Exploring Martha’s Vineyard and the American south

marthas vineyard house

Experience a slice of American history as two journalists share their perspectives on Martha’s Vineyard and parts of the American south.

Author, Bijan Bayne,has been a summer resident of Martha’s Vineyard since childhood.  He says that while most people may know about Martha’s Vineyard because of the Obama family and the movie Jaws, the Vineyard has a rich history within the African American community.   Bijan tells us that the island is much more than a playground for the rich and famous and his stories will shatter some stereotypical notions many hold about Martha’s Vineyard.

Travel writer Kathleen Walls loves sharing the historical stories she discovers during her travels.  Her storytelling is truthful and authentic and she isn’t afraid to share stories about dark episodes in American history like the Trail of Tears or slavery.  Kathleen says that often times certain parts of American’s history is overlooked because of shame and guilt, but even those dark episodes can help inform our future.

You can read all of Kathleen Wall’s stories on World Footprints HERE

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Ian:                            When most people think of Martha’s Vineyard, the Obama family and the movie Jaws may be the first things they recall about the New England Island. But author Bijan Bayne, who has been a longtime summer resident on the Vineyard, shatters any stereotypical ideas we have about the island, as he shares some insights into the significance of Martha’s Vineyard to the African-American community and its basketball legacy.

Bijan:                       You would meet people from all over the eastern seaboard, who your parents didn’t necessarily know or weren’t friends with, because of the league.

Ian:                            Travel writer Kathleen [Walls 00:00:34] is a lover of history, especially American history. She says that often times, certain parts of America’s history is overlooked because of shame and guilt, but that having a full understanding of our history can help inform our future.

Kathleen:              I grew up in New Orleans, where Andrew Jackson’s so revered, and then I moved to north Georgia for awhile, and I got the Turkey side of the story, where obviously he’s not too revered. And I began to realize that there’s a lot of sides to stories sometimes that get overlooked.

Ian:                            Join us as we explore American history like never before on World Footprints with Ian-

Tonya:                     And Tonya Fitzpatrick.

Ian:                            Since his childhood, Bijan Bayne has been living in his family’s home on Martha’s Vineyard during the summer. He says that the Vineyard, as locals call it, is more than a playground for the rich and famous. The island actually has a rich heritage within the African-American community.

Bijan:                       My father’s mother had a home, and her mom bought it probably in 1943. Because of that, there’s a lot of multi-generational friends I have, where my father and mother are friends with the parents, and I grew up knowing the kids of people that have gone up there every summer since they were small. This was primarily in Oak Bluffs, and particularly in the second [inaudible 00:01:59] of Oak Bluffs that’s kind of quiet and off the beaten path, up above. It’s not down near the beach or the tennis courts or anything. They call it the Highlands, where the author Dorothy West and people like that lived.

Ian:                            Martha’s Vineyard has a significant history within the African-American community. We wondered how this has evolved over the years.

Bijan:                       It’s debatable and depends on, for some people, how long they’ve been going or why they started going, or who they knew that was their first entree, whether it was a friend or whether it was a relative or whether it was a spouse, and the spouse’s family. But in the 19th century, Bostonians and then, to a lesser degree, some New Yorkers who worked for well-to-do Boston families, often they were the laundresses, the hair stylists, the chauffeurs after the invention of the automobile, some cases the butlers, sometimes household staff, would accompany these families to Cape Cod on Martha’s Vineyard when the families would stay there for the summer.

Bijan:                       In some instances, especially in the part of Oak Bluffs that I was referring to earlier, the household staff lived in a smaller cottage on the same grounds as the family. So it was the size of a guest cottage, but eventually, a lot of Bostonians, and again, some New Yorkers, saved up to buy those cottages to host their own families in the summertime.

Tonya:                     One may wonder right now if Martha’s Vineyard was segregated at a time, if there were places on the island where African-Americans were not welcome or did not frequent.

