“Summer House Martha’s Vineyard” marks an exciting addition to the reality TV landscape, especially within the Summer House franchise. What sets this season apart is its unique all-Black cast, a refreshing departure from the typical portrayal of Martha’s Vineyard as an affluent destination one might not immediately associate with Black communities. However, the show sheds light on a deeper, lesser-known connection between Black America’s history and this picturesque island.
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Martha’s Vineyard holds a rich historical significance for Black Americans, and in particular, Oak Bluffs, the area where the Summer House crew resides. It is, in fact, one of the earliest vacation spots, boasting a history that goes beyond its beautiful beaches and serene landscapes. Oak Bluffs also has ties to the Underground Railroad, a vital part of Black American history. Bravo deserves credit for being the pioneering network to bring this narrative to the forefront.
The show’s popularity can be attributed to two key factors. Firstly, it stands as a trailblazer, being the first of its kind to feature an all-Black cast in this iconic location. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it serves as a platform for viewers to delve into the island’s authentic history, bringing it full circle and giving long-overdue recognition to the vibrant Black communities that have thrived there. “Summer House Martha’s Vineyard” offers a new lens through which to appreciate both the beauty of this destination and the rich tapestry of Black heritage interwoven into its story.
Juneteenth holds a special place in American history as a day of commemoration, signifying the moment when enslaved people in Texas learned of their long-awaited freedom on June 19th, 1865. This date holds immense significance because it occurred two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was officially signed. With Juneteenth’s recent designation as a federal holiday, more and more people are delving into the history behind it, uncovering some remarkable revelations.
One such revelation is the fact that Massachusetts had abolished slavery as early as 1783, a remarkable 82 years before Juneteenth. While this doesn’t erase the existence of racism, it does mean that within the boundaries of Massachusetts, Black people had the opportunity to live as free individuals during a time when slavery was tragically prevalent and legally sanctioned.
Massachusetts also boasts a rich history in its indigenous roots, being home to the Wampanoag tribe. This tribe had thrived in the region for an astonishing 10,000 years before the arrival of European colonizers. Back then, Martha’s Vineyard was known as Noepe. In 1850, the United States government introduced the Fugitive Slave Act, a devastating piece of legislation that not only criminalized aiding escaped enslaved individuals but also mandated the return of those who had secured their freedom to their former enslavers. This act granted the government sweeping powers to pursue and capture escapees.
In the face of this oppressive law, the Wampanoag tribe took a bold stance. When two escapees from slavery sought refuge in Noepe, the Wampanoag people extended a defiant act of resistance against the U.S. government by providing these individuals with shelter and support. This act of solidarity serves as a testament to the tribe’s resilience in the face of colonization.
One individual who stood out in this fight against injustice was Reverend William Jackson, a resident of Martha’s Vineyard. He dedicated himself to thwarting the efforts of bounty hunters seeking to capture freed individuals. The contributions of the Wampanoag tribe and Reverend Jackson to the Underground Railroad are now honored as a significant stop on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard, a site explored by the Summer House Crew in the final episode of their season. These historical accounts serve as a reminder of the indomitable spirit of those who fought for freedom and justice in the face of adversity.
The Inkwell: An African American Safe Space
What exactly constitutes a vacation? According to the Oxford Dictionary, it’s described as “an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling.” Now, envision this: Black people embarking on vacations in 19th-century America. At first glance, it might seem improbable, but it wasn’t. Martha’s Vineyard emerged as one of the pioneering destinations where Black individuals could truly enjoy a vacation.
Oak Bluffs, a region within Martha’s Vineyard, eventually transformed into a haven of safety for Black vacationers. In the 1920s, Black citizens working for White families on other parts of the island constructed vibrant summer cottages. These charming abodes, fondly nicknamed the “gingerbread cottages,” provided welcoming vacation accommodations for Black people traveling from neighboring states. Situated near the beach, these cottages offered a serene escape, allowing visitors to unwind and savor their time.
The beach most frequented by those seeking respite in Oak Bluffs was humorously referred to by White residents as the “Inkwell.” This derogatory term was an attempt to insult the skin color of Black vacationers. However, Black folks, in their characteristic resilience, reclaimed this name that was intended as an insult and transformed it into a source of celebration. Today, the Inkwell is renowned as an exquisite high-end destination where Black people can truly relax.
Skip Finley, an author whose family has cherished Martha’s Vineyard as a holiday spot for five generations, aptly captures the essence of this place. You don’t need that armor here on Martha’s Vineyard. Over in the rest of America, walking around the streets, making purchases, you have to be aware of the fact that you’re Black. If you like fishing and you come to Martha’s Vineyard and you’re Black, that’s not going to be an issue.” Indeed, this unique haven has provided solace and peace to countless Black vacationers over the years.
‘Summer House Martha’s Vineyard’ Cast Connects to the Past
Amidst the many harrowing realities brought to light by the Jim Crow era, sundown towns stand as a chilling revelation for many only now discovering their history. Sundown towns were places with explicit rules governing the presence of Black individuals within their boundaries. The term “sundown” itself derives from the cruel stipulation that Black travelers were allowed to pass through these towns during daylight hours, but venturing into them after dark would result in dire consequences. This horrifying truth was a daily burden for Black people during that era, and sadly, echoes of this discrimination persist in America today.
So, you might wonder, how did Black individuals make their way to vacation destinations with no assurance of safety? The answer lies in the Negro Motorist Green Book, an indispensable guide designed to safeguard African Americans across the United States. Oak Bluffs undoubtedly featured as a prominent destination in this guide, along with vital information about which towns to avoid on the journey to Martha’s Vineyard.
The intentional casting of an all-Black group of friends in Summer House Martha’s Vineyard carries profound significance. These friends, a mix of old and new connections, share a deep understanding of the island’s history. Some have long been aware of this history, while others seek to reconnect with their diasporic roots. The importance of Oak Bluffs is universally acknowledged, even amidst the drunken disputes, passionate encounters, and overall drama that unfold. At the end of the day, this cast comprehends why they are there. Being young, Black, and carefree in America presents its challenges. Consequently, Black fans of the show find solace in witnessing a portrayal of life that is purely about living, devoid of the trappings of fame or fortune. It’s a portrayal of real friends coming together in a place brimming with historical significance, a history that many are just beginning to appreciate.