The Place

Historic photo: African Americans sitting in front of building on Oaks Bluff, women in long dresses, men in suits
Historic photo: Fishermen, both black and white

Historic photo: Group of women in their early 1900šs swimsuits on the beach

“We didn’t come to Martha’s Vineyard… we came to Oak Bluffs.”
—Stanley Nelson, Sr. in A PLACE OF OUR OWN

Oak Bluffs sits on the northeast shore of Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island dotted with picturesque beach towns. But behind Oak Bluffs’ reputation as a summer vacation haven is a rich and varied history: past incarnations include a Native American fishing village in pre-colonial times and a religious destination during the 1800s—then known as Edgartown, the town hosted annual fundamentalist revivals. Summer tent colonies eventually gave way to tourist cottages, Edgartown was re-named Cottage City, and Oak Bluffs got its official moniker in 1907.

A Century of Community

Vintage picture postcard says, “Ocean Park, Oak Bluff, Mass.”

People of African descent first came to Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600s, when West African slaves worked on the farms of early settlers. After slavery was abolished, the island became a popular destination for freed blacks, who came to work in the fishing industries, in turn attracting black residents from the Massachusetts mainland, who came and started businesses to serve the Vineyard’s growing population.

As Oak Bluffs transformed from a white religious destination to a secular vacation destination, it became known as the only Vineyard town that really welcomed black tourists. Other towns on the island did not even allow black people to stay in inns and hotels until the 1960s. In search of an accessible vacation spot, well to do African Americans from New York and Boston came to Oak Bluffs, and by the 1930s, local black landowners were transforming the town into the country’s best-known—and most exclusive—African American leisure spots.

Former Oak Bluffs residents include civil rights luminary Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., actor Paul Robeson, author Dorothy West, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and singer Ethel Waters. Today, the tradition continues with such notable vacationers as filmmaker Spike Lee, lawyer and former presidential advisor Vernon Jordan, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Louis Sullivan and the countless others who continue to call this community a home away from home.


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