Bijan:                       Well, I can only say by what people had written and said that had been going there since probably a little bit earlier than my father’s generation, because by the 40s a lot of people had bought these places. I’ve heard that some people on the island either could not, or were officially restricted, or if not officially restricted, discouraged from purchasing in Vineyard Haven or Edgartown, which are the other two reasonably prominent towns on the island.

Bijan:                       I haven’t been around to experience that, but I do know that Oak Bluffs had a considerably more noticeable black summer population than the other two towns, and I don’t know how much of it was due to restrictions on purchasing, and how much of it was due to just people wanting to live in that section of the island. The reason I say wanting to is because Oak Bluffs was settled, and there’s still the camp meeting grounds from the First Methodists who settled Martha’s Vineyard in the 17th century, so Oak Bluffs is sort of [inaudible 00:04:45].

Bijan:                       Oak Bluffs is where the gingerbread cottages are, Oak Bluffs has a little bit more of the nightlife and the ice cream establishments, and it’s where the oldest working carousel in the U.S. is, so even if a person bought in one of the other two cities later, or even further what they call up the island, or up island, a lot of the pulse of the island, especially in the evening, is in Oak Bluffs. I’m not sure if that didn’t work out for the best for those families, and there’s a beach right in town, where there isn’t in Vineyard Haven.

Tonya:                     As travel journalists, we seek out new places to visit. Because Bijan has been going to Martha’s Vineyard every summer since childhood, we asked him how he keeps his annual visits fresh.

Bijan:                       One way that I’ve done it, which is an organic thing and you’re not really noticing it when you’re doing it, is if you’re there when there’s a friend or a cousin or a coworker who’s never been, doing it through their eyes. That’s one way.

Bijan:                       Another way is, there are things that are popular now that weren’t as popular before the 90s, and then there are things that were very popular before the 90s, that people wouldn’t do as much now, because they weren’t coming up there doing them and it’s not part of their routine.

Ian:                            So what are some of the things you’d suggest for a visitor to do in order to have a local experience?

Bijan:                       Ideally, a person would have, with their family, a week. A Saturday to Saturday or Sunday to Sunday, so there wouldn’t be such a rush or a haste, or an urgency. Ideally, if you have small children, you should definitely take them to the aforementioned carousel, which is called The Flying Horses, because as far as anyone knows, it’s the oldest working merry go round with the painted horses indoors, in the country.

Bijan:                       Because I’m in Oak Bluffs, sometimes I like to go down to Linda Jean’s on Circuit Avenue and have breakfast, even though on the busier times of the summer, I would say after mid-July, that might mean waiting in a line. But if you’re by yourself, or if the rest of your family decided to do other things in the morning, if you sit at the counter, you can be seated a lot sooner than if you’re waiting for a table.

Bijan:                       But I’m more of a breakfast on the Vineyard person. The dinner prices don’t bowl me over, I’ve had some great dinners on Martha’s Vineyard, but some of the best meals on Martha’s Vineyard are just get-togethers at people’s houses and just on the grill.

Ian:                            Most everyone knows that Martha’s Vineyard is a summer favorite haunt for the Obama family, and that the Spielberg thriller Jaws was filmed there. But Bijan shared something that is not widely known, the Vineyard’s basketball legacy.

Bijan:                       In the very early 1970’s, and it’s not surprising that this happened, given that a lot of the people that went to Oak Bluffs in the summer were either from New York City or urban Boston, or D.C. or Baltimore, or Jersey, and in some instances some of the bigger cities in Connecticut and Rhode Island, but in the summer, there was a summer basketball league established. Probably the summer of 1970 was the first year, with age groups everywhere from little kids between 9-11, then 11-13, then 13-15. Then at night, the better players, some of them were high school players, would play, and some of the kids who had played in the morning games in the level that they played in their own leagues, would come back at night around couple hours before dark, and watch the older players play in their game.

