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By Perry GarfinkelPhotographs by Cary Wolinsky



Warm nights and open arms in Oak Bluffs, a corner of Martha's Vineyard where African-American roots run deep.



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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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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
The town of Oak Bluffs didn't always go by this name.  Originally part of the larger Edgartown, three developments—Wesleyan Grove, Oak Bluffs resort, and Vineyard Highlands—separated from their southern neighbor in 1880 and became the incorporated town of Cottage City. This name was taken from the resort's promotional logo "The Cottage City of America," referring to the hundreds of gingerbread-style cottages built during the mid-1800s to house some of the thousands of religious congregants who attended summer revivals here. It wasn't until 1907 that the town was given its more poetic current name.

 —Karen Font

Did You Know?


Related Links
African American Heritage Trail of Martha's Vineyard
www.mvheritagetrail.org
Learn about the numerous people and places that make up this heritage trail.

Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce
www.mvy.com
This useful website includes ferry schedules, maps of the towns, a phone directory, and a list of things to do while visiting Oak Bluffs or the rest of Martha's Vineyard.

Soul of America Travel Website
www.soulofamerica.com/resorts/marthas.html
This travel website focuses on the African-American historical and cultural background of Martha's Vineyard. It also provides a list of sightseeing trips and other tourist information.

Martha's Vineyard Gazette
www.mvgazette.com
One of the island's daily newspapers, this site features current town information as well as historical backgrounds of each town. Oh, and news too.

Martha's Vineyard Campmeeting Association
www.mvcma.org/grand.htm and www.mvcma.org/history.htm
Read more behind the tradition of Illumination Night and about the history of the summer revivals (both discussed in the NGM article).

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Bibliography
Hayden, Robert C., and Karen E. African-Americans on Martha's Vineyard & Nantucket: A History of People, Places, and Events. Select Publications, 1999.

Hough, Henry Beetle. Martha's Vineyard: Summer Resort, After 100 Years. Academy Books, 1966.

Railton, Arthur, ed. African Americans on Martha's Vineyard: A Special Edition of the Dukes County Intelligencer. Martha's Vineyard Historical Society, October 1997.

Weintraub, Elaine Cawley. "The African-American History of Martha's Vineyard," New England Journal of History (Fall 1993), 34-47.

Weintraub, Elaine Cawley, and Carrie Camillo Tankard. The African American Heritage of Martha's Vineyard. African American Heritage Trail History Project, 1998.

Weiss, Ellen. City in the Woods. Northeastern University Press, 1998.

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NGS Resources
Pitock, Todd. "On Location: 50 Great Film Destinations," National Geographic Traveler (March 2002), 66-78.

Kopper, Philip. "Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard—Sister Islands Under the Sun," National Geographic Traveler (Summer 1988), 48-63.

Morrison, H. Robert, and Christine Eckstrom Lee. America's Atlantic Isles. National Geographic Books, 1981.

Graves, William. "Old Whaling Days Still Flavor Life on Sea-swept Martha's Vineyard," National Geographic (June 1961), 778-810.

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