Finding Martha's Vineyard

African Americans at Home on an Island

By Jill Nelson
(Doubleday, Hardcover, 9780385505666, 288pp.)

Publication Date: May 17, 2005

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In this elegant book of photographs, personal narrative, memories, and fascinating historical detail, bestselling author Jill Nelson conveys the special magic of Martha’s Vineyard and the African Americans who have summered or lived there for generations.

Jill Nelson has been a summer and occasional year-round resident of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard for nearly fifty years. It was where she learned to swim and ride a bike, first kissed a boy, became a writer, and, during twenty-eight summers, raised her own daughter. In Finding Martha’s Vineyard, Nelson offers a lively, intimate portrait of a place that has provided respite and rejuvenation, community and contemplation for generations of African Americans.

Part memoir, part history, Finding Martha’s Vineyard describes the various groups that settled on the Vineyard and in Oak Bluffs; slaves and their descendants; devout Methodists and Baptists; African Americans “in service” who accompanied their white employers to the island and over the years established a haven and a community; the black middle-class families who came each summer to escape the heat, hostility, and racial tension of their hometowns; and generations of African American professionals—doctors, presidential advisors, writers, academics and artists—who visit or live on the Vineyard today. Nelson interviews the Cottagers, the proud owners of Oak Bluffs’ famous Gingerbread cottages; members of the Polar Bear Club, a die-hard group that swims together every summer morning at 7:30 A.M.; and such famous residents as Vernon Jordan, Bebe Moore Campbell, and Stephen Carter.

Finding Martha’s Vineyard is about the power of place in our lives. A rich treasury of reminiscences, excerpts from news articles and documents from the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society, recipes, and glorious photographs, it brings the sights, sounds, celebrations, and social importance of the island community brilliantly to life.

About the Author

Jill Nelson is the author of the bestselling Volunteer Slavery, the novel Sexual Healing, Straight, No Chaser, an acclaimed collection of essays, and is the editor of the anthology Police Brutality. She lives in New York City and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Visit or contact her at

Praise For Finding Martha's Vineyard

“There is an easy loveliness to the rhythm of this narrative of black lives on Martha’s Vineyard that feels remarkably close to the easy loveliness of the rhythm of days spent there on the beach and in the homes of family and friends. The best books transport us to other places, and this one transports me right back to the Vineyard.”
—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“Jill Nelson’s lyrical love story about her place—Martha’s Vineyard—captures what makes people like me and my family call the Vineyard our place, too. Like the Vineyard, her fine book is fuel for the soul.”
 —Charlayne Hunter-Gault, journalist and author of In My Place

“Part personal memoir, part island history, part exploration of class and privilege in a space that is increasingly defined by both, and all heart, Finding Martha’s Vineyard sneaks up on you and weaves a spell. The small snippets of Nelson’s own exuberant love of island life are enriched by a variety of oral histories by other African American islanders. Their proud, highly individual voices paint a rich portrait of a unique community.”
—Pearl Cleage, author of Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do

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