Welcome to the Town of Oak Bluffs Massachusetts
By: Hannah Fillmore-Patrick
In the mid-nineteenth century, organizations like the Methodist Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association (MVCMA) began to establish a presence in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts on Martha’s Vineyard. These organizations transformed the sparse island settlement into a vacation destination known for its religious retreats and its quaint streets lined with colorful Gingerbread Cottages. Today, Oak Bluffs is full of reminders of the town’s booming nineteenth-century tourist industry.
The Flying Horses Carousel, for example, is the oldest platform carousel in the United States. The carousel features many of the traditional elements of nineteenth-century carousels, such as brass rings for riders to grab as they ride by on their horses.
The carousel has operated in Oak Bluffs since 1884, when an investor moved it from Coney Island to Cottage City. Until the 1960s, Oak Bluffs was the only town on Martha’s Vineyard that welcomed black tourists. As a result, the town attracted many prominent and affluent African Americans from New York, Boston, and Washington D.C.
Through the years. The Arctic explorer Matthew Henson, the wealthy businesswoman Madame C. J. Walker, the composer Harry T. Burleigh, and the singers Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters and Lillian Evanti all spent time in Oak Bluffs. Many black tourists purchased summer homes or stayed at inns owned by black entrepreneurs in the Oval or the Highlands neighborhoods of Oak Bluffs.
The Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West, who spent summers in Oak Bluffs, wrote about these exclusive summer communities in her novel The Wedding, which was edited by her friend Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. One of the most famous beaches in Oak Bluffs is Inkwell Beach, which sits close to the Steamship Authority in downtown Oak Bluffs. White tourists began to call this beach Inkwell Beach during segregation, since it was popular with black beachgoers.
While the name was originally a slur, black tourists actually embraced it ironically and began to refer to the beach as Inkwell Beach as well. Today, this accessible beach is popular with families with young kids.
Town Hall Address:
53 School Street
Oak Bluffs, MA 02557 (temporary)
Phone: (508) 693-3554
Cost of Stickers:
Beach Stickers: N/A
Transfer Station Stickers: $25 plus pay-by-bag
Shellfish License: $40 resident, $400 non-resident