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On Martha’s Vineyard, a summer of strategizing for social change

Ronald Mitchell
On Martha’s Vineyard, a summer of strategizing for social change
Ed Gordon (left) with artists Candace Hunter, Paul Goodnight and Charly Palmer. BANNER PHOTO

Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, long a haven for prosperous Black vacationers, this summer hosted a larger number of public events designed to inform and motivate well-educated participants to collaborate in pushing back against the unfolding attack on civil rights.

The forums, panels, conferences, films and business promotions hit on a wide range of topics, from anti-racism and art to health care and economics. While some of those events are held every year, a number were staged for the first time.

The uptick in public events on the island focused on social change followed the Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate affirmative action in college admissions and moves by conservative Republican governors to restrict and distort the teaching of Black history.

“The transition from largely social activities to discussions, forums, events and exhibits focused on the issues of the day is a result of large numbers of African American thought leaders from the academic, political, communications, corporate, arts and cultural sectors that convene on the island to foster strategies for making the nation a more perfect union,” said Richard Taylor, president of the Union Chapel Educational and Cultural Institute Inc., which is affiliated with an Oak Bluffs Church.

For a fifth year, the Institute organized five forums as part of a series named after Charles Ogletree, the late Harvard Law professor who vacationed on the Vineyard and hosted forums on his own. The Institute’s series covered such topics as anti-racism and allyship, democracy in crisis, Black philanthropy, activism by historically Black fraternities and sororities, and opportunities in health care, life sciences and biotech.

Dr. Thea James, vice president of Boston Medical Center, participated in the health care and life sciences panel. 

“Boston Medical Center is extremely proud to contribute to this dialogue and share our approach to health equity with Vineyard visitors from across the nation and garner additional perspectives that can benefit our communities in Boston,” James said.

New on the island’s activist scene was Black Enterprise, which sponsored multiple events featuring television personality Ed Gordon. The magazine’s contributions included a women’s forum and panel discussion on the role of art and art collecting in Black culture, with artists Paul Goodnight, Charly Palmer and Candace Hunter.

Under different sponsorship, there was a religion-based conference on women’s empowerment, “The Womanist Contributions of Cottagers.” Another event, the “Festival of Worship in Word and Song” at the Tabernacle, merged worship, political action and music, featuring U.S. Senator Raphael G. Warnock of Georgia, who is also a Baptist minister.

A history of Black leadership on the Vineyard

The rise in socially aware events has historical parallels on the island, where national Black leaders once rested, met and plotted strategy for advancing their people and making the nation try harder to live up to its creed.

Unlike any other New England coastal towns and islands, Martha’s Vineyard has been a vacation destination for African American for more than 100 years. The historic Green Book, the Black travel guide created in the early 20th century to list safe places in the era of segregation, included Shearer Cottage. It is New England’s oldest Black-owned guest house or hotel, located in the East Chop section of Oak Bluffs. Regular guests included luminaries like entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, actor-activist Paul Robeson, singer Etta James and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. who later purchased a home in East Chop. 

Oak Bluffs also played host to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for many summers during the 1960s. He stayed at the home of New York labor leader Joseph Overton across from  Inkwell Beach. Other summer guests included boxer Joe Louis, entertainer-activist Harry Belafonte, labor leader A. Philip Randolph and athlete Jesse Owens.

Comedian D.L. Hughley BANNER PHOTO

Later, Barack and Michelle Obama and their daughters vacationed on the Vineyard after he became president in 2009. The Obamas later bought a vacation home on the island and continue spend time there in the summer.

With all that leadership history, it comes as no surprise that the recent assaults on civil rights and freedoms would spur an uptick in the number of public events intended to restoke activism.

Even a hospitality company with no properties on the island brought a message of social changes to the Vineyard. Hyatt Hotels Corporation sponsored an event to promote Black businesses. Featured were high-end brands from Black companies including Isaiah Thomas’s Cheurlin Champagne.

Thomas took the stage and noted that the Hyatt Regency was the only national hotel chain that welcomed Martin Luther King the during the civil rights movement. Hyatt also goes out of its way to empower Black businesses, Thomas said.

There were events that targeted a younger crowd as well, such as a career fair hosted by TIAA. The Executive Leadership Council held a Black economic forum.

Artists took center stage in some events. Paramount’s “Content for Change” was designed to help young TV film content creators. There was also the 21st MV African American Film Festival and Max (HBO Max) “Scene in Black,” hosted by Vineyard Legacy, a social-first initiative celebrating Black stories.

And at the 12th annual MV Comedy Fest, held at the Black-owned Strand Theater, headliner D.L. Hughley appeared to champion a social cause of his own by talking about growing up as a special needs student, and also having a son with special needs who is now living on his own successfully despite society’s limiting expectations of him. 

There were still other social change events that took place this summer on Martha’s Vineyard. As America continues to struggle to insure freedom and equal rights, the Vineyard, particularly Oak Bluffs, will continue to educate, inspire and provide a place of solace to rejuvenate the soul.