The first question friends had when I told them we were headed East for a wedding was where.
Martha’s Vineyard, I replied.
Next came a range of responses from “fancy” to “whoa, that’s big”. It dawned on me…I might not be giving this trip the attention it deserved (surely my only thickheaded moment). Granted, two days in October ain’t the same as two weeks in August. But it’s good to know that visiting Martha’s Vineyard means visiting one of the most literary islands in the U.S. A vacation and living area with great legacy for African-Americans, yes, Martha’s Vineyard is also one hell of a destination wedding location.
First of all, the weather during the three-hour drive down from Boston was bright blue and splendid. The fall foliage, muted this late into the season, revealed itself in spots. We drove towards Woods Hole, the southernmost tip of the Cape. From there we’d catch the ferry to the Vineyard, then a cab on the island to our destination: Oak Bluffs. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We made a memorable stop along the way. In consideration of the owners’ privacy what I can say is, somewhere in Massachusetts there’s a house. An incredible house whose architecture, design and detailed finish reminded me of a top AD 100 firm’s work. Think broad verandas, white oak floors, coffered ceilings, live-edge walnut tables, small details like chrome kitchen cabinet latches, and a killer conservatory skylight illuminating the foyer and the landings of the floors below.
The home’s caretaker, a friend of our traveling companions, is also a chef. He whipped up an organic, Asian-inspired lunch after giving us a tour of the grounds, and it was as delicious as it was fast. We left contented, with the kind of joyful images stuck in our mind that come with sharing exquisite spaces, food and laughs with friends, old and new.
Martha’s Vineyard History
Our hotel, a brightly colored and whimsical place called Summercamp, was smack dab in the middle of historic Oak Bluffs. Referred to by locals as “OB”, the town boasts the largest marina on the Vineyard. In 1947, 17 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed, Oak Bluffs was cited by Ebony magazine as being an exclusive summer destination for black folk; a place where whites and blacks swam together and socialized on the island. Yes, 72 years ago Martha’s Vineyard was getting right what many American communities (just now confronting the realism of racism) still get wrong.
But that strong legacy couldn’t have been established without some important happenings taking place. As far back as the 1700’s locals sold land to freed slaves who arrived at the harbor of Martha’s Vineyard, the harbor in Oak Bluffs. Centuries later, the island has boasted homes or visitations from the Obamas, the Clintons, Harry Belafonte, Vernon Jordan, Adam Clayton Powell, Jackie O. and Dorothy West (as an editor for Doubleday, Jacqueline Onassis worked with Ms. West on her book “The Wedding”).
Ms. West was a member of the Harlem Renaissance, the early 20thcentury wave of artistic and intellectual expression by black artists in New York. A fellow by the name of Langston Hughes nicknamed her “the Kid”, and Ms. West wrote her first novel “The Living is Easy” in her house in Oak Bluffs. Decades on she contributed to the newspaper on Martha’s Vineyard. Within this context we made landfall.
Celebrating on the Vineyard
Our limited time didn’t allow us to visit the neighboring towns of Chilmark, Edgartown and Chappaquidick Island. But we explored the idyllic storefronts and pubs of Oak Bluffs. We turned down Circuit Ave., passing smiling faces and the occasional Victorian gothic cottage to circle back up Kennebec. We stopped for excellent chowder, fried fish and beer at Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company. Bellies full, we headed back to our hotel for a welcome reception where I’d reconnect with family friends that I hadn’t seen in a very long time.
Our friends’ wedding was beautifully intimate and took place at the Union Chapel. Built in 1870, the octagon-shaped church was meant as a non-denominational worship space. The area was inspired by the Methodists, whose “summer camp” also became known as Wesleyan Grove, a landmark district (and the inspiration for our hotel’s sobriquet).
The wedding reception featured fresh oysters, prime rib and bubbly. We stood on the porch sipping from our flutes and watching the kids play on the grass against the blue harbor’s backdrop. Before we knew it night had fallen. Later, the guests celebrated the newlyweds at a late-night party where 90’s hip-hop and dancing reigned supreme. And under some very clear stars, Wonderhoney and I walked back to Summercamp.
On our way back it hit me…the link between the Harlem Renaissance and the Harlem resident bride and groom, the title of Dorothy West’s book and the reason for our trip, our friends, black heritage and the celebratory symbolism of Martha’s Vineyard. Consequently, I felt part of something special, but also, a tie to a place in which I had always been a part.