Bijan:                       Because of that, and because it’s been going on for almost 50 years, as strange as that seems, there’s a lot of people who knew each other as young kids or young adults who were from different cities, who met either on teams or on opposing teams in that league, or playing pickup on the same basketball courts between the morning games and the night games, when they would have the courts open and you could play freely, and you could play pickup. You would meet people from all over the eastern seaboard who your parents didn’t necessarily know or weren’t friends with, because of the league, because it was the peak of the baby boom.

Bijan:                       Also, a lot of kids who lived in Oak Bluffs, and some Edgartown kids and some Vineyard Haven kids, because they were in that age range and seeking something to do in the summertime, also played in the league. So you also got a chance to meet year-round island children who might not have lived near your house, so you might not have played with during the day, because they were assigned to or drafted to your same team, so that when you got to be 14, 15, 16, especially if you were a boy, because I think girls’ teams came in around 1974, but if you were a boy, you knew all these kids, not just from the beach and The Flying Horses and the arcade and the ice cream places and the summer jobs, but because you either watched the games, played in the games, or went back down there at night to watch the better players play. Or a combination of all three.

Bijan:                       I wrote a book about the league because so many people told me that most of their friends from Martha’s Vineyard that are not relatives or that didn’t summer close to their own house, they made in that league, or they made watching the league, or playing in the league. Also, a lot of people told me that they probably could count 200 people that they know first name and last names, just from playing in that league from the time they were maybe 10, through their early 20s or their college years.

Bijan:                       The other reason I wrote the book is because it was a really different time. There was no Facebook or social media to connect with people that you didn’t know, so it served as a gathering place for people who were either working class islanders and families that didn’t have second homes, to meet the kids of families who were coming there because that was their second home, and meet without any emphasis on class boundaries, professional boundaries, my parents do this but your parents only do that, you’re black but I’m white, you live here but this is my second house. Those weren’t the things that the kids focused on, because everybody focuses on basketball and getting good enough, or becoming a good enough player to play at night when you got older. There’s a lot of friendships that were formed around that, what we call “the court.” Tonya:                     So it was an integrated league?

Bijan:                       Yeah, it was integrated. It was mostly white or black, or Cape Verdean year-round island kids, on teams mixed with kids from Newark and Trenton and Roxbury and Dorcester and Brooklyn and Queens and Harlem and Providence and the Bronx. So everybody got to know everybody’s slang, everybody’s culture, everybody’s sisters, everybody’s brothers, what kind of bikes the other kids had, what people were wearing in different cities. This was before MTV, where you could really see what people were doing in other cities.

Tonya:                     In his book, Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race and Class, Bijan writes that the basketball league also helped foster tolerance.

Bijan:                       If you were coming from an off island and playing, or even just playing pickup in the afternoons, you were coming there because your mom or dad or grandparents, or great-grandparents, had the vision to buy a second home there in the 40s or 50s, or maybe the 60s. If you were just riding your bike down there from Oak Bluffs, you lived there all year round and you played sixth grade basketball, or seventh grade basketball, or eighth grade basketball on the local school team, or for your church, or for the CYO.

Tonya:                     CYO is Community Youth Organization.

Bijan:                       You only saw, I would say, probably 70% of the kids in the league, in July and August, so they were your summer friends. Some of those friendships were closer than the Vineyard kids were to each other.

Ian:                            Basketball built a community that crossed ethnic, socioeconomic, and political boundaries, and as Bijan writes in Martha’s Vineyard Basketball, “The court was and still remains a place where you can play hoop with celebrities, like Jaleel White, who played Steve Urkel on Family Matters.”

Bijan:                       Ray Allen, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat player’s daughter played in the league. David Wesley of the Celtics just played pickup down there. Dr. J has been down to the court. Kyrie Irving played down at the court. A lot of these people have some kind of Boston college or university tie in their families. Obama played down there when he was in law school.

Tonya:                     It appears like the court was the social gathering place.

