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The Obamas would (almost) blend in among Oak Bluffs’ black elite

By Carol Eisenberg

April 13, 2009 at 10:04am

If Barack Obama and his family decide to summer in Oak Bluffs, as the Boston Globe reports they are considering, they would enjoy not just pristine beaches, but a social scene that includes some of the nation’s most successful black artists, thinkers and entrepreneurs.

Obama’s longtime mentor, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, has a home in Oak Bluffs. So, too, do Washington power broker Vernon Jordan (the great uncle of Obama friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett), filmmaker Spike Lee and former HHS Secretary Dr. Louis Sullivan.

Located seven miles off the Cape Cod coastline, on the northeastern tip of Martha’s Vineyard, the town of Oak Bluffs has drawn African-Americans since the Civil War, first as domestic help for wealthy white families, and later, as second-home owners.

Once a Methodist revival camp, it became known in the early 20th century as the only town on the Vineyard that welcomed black tourists. As a result, well-to-do African Americans from New York and Boston flocked there in search of a summer retreat by the ocean.

Early homeowners included the late New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West and U.S. Sen. Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts, the first black senator elected in the post-Reconstruction era.

Among the town’s most prominent residences was Overton Mansion on Narragansett Avenue, a large Victorian house that became a salon of sorts, hosting actor Paul Robeson, singer Ethel Waters and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

”I can still see Martin Luther King sitting on the porch and writing,” a neighbor, Mildred Henderson, told the New York Times six years ago.

In more recent years, the community has become the summer home of journalist Charleyne Hunter Galt, scholar Henry Louis Gates and Harvard law professor Lani Guinier. Oprah Winfrey and Diana Ross are said to visit.

“There was a time when the Vineyard was the only spot for successful black people,” Jordan reminisced to journalist and neighbor Jill Nelson, for her history of the community, Finding Martha’s Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island.

While the White House has declined to confirm any vacation plans by the First Family, the Obamas’ friends say they stand ready to welcome them.

Ogletree, who has owned a place in Oak Bluffs for 15 years, told the Globe he first hosted Obama there in August 2004, after the then-Illinois senator gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

“I asked him to just drop by [the Vineyard] and say hi and then, when he showed up there were all these really excited people there to meet him,” he recalled.

Obama’s last visit, in August, 2007, was to attend a fund-raiser at the home of Ronald R. Davenport Sr., chairman of Sheridan Broadcasting Corporation, one of the nation’s largest African-American-owned communications companies.

Not surprisingly, he drew a big crowd then, too.

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