Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Island Resort Boasts a Benign Racial Climate Blacks and Whites Have Summered Together on Martha's Vineyard since the Early 1900s

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Island Resort Boasts a Benign Racial Climate Blacks and Whites Have Summered Together on Martha's Vineyard since the Early 1900s

Article excerpt

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. …

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