Bijan:                       This was before the era of malls. This was before the era of really knowing what kids in other cities were doing, so other than maybe a few outlets like fan magazines and Soul Train, there really wasn’t a lot of exposure to what other kids around the country were eating, doing, saying, wearing, and that was sort of a little melting pot that wasn’t formed for that reason. It was filmed to give kids something to do in summer because a lot of kids’ mother or father taught school, so a lot of kids were down there the entire summer.

Ian:                            Bijan tells us that in many ways that summers on Martha’s Vineyard were like classrooms on life.

Bijan:                       No matter what your parents did for a living, if they were the dean of some college or your father was a dentist, those kids still had to get summer jobs, because you were going down there to learn a lot of things. You were going down to learn that there were other blacks that were professional, that you didn’t get to see if you were in these isolated suburbs like Milton, Massachusetts and the suburbs of some Connecticut city, or the suburbs of Atlanta, or the suburbs of New Jersey, because you might have been the only black kid in your high school or middle school or prep school or [inaudible 00:14:10]. Not necessarily the only in the 1970s, but one of few.

Bijan:                       But the summer was to give you exposure that it wasn’t an anomaly that your mother and father and your grandparents were accomplished, but you were also expected to shoulder some responsibilities, because there was no smart phones, so you were gone pretty much all day. You were at the beach, you were at The Flying Horses, you were on Circuit Avenue goofing around, you were at your friend’s house, you were at the basketball courts, you were at the tennis courts. So you really didn’t have to come back home until dinner time, and then you went back out again, to The Flying Horses or the basketball courts or the dances, which were house parties hosted by a group called The Cottages that hosted parties for young black kids.

Bijan:                       Because you had so much free reign, one, you needed a couple dollars after you were 13 or 14, so a lot of those kids had summer jobs up and down Circuit Avenue, at the ice cream businesses and t-shirt shops and the taffy shops and things like that. So it wasn’t just this thing of, “Oh we’re just going to go to Martha’s Vineyard and play Scrabble all summer and go to the beach and hang out, and go crabbing and fishing and play tennis.” This was more, “[inaudible 00:15:17] This is a good chance for you to see what it’s like to have a job.”

Tonya:                     Well, the Obama girls have had summer jobs on the Vineyard as well.

Bijan:                       That’s right. That tradition continues. You got to work with people who again, might have lived there all year round, who were waitressing beside you, or bus boying beside you, or working in a shop beside you, or working at the little businesses or toy shops beside you. It really was a way of keeping kids modest, and also showing the working class whites and Portuguese and Italians who lived there all year round, it exposed them to black people in a way that a lot of white people hadn’t been exposed to black people.

Bijan:                       And when I say black people, I don’t mean the archetype of a black person that they might have seen on Sanford & Son or Good Times, where everybody does this for a living, and everybody’s struggling for work and everybody lives in a studio, everybody lives in the projects, everybody lives in a lot, but you were playing with the children of deans and lawyers and people who own their own businesses and dentists, and people of that nature, and that was the norm.

Tonya:                     Bijan’s book, Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race and Class, is available on Amazon and in book stores around the country.

Ian:                            You’re listening to the award-winning World Footprints podcast with Ian and Tonya Fitzpatrick. World Footprints connects you to the world one story at a time. We invite you to travel deeper by visiting our website, worldfootprints.com, and make sure you sign up for our newsletter and receive a special gift.

Tonya:                     Travel writer Kathleen Walls loves sharing the historical stories she discovers during her travels. Her story telling is truthful and authentic, and she isn’t afraid to share stories about dark episodes in American history, like the Trail of Tears.

Tonya:                     Where did your love for American history come from?

Kathleen:              I think I grew up with it. All my life, I’ve always been interested in … I grew up with more of the southern history, but it branched out to a lot of U.S. history, and I grew up in New Orleans, where Andrew Jackson’s so revered. Then I moved to north Georgia for awhile, and I got the Cherokee side of the story, where obviously he’s not too revered. I began to realize that there’s a lot of sides to stories sometimes that get overlooked, and that’s when I really began liking to dig in to the lesson on parts of history, the things that everyone doesn’t automatically know.

