak Bluffs. “It’s simply a place where you don’t have to catch your breath,” he said.

Oak Bluffs has such deep cultural connections for African Americans that it has earned a spot among the ten locales selected for the Power of Place exhibit that will be a permanent installation at the new Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture that is being built on the Mall in Washington, DC. The African-American presence on the island is also celebrated on the island in its African American Trail – some 24 markers in Oak Bluffs and around the island celebrating various special spots of African-American history. Many of the ones in Oak Bluffs can be visited in a self-guided walking tour.

The Portuguese speakers

Azoreans and Cape Verdeans on the island go back to whaling days and names like Coutinho, da Rosa, Amaral, and DeBettencourt fill the phone book and demonstrate the enduring links that the Portuguese-speaking community maintains with the island. The Portuguese American Social Club is the living room, dining room, and often kitchen for not only the Portuguese, but the Oak Bluffs community at large. It all comes to a head on a weekend in July when the Portuguese Holy Ghost Feast takes over the town..

Graves in the local cemetery are decorated not only with the Stars and Stripes, but also with the distinctive red and green flag of Portugal and a folkloric band leads a small parade through the town that culminates in a gorge of Portuguese delicacies including sopa or kale soup that is a culinary hallmark of the holiday.

The Brazilians are among the more recent Portuguese-speaking arrivals on the island; they came perhaps because of the island’s linguistic ties, but they rapidly integrated and became the stonemasons and carpenters, day laborers and painters of the community. Local stores now carry yucca and manioc as well as 25-pound bags of rice. 

The Jamaicans

The Jamaican community originally came to the island to work as migrant workers on the island’s small farms, but they too rapidly found a foothold. Now Jamaicans can be found in virtually all walks of island life and in professions ranging from farm worker to manicurist to banker.

For years, there was a Jamaican food truck serving jerked chicken and fried fish and bammie outside of the movie theatre in Vineyard Haven. Deon Thomas is known for the restaurants he used to run in Oak Bluffs and Chillmark. Although he’s from Antigua and not Jamaica, he makes some serious jerked chicken. It’s a not-so-well-kept secret that he still cooks for locals and visitors hankering for some jerk at the VFW Hall for Post 9261 in Oak Bluffs.

Now, Jamaica is celebrated on the Vineyard with reggae nights at one of the island clubs on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. On a Sunday night you might find Faith Graham in attendance. A manicurist, she arrived on the island following her sister who was here on a work program.

She noted that while there are many Jamaicans in the Vineyard, most flee to their other island home when winter comes. But she stays put.

“After two visits, I liked it and I found out how to stay,’’ she said, “so now I’m here year round. ‘’

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