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June 2003



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By Perry Garfinkel
It's hard to know whether Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream included a vision of this moment: to be standing on this deck on this Fourth of July in this town among these people.

But you have to think it did.

Part of King's dream, etched into the American conscience in that impassioned 1963 speech, was that his "four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

And now, some 40 years later, at least from where I stand, it appears this dream is coming true.

Balancing a plate of pork ribs in one hand and a Cabernet in the other, I'm at a down-home but upscale Independence Day picnic in the town of Oak Bluffs, on the island of Martha's Vineyard. The guest list reads like a who's who of the best and brightest Americans of African descent. Judges and physicians, bank directors and university professors, painters and actors—an ingathering of extended family and close friends, all laughing, hugging, and talking kids, careers, and golf swings. Their welcoming spirit makes me feel as though I were a fixture among them.

Oak Bluffs wins over even the hardest of hearts with its multicolored gingerbread cottages and historic merry-go-round; its endless days of porch rocking, beach lolling, and clam digging; its cocktail parties, free gazebo concerts, and moonlit strolls up boisterous Circuit Avenue. But all this and a nearly prejudice-free atmosphere? How sweet this dream!

"People needed to know how deep black roots ran here," Carrie Tankard says, as she drives me around town, stopping at points of interest on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha's Vineyard, which she helped establish in 1997. "A Reverend John Saunders brought Methodism to the island in 1787," she begins. Saunders was among the first blacks to settle here. A century later, blacks were streaming to Oak Bluffs to attend summer revivals.

When they returned home, they told others of Oak Bluffs' natural beauty and of lucrative seasonal employment. These newcomers began to buy their own property. Their children would bring their children, and so on and so on, resulting in a community that's thrived for generations.

Community is part of what attracted Tankard. "We were living in Newark, New Jersey, in 1967 when the riots started," she says. "I saw a neighbor get shot through the neck. 'We can't raise our children here,'

I told my husband. We came here to start a new life."

At the first of the Heritage Trail's 16 sites—Shearer Cottage, the island's first inn opened by and for black people—we meet Doris Jackson, granddaughter of Charles Shearer, who opened the lodging in 1912.

Jackson turns nostalgic and rattles off the names of famous former guests. One, Isabel Powell, first wife of the late New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., still summers down the street in the home they bought in 1937. At 94, she's as live a wire as ever, holding court on her porch, offering visitors notoriously potent Bloody Marys.

"This is such a vibrant, self-affirming community of achievers," says journalist Jill Nelson, who is writing a history of her family's summers here. She is sitting in front of the house her parents bought in 1967 overlooking the town beach. "Having been here, I had no need to chant, 'I am somebody.' The high bar became the norm."

Now Oak Bluffs is home to the island's chapters of the NAACP and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. It's also got an association of

African-American women called the Cottagers, which hosts fund-raisers for island causes. For more than 15 years the Partnership, a group for black professionals, has held conferences here.

African Americans now live all over Martha's Vineyard, but Oak Bluffs remains their cultural heart and soul, a community both color blind and color rich. In the end you could be any color of the rainbow, and it would not matter to the environment here: these golden dunes, this salt breeze, these blue skies.

And, of course, the common denominator: the water that envelops the whole island like a sweet embrace. Several people invite me to participate in a baptism of sorts. So at 7:30 one morning I join the Polar Bears, some 30 to 40 folks, mostly black, young and old, who meet at this time every summer day for a tradition that began in the 1940s. They congregate at a stretch of town beach, where a post-swim buffet is already set, full of sweet rolls, egg casseroles, grits, and coffee.

Holding hands, we listen to an invocation by the club leader, followed by an off-key rendition of the Dionne Warwick hit "That's What Friends Are For." Then we wade into the still but chilly water. Some do laps between the two jetties. Others form a circle for water aerobics. Still others stand, waist deep, and carry on about last night's party or yesterday's catch. I trade swimming tips with Ed Redd, a judge in Boston, whose graying dreadlocks are tied back in a ponytail. He and his family bought a house here in 1982. "Sure, you have to have a certain pedigree to be here," he says. "But after that, it's like the water, the great equalizer. You sink or swim on your character."

The morning light bounces off the shimmering water and momentarily blinds me. Entranced, I say a little prayer that the dream of Oak Bluffs never fades.

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