Ian:                            Kathleen, when I look at some of the pieces that you’ve written for World Footprints, and I see the connections from places that have a great deal of meaning for me, such as Kinston. Toured Kinston and wrote about a farming and industrial city. My mom just got back from Kinston two days ago, which is her home town. I always love hearing stories about Kinston, particularly given that I knew it as a sleepy, southern town, black and white, that was in the heart of North Carolina’s agricultural and tobacco farming community.

Kathleen:              I saw a different side of it completely. When I went there, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had never been there before. I knew tobacco growing, and I did watch Chef and the Farmer. I like cooking channels a lot. When I got there, the art … the way the community has revived itself from this depression into a beautiful, vibrant community, I loved that. I loved what they doing, I love the way they promoting it, and they have such a nice mix. They have the history, they have the art. It’s just a really interesting place to visit, and it wasn’t something I was really expecting. So often when I go to a place that I don’t know a lot about, I’m expecting one thing and then I find something different, and I love that.

Tonya:                     Speaking of unexpected surprises, you also wrote a story about one of my hometowns, or actually my hometown, Detroit.

Kathleen:              Detroit, right. I didn’t know that.

Tonya:                     Yeah. So what were your expectations before you went to Detroit, and how did those change?

Kathleen:              Again it was my first time there, and I was expecting that run-down town, all of the auto shops closed down, and not much else, and was very surprised when I got there to find even things that I didn’t get to dig in. The architecture was so beautiful that I would have liked to have seen a little bit more of that than I did. The art part I liked so much, not so much because I think the art was that great, but because he took a neighborhood that wasn’t safe, and living close to Jacksonville and growing up in New Orleans, I can understand neighborhoods that are not really safe, and then turned that into a place where visitors go, tourists go. People are now safe to walk around those streets, and that’s what I really, really liked about that art community.

Ian:                            One of those other places that you went to that has, again, a personal connection for me is western New York. You wrote two pieces on western New York, and one on Niagara Falls. Explain to our listeners about your time in western New York and what you got out of those experiences, particularly given the strong influence of the Native American tribes in western New York.

Kathleen:              Again, that’s one of my big loves. In our history, these Native Americans were here before we ever came over, and yet they’re so overlooked in history, and I don’t like to see anybody just get passed over. I’m much more familiar with the Cherokee culture, having lived in Georgia. The Seneca was something new and different, but I was so impressed when I went up there with what they’re doing.

Kathleen:              One of the things that really struck me was interesting, the … I don’t remember the gentleman’s name who took the tour with us, led us through the museum, and he mentioned that visitors would sometimes come up there and say, “Why aren’t you guys wearing buck skins and headdresses?” and he pointed out that our culture has evolved just like the white culture has evolved. You don’t see the white man running around in covered wagons and things like that. I think it made a very good point, that it’s not just something that existed once upon a time. It’s a whole culture, and it’s moved forward parallel with American culture, yet it’s still retained the ties to its own heritage.

Tonya:                     You wrote a story, and I must say it’s one of my favorite articles that you’ve done, on the Trail of Tears. Tell us about that. What you experienced, and what you knew about it even before you-

Kathleen:              I didn’t really have a lot of background on that. A lot of the people up there have a Cherokee ancestry, and I at one time met a Cherokee chieftain, [Freeman Owl 00:22:48], and one of the things I liked that he said when he started talking to me, and it was just a one on one, it wasn’t a group, and he said, “White people get very embarrassed sometimes,” and he said, “but don’t, because you didn’t do it, and it wasn’t done to me,” and I thought that was a very good way to look at it.

