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Claiming land and water on Martha’s Vineyard

Inkwell, a historically Black beach in Oak Bluffs, is a resistance

For Mercy Bell, Martha's Vineyard was always magical, a place where Black people could just be. Now she's starting a family legacy there.
For Mercy Bell, Martha's Vineyard was always magical, a place where Black people could just be. Now she's starting a family legacy there.Julia Cumes


It’s like the water is always calling to us. At least that’s how it feels to me.

Maybe it’s because our bodies are more water than not. Perhaps it’s because from the moment we come to be, we’re surrounded by amniotic fluid made mostly of water. Or it could be our ancestors, who arrived to this land by water. Not all of them survived the Middle Passage.

There’s a spiritual energy about the ocean, a saltwater baptism waiting to wash away your worries if you ride your faith.

My mama took me to the beach young. She believed there was peace to be had where there are waves and sunshine. And we often lived close enough to drive to sand and water.

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Still, I never saw anything like Inkwell, a small stretch of beach in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. There, everyone is every shade of brown, bodies shining in the sun. It’s not for a day or special event. Although Oak Bluffs is not predominantly Black, it is rich with Black history. And the Inkwell was among the first — and now one of the last — Black beach destinations in America.

Like most things in this country once were, and in many ways still are, the beaches were segregated, too.

There were wade-ins to demand access and fights to keep Black folk out of the water all across this country. But in Oak Bluffs, in the 1800s, some white folk sold property to freed slaves.

Episode 1: Water is a beautiful resistance
A Beautiful Resistance: Black joy, Black lives, as celebrated by culture columnist Jeneé Osterheldt. Join us on Instagram @abeautifulresistance. (Video by Caitlin Healy/Globe Staff, Image by Julia Cumes, Commentary & concept by Jeneé Osterheldt/Globe Staff)

Though Black people owned homes, there was no lodging for Black visitors on the island. In the early 1900s, Charles Shearer and his wife, Henrietta, opened an inn, Shearer Cottage, the first to cater to Black people on the island.

Listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book as a safe place to sleep, the cottage became both a place for laborers to lodge and a vacation favorite for everyone from Madam C.J. Walker, philanthropist and the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire, to Paul Robeson, celebrated singer, actor, and activist. It overlooked Baptist Temple Park in Oak Bluffs. A lot of Black people, including Shearer, bought property to be closer to the religious services held there. And more Black people came for work, bought homes, and opened businesses. Traditions and a neighborhood were born.

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The Harlem Renaissance helped the island along its journey to becoming a Black resort destination. The creatives of the time played there, created there, and sought respite. The Dorothy West Home and Shearer Cottage are stops on the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail.

The beach crowd in Oak Bluffs on Sept. 2, 1973.
The beach crowd in Oak Bluffs on Sept. 2, 1973.Donald C. Preston/Globe Staff

That’s not to say they escaped racism. Some say Inkwell was a literary reference honoring the Black creatives who summered there, but Inkwell was also a racist term white people used for Black beaches from here to California. But Black is beautiful, in water and on land, so the name was reclaimed.

Martha’s Vineyard’s Black population isn’t big. But Black folk live and vacay all over the island now — the Obamas live in Edgartown. Still, Oak Bluffs is special. It feels like ours.

Every summer, Fourth of July weekend and the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival are the big draws. Spike Lee, a Vineyard regular, also often attends and screens at the festival.

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It was a movie, “The Inkwell,” that introduced me to the Vineyard. It starred Larenz Tate as an anxiety-ridden teen coming of age; I’d never seen anyone Black getting therapy on film. It was complicated, loving, opulent, and fun. And it was the first time I became keenly aware that, as much as I loved every beach I’d been to before, I needed to experience that one.

It wasn’t until this summer that I vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard.

For me, a first-timer, it was both something I’d never seen before yet a place where I felt entirely at home. When you are in your swimsuit, you’re practically naked. At Inkwell, I never felt nervously bare. I woke up with the sun and took my yoga mat to the sand, alone but surrounded by distant family. And when my friend Lauren finished her sunrise run, she’d grab a bench by the beach. Just to wave hello to her was a hug we couldn’t share.

Even with everyone masked up and socially distant, it was neighborly. People greeted you as you walked by. Sometimes they’d strike up a conversation. And on occasion, you’d get an invite to sit. For some, this may all be pedestrian, but for me, it was safety. As safe as a pandemic can feel, as safe as living while Black can be. At least to me.

And to thousands of others, like Ariel Weekes.

Growing up in Longmeadow, Weekes was always the Black kid in a white neighborhood — or, if he was playing sports with his cousins in Springfield, he was seen as a Black kid with money. But when his family started renting summer houses down the street from each other on the Vineyard, things changed.

