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'Finding Martha's Vineyard': An Island's Black Legacy

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Many of you are making plans for your family's summer vacation. Author and activist Jill Nelson has a suggestion for the perfect spot to enjoy fun in the sun and soak in rich history: Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard. Nelson has spent her summers there for nearly 50 years. Now she's written a book about the island and its grand history and her experience. It's called "Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island."

Ms. JILL NELSON ("Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island"): People really came as service workers, many in the beginning, or as religious worshipers as Methodists or as Baptists, and others came working for white families and then built businesses themselves. Many of the early entrepreneurs were women who came to the island with their children to work because their husbands had jobs on the mainland, but the women did not, and so it was a way to supplement income. Then you supplement income, you have your children there, everyone's doing pretty well, you're making some money. Ahh, let me find a few dollars and buy a place and sink those roots.

GORDON: Having participated in so many summers there, knowing the island as you do, what did you find that most surprised you, though?

Ms. NELSON: I was really surprised by the variety of ways and reasons for why people came there. You sort of assume, when you're there for vacation in the summer, that everyone's there to just relax. But there are people in the book--there's a woman named Carrie Tankard, who came there in 1968 a few days after the Newark riots. She was living with her six children and husband in a housing project in Newark, and a friend of hers got up to grab her child out of the window and was shot in the neck and killed. And a couple of days later he husband said, `We're getting out of here. We're moving to Martha's Vineyard.' That was really surprising to me.

I was also surprised by the very different experience of the people who have lived--were born and raised there and have lived there year round, as opposed to people who come in the summers for a few weeks or a few months. We have such a romantic notion of the island, yet in many ways the people who live there year round, the Native Americans and African-Americans, are the most critical in many ways of the island.

GORDON: Jill, what about the criticism of this group, if we can make it a monolith, the idea that there is some sense of elitism that leaks into, you know, the island and island lore and what portion of the island you live on and...

Ms. NELSON: Right.

GORDON: ...who's new money and old money, etc.?

Ms. NELSON: You know, it's funny. Bebe Moore Campbell, the writer who's interviewed in the book, says, you know, you are elite if you come here. If you're able to own a summer home or spend two weeks away from where you live in the summer, you are part of an elite. That said, I challenge, as African-American people, to stop being so critical of our middle class. I think the sort of elite, we don't speak to one another, we're drinking Cristal and eating lobster claws on our porch and not making eye contact, I don't think that person exists.

GORDON: You know what I found interesting and funny as I perused the book, this is what we aspire to and for, many African-Americans in far greater numbers, and then when you attain that, you do have to almost re-up your black card to a great degree, don't you?

Ms. NELSON: You might have to, but I'll tell you, those days are over for me, and I'm not going there anymore. I think when you look at the people in the building--I'm sorry, in the book--at a Vernon Jordan, who's certainly been active in the civil rights movement and movements for social change and economic parity for decades. When you look at Helen Vanderhoot Manning(ph), half Native, half African-American, who fought for the return of the tribal rights to the Wampanoag Indian there, and in fact, succeeded. These are people who are active, vocal participants in the struggle for justice and economic rights.

GORDON: You know what I also most appreciate about the book as you go through it are two things. One, you have recipes.

Ms. NELSON: What I did with people was, when I interviewed people, I said, `Do you have a recipe that you'd like to share?' And so the recipes range from stuffed blue fish to a great recipe for mango margaritas, which ends, `chill and sip on the inkwell.' Our sense of place and history is rooted in food. I mean, when you think of happy times in your recent or distant past, I bet you they're connected with food, and so I wanted to touch on that as well.

GORDON: The other great thing I thought were the pictures.

Ms. NELSON: The pictures, many of them were taken--the portraits of people interviewed, most of them were taken by a wonderful island photographer named Alison Shaw. Then I found a lot of old pictures just through word of mouth and asking people. One woman, Olive Bowles(ph), had scrapbooks full of amazing photographs of African-Americans in the '30s, '40s and '50s that her father had taken and that she had preserved. One of my favorite pictures is a pyramid of men and women in their 20s and 30s on the beach in the 1940s. I have learned that you can be a race woman and still enjoy your vacation.

GORDON: What do you want this book to be outside of chronicling the history of the island?

Ms. NELSON: I want it to continue the job of situating African-American people within African-American culture, but also within American culture as well. That this is a place where we go to rejuvenate. Most of all I want it to be a love story about place. I hope when people read it, they smile, they laugh, they smell my mom's potato salad, they see her bony little hands gesturing, and it makes them yearn for that place that they call home as well.

GORDON: The book is "Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island." The author is Jill Nelson.

Jill Nelson, so nice to see you.

Ms. NELSON: Ed, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.