Kathleen:              Moving up there, living in north Georgia, I became very much more acquainted with that, and so much with history, we forget the people. It’s the dates and time and what have you, but in that one, where you’re looking at three different people, and they’re all gone. We don’t know exactly what they intended, but the way I feel about it is that probably the ones that signed the Treaty of New Echota, giving up their land and letting themself be exiled, I think in their own heart, they really felt they had no choice, because it was either get a little something for it, or the government is going to take it away from us completely and we’ll have nothing.

Ian:                            Kathleen, you’ve done a lot of writing about America, the American South. Give our audience a sense of some of your international travels, and in particular, the ones that were most impactful in terms of perhaps changing your perspective or changing your point of view about a place, or people or a culture.

Kathleen:              Definitely my trip to Jordan. When I went over there, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It’s a Middle Eastern country. I know here people see someone walking down there that’s obviously dressed as a Middle Eastern, they’ll get stares sometimes, and even worse sometimes. Over there, I found everyone was so friendly, very supportive. They all spoke English, which amazed me. I found out that from sixth grade on, they’re taught English in school, and I think we’re lacking something by not teaching other languages.

Kathleen:              The big thing that impressed me was that they were so energy-conscious. Nice, beautiful, upscale apartments, and you would see clothes lines on their porches. Solar panels. It made me feel like we’re very wasteful compared to their culture.

Tonya:                     What has been the most transformative travel experience? Either in this country, in the United States, or abroad, but what has touched you the most, or changed you the most?

Kathleen:              I would have to again say Jordan, because it was such a different culture. One of the things that really struck me coming from there too, the Lawrence of Arabia story. As a young person, I had watched the movie and didn’t think too much of it, but today going over there and hearing people say, “Oh, I wanted to visit my relative in here or there, in one of the other little countries nearby, but we have to have a visa to go there,” and looking at what Lawrence of Arabia was trying to do to make one country. I’m wondering if just that one fact, that he didn’t succeed at- If Woodrow Wilson had accepted that and pushed that the Paris peace talks, that maybe a whole situation today with the Middle East would be a different thing. I think that made the biggest impression.

Tonya:                     Again looking at so many of the articles you’ve written for World Footprints, is there one of the stories that you have shared with us, that has surprised you the most? Which one, and why?

Kathleen:              Goldsboro, in Sanford, right outside of Orlando. It was a very small press trip, and we were mostly talking about a lot of things, some of the food and destinations there in Sanford, Seminole County. The lady who runs, I don’t remember her name offhand now, but she stopped and met us at lunch and began telling us about Goldsboro. All of us were so interested, we started asking our host is there somewhere we can go there. That’s how that story came about, I had never heard of the place before.

Tonya:                     What would you like people who are reading your articles to experience and understand through your experiences and writing?

Kathleen:              I would hope that they would, first off, be interested enough to want to go and see that place for themself, and then when they’re there, come there with a little bit of background knowledge on it, and hopefully even gain more and take an interest in it that way.

Tonya:                     You can read all of the wonderful articles Kathleen has written for World Footprints by visiting her author profile page at worldfootprints.com, and you can read about some of her other adventures on her travel e-zine, americanroads.net.

Tonya:                     Between Kathleen and Bijan, they took us to places we already knew, places we have experienced before, and we also learned some new things about the history of our country. I know it took you back to some places you experienced in your childhood.

Ian:                            Very true, dear. My mom’s family and her ties to Kinston, it was nice hearing about Kathleen’s visit there. And in the 90s and going to the present, Martha’s Vineyard has really been a big part of my life, and our life together as well, so it’s always good to re-visit those places that have a great deal of meaning.

Tonya:                     Well these guys allowed us to be tourists in places we’ve lived before, and we know that many times when you live in a place, you’re not often a tourist. Part of the travel experience is discovery of our common history, as Marcus Garvey said. “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”

Tonya:                     Thank you for exploring the world with us. We’re Tonya and Ian Fitzpatrick, and we look forward to connecting you to the world one story at a time, on World Footprints.

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