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Growing up in Longmeadow, Ariel Weekes was often seen as the Black kid in white spaces or a rich Black kid. In Oak Bluffs, he was simply himself.
Growing up in Longmeadow, Ariel Weekes was often seen as the Black kid in white spaces or a rich Black kid. In Oak Bluffs, he was simply himself. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“Here, I was just me, Ariel,” he said. “Me and my cousins would play basketball. It was everything to me. I would bring my bike and we would just ride out like lost boys.”

Now his family owns a house in Oak Bluffs. And they don’t just summer there. They come throughout the year. Since May, Weekes, a merchandising manager for Puma, has been working remotely and living on the island full time. He’s biking more, running a ton, and even on cold mornings, he swims.

“I always feel safe here, and here it is again as a place for refuge during the pandemic,” said Weekes, 36. "I never take for granted the privileges the island has bestowed upon us that have not been bestowed upon all of our Black and brown peers so easily. We have to make sure we are not celebrating this as a finality, rather a place we are reaching out and building upon.”

That’s the thing about the island. Despite its reputation for wealth, there’s poverty there. There’s the working class. And there are also people who have pooled together every last penny they have to do as Weekes said, to reach out and build.

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Mercy Bell was 24 when she got a phone call from her big brother, Antone Dias. They had to buy this house in Vineyard Haven, he said. Putting their savings together, they secured the loans and made it happen.

“My niece Ocean was just born," Bell said, recalling when they first bought the house. “When she leaves, it will be because she is ready to go, not because she has to go. And she will always have somewhere to return. We wanted to end this generational experience of really not feeling like home is a sure bet.”

Bell was raised mostly in Jamaica Plain, often in Section 8 housing.

“I grew up moving in and out of very creative housing,” she said. “We would always try and turn spaces that were not built for our family to homes that work for us.”

For the most part, she saw her brother, who was born and raised on the Vineyard, only in the summers.

“It was this place of reunion and celebration,” she said of her childhood memories on the island. “It was magical to come over on the boat and there’d be this brother that I only got to see sometimes and we’d have cake and balloons and it was a total family reunion.”

Her brother, who owns a holistic health center, lives in the house year-round. Bell, a consultant, splits time between Roxbury and the Vineyard. Thanks to gentrification and income inequality, owning property on the Vineyard isn’t easy. But she is dedicated to making that house their legacy.

And it’s the history of Oak Bluffs, not far from their home, that won her heart.

“Oak Bluffs was one of the first places where this burgeoning middle class, this precious pocket of African-Americans, seemed to be able to grow businesses, attain wealth, and pass on things to their children," she said. “You could go to Inkwell and it looks like what it sounds like, a true representation of the infinite manifestations of Blackness that we as people can look like and be in all shades and sizes, this kaleidoscope of color and experiences.”

For many, Martha's Vineyard is a place to vacation. For Randall Jette, it's home.
For many, Martha's Vineyard is a place to vacation. For Randall Jette, it's home. Julia Cumes

Randall Jette is an Islander, meaning that’s where he took his first steps, said his first words, and grew up. It’s not a vacation. Martha’s Vineyard is his home.

“Everybody knows everybody,” he said. “People fail to realize most of the businesses are seasonal. It’s like a hibernation. It gets quiet. And there is an epidemic with opioids and people battling alcoholism. But it’s a real close-knit community. Lucky for me, I was always playing sports and everyone was real supportive.”

Jette, 27, is a Howard University football coach. But for him, there’s no place like Oak Bluffs or its Inkwell beach.

“When other people hear about Martha’s Vineyard, they think about ‘Jaws,' but we think about ‘The Inkwell,’” he said. "It’s such a cultural thing. Growing up, we moved every five years. But in eighth grade, my parents got a house a five-minute walk from the harbor and I was like, ‘We’re finally here, yes, I’m an Oak Bluffs resident forever.’”

A local. And even as a local, Jette doesn’t believe in the island’s reputation for exclusivity, or bourgeois ways.

“Generation to generation to generation," he said, “everyone has this common bond.”

“There are people who drive up here from Georgia every summer,” Jette continued. "You know how many beaches you pass between here and Georgia? But here is different than anywhere you’ve been. Nobody cares if you live here. If you made it here, you are family. It’s a beautiful thing.”

We are the Inkwell, black waves flowing in the same direction. Or, perhaps, bridges for each other over troubled waters.

Coming next: Graffiti or murals? It’s all a beautiful resistance. Sign up to be notified of the next episode. Find the A Beautiful Resistance Playlist, Episode 1, curated by Dart Adams, on Tidal, Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube Music.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.