Jack Robinson, rejected by MVC, charges racial bias
Jack E. Robinson, denied a permit by the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) to expand an inn he owns on New York Avenue in Oak Bluffs, filed a discrimination complaint last month with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD).
In a press release sent to The Times, Mr. Robinson, the former president of the Boston NAACP, said the denial of his inn expansion "further underscores the usage of this agency [MVC] to limit and eliminate participation in the Martha's Vineyard economy by African American businesses and organizations."
The MCAD has begun a formal investigation of the discrimination complaint based on an initial interview with Mr. Robinson and a determination that the nature of his complaint falls within the agency's statutory authority.
Martha's Vineyard Resort and Racquet Club in winter. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Mark London, MVC executive director, said the MVC denial was based on the merits of Mr. Robinson's application to expand an inn located in a residential district and had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Mr. Robinson is African American. "Right now, he has just made an allegation without any substantiation, and if there is any, I think people would like to see it," he said.
Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark, MVC vice chairman, characterized Mr. Robinson's accusations of racism and prejudice in MVC decision making as "utter nonsense."
Mr. Robinson's Martha's Vineyard Resort and Racquet Club was originally approved by the MVC as a development of regional impact in 1991. In March 2004, Mr. Robinson asked the MVC to approve an expansion of the five-room inn. His proposal called for 14 rooms to be added and the size of the structure to increase greatly.
Throughout the hearing process, Mr. Robinson stressed the fact that his inn was one of the few resorts on the East Coast owned by an African-American and that the property played an important role in the Vineyard's cultural life.
Citing size and the impact on the character of the neighborhood, the MVC denied the permit by a vote of 7-3.
Mr. Robinson returned to the MVC almost one year later with revised expansion plans that called for adding eight guest rooms and two employee rooms. Once again, the commission denied a permit, citing the scale and impact of the project on the surrounding neighborhood.
In October, Mr. Robinson filed an appeal of the MVC decision in Dukes County Superior Court. The complaint filed with the MCAD is dated Dec. 15.
The MCAD process will include an initial investigation into the merits of the charges. According to a sheet provided by the MCAD, at some point there will be an attempt to arrive at a settlement. If that is not possible, the investigation will conclude with a determination that discrimination either did or did not take place.
If there is a finding of probable cause and that finding is upheld through the appeal process, the MCAD may order several sorts of remedies, including monetary damages.
In addition to battling on two legal fronts, Mr. Robinson has also turned to the media, issuing press releases calling attention to his case. In a release dated Dec. 24, titled "African American's [sic] protest discrimination by Massachusetts state agency on the resort island of Martha's Vineyard," Mr. Robinson outlined several complaints.
He said his inn was the only business application denied during the two-year period his project was before the MVC. Referencing Oak Bluffs's long history as the favored summer resort destination for well-to-do and influential African Americans and competition from the resort communities of Sag Harbor and the Hamptons in New York, he said the Vineyard has no African American churches, barber shops, beauty shops, gas stations or grocery stores and the MVC employs no African Americans "in direct violation" of state and federal mandates.
He added, "Our fathers, mothers, children and grandchildren have had to endure the racist sloganeering by agencies and individuals for decades, such as the official recognized name of a local beach area called the 'Inkwell' because of its predominantly African American usage."
Mr. Robinson is correct that the town owned beach is popular with blacks, but may not be quite on the mark regarding his characterization of the name, which is officially listed as Town Beach. In fact, the name may have originated with African Americans.
Mr. Robinson concludes that the African American population of the Island has declined and lays some of the blame for that decline on the MVC, which he said has been used to "rein in, prevent and deny economic participation in the Island's economy."
Not all agree
Marie Allen of Oak Bluffs, president of the Martha's Vineyard chapter of the NAACP, said Mr. Robinson has not attempted to discuss his discrimination complaint with NAACP leaders. She said the notion that African Americans are not welcome on the MVC is not borne out by her experience.
Mrs. Allen said she served on the MVC for 20 years as the governor's appointee. "If any person of color wanted to serve on the commission representing Oak Bluffs, they certainly could apply to do so," she said.
Ms. Allen said that Mr. Robinson should provide specific examples of African American businesses denied by the MVC. She said she could not recall any denials during her tenure that could be attributed to an applicant's race.
"We certainly have had many discrimination complaints come before the MV/NAACP, but none from businesses being denied because of their color," she said.
Mandred Henry of Edgartown, former long-time president of Vineyard NAACP, said he does not agree with Mr. Robinson's charge that the MVC and has been used to limit or eliminate participation by African Americans in the Vineyard economy. "I do not believe that at all," said Mr. Henry.
Mr. Henry said that African Americans have owned Island businesses over they years and continue to participate in the Vineyard economy. He said even the name Inkwell is a politically acceptable term among African Americans.
Mr. Sederholm said that, although Mr. Robinson raised the issue of race during the application process, in his opinion the size of the project was a significant factor when it came time for him to weigh the benefits and detriments of the project. "I think Mr. Robinson is a delightful individual, and I am very saddened that he views the commission's deliberation and decision in racial terms," said Mr. Sederholm. "But it just wasn't an issue."
This week, Mr. London said that Mr. Robinson has not provided any specific examples of why he thinks racism played a role in the MVC decision. "This case was treated the same as every other application that the commission deals with," said Mr. London, "and it was analyzed based on its benefits and detriments, and I don't see where issues of race came into it at all."
Mr. London said the commission decided that it was not appropriate to allow a small bed and breakfast to be transformed into a much larger hotel. Essentially, he explained, the commission regarded it as a land use project independent of the applicant, because although public testimony indicated that Mr. Robinson ran a quiet operation, it was uncertain what type of operation might follow in the future. "Once the land use is approved, it is there for generations to come," said Mr. London.
As for Mr. Robinson's accusation that individual commissioners were trying to eliminate or suppress African American participation in the Island's economic affairs, Mr. London said, "I can't imagine what the basis of that is."