Home is where her heart is

Jocelyn Coleman Walton’s new memoir takes us to a familiar place.


For some obscure reason, Oak Bluffs as a vacation destination fails to receive the love that attaches itself to Edgartown and some of the points west, such as parts of Aquinnah where people point out the former Jackie O. estate. I know this because I’ve summered, then lived year-round, in Oak Bluffs since 1976. You can do the math. (I cannot.) And during that time, I’ve overheard umpteen conversations from visitors that go something like this:

Visitor (with a map unfolded or phone screen held close): “We’ll check out the shops here in Vineyard Haven, then catch the bus to Edgartown.”

At which point I jump in: “You’ve got to stop in Oak Bluffs! It has all this Victorian architecture, and water views in every direction! The main commercial street is a cluster of great shops and cafes …”

You get the idea. And seeing my enthusiasm, during which I try not to drool, my hearers are hooked. I know because they write stuff down and ask for directions.

For many generations of East Coast–based African Americans, Oak Bluffs was — and is — the destination of choice. I’ve always said about Oak Bluffs that when it comes to a utopia of mingled races, while it’s not there yet — no place is — it’s pretty darn close.

Jocelyn Coleman Walton, retired educator, has summered all but one year of her life in Oak Bluffs, and now she’s written all about it in an inexhaustibly readable memoir called “The Place My Heart Calls Home — Stories of an African-American Working Class Family … from Boston to Martha’s Vineyard.”

Every memoir is as — wait for it! — memorable as its key characters, in effect, the quirkier or more colorful the better. In Ms. Walton’s tale of summers, and then year-round life in Oak Bluffs, in a cast and crew of charming individuals, the starring role goes to the author’s grandmother, Luella Barnett, later Coleman, born in Boston on Feb. 8, 1896.

Luella’s parents were Joseph, chauffeur to dynastic icon Joseph Kennedy, and Leona, who happened to tower over him at 5 foot 8. As Ms. Walton writes: “They were also striking because Joseph was a dark-skinned Negro and Leona was a fair-haired Swede.”

This mixed-race heritage plays an important part in Luella’s — Granny’s — journey through life, as her own light skin, in the days of rampant racism in Boston and on the Vineyard, gave her an advantage not available to her passel of children as they learned to make their way in a challenging world.

We all have our founding stories of how we got here, here being this sacred isle. Luella first fell in love with the Vineyard on a summer visit with her friend Julia Vanderhoop to the girl’s Wampanoag tribal community. Young Luella was so knocked out by the beauty and the fellowship of family and friends, she vowed to return. 

Granny/Luella worked assiduously at her Boston jobs in downtown department stores and, during summers on the Vineyard, as a domestic. Wages were paltry, but the price of real estate wasn’t what it is now, either. Over the years she purchased seven lots, one with a home on it at the time of the purchase. Now there are four homes on the property, with five lots on one side of Myrtle Avenue in the Highlands of Oak Bluffs, and two on the other side. This enclave became known as Coleman Corners — a sign now hangs on a lamppost — and the property is on the African American Heritage Trail.

This feat of one determined woman rolling up her socks and creating a full-out compound for her growing family is at the heart of women’s history studies. Nowadays their number is legion.

But, again, what makes a memoir marvelous is its network of robust characters. Ms. Walton presents their stories with gusto, including tales of her grandfather Ralf’s theater exploits, and Leona’s exile from her family for marrying a black man. 

From Ms. Walton’s years at Morgan State College in Baltimore, then onwards through all her growing-up summers on the Vineyard, racism remains rampant. As she writes about her wedding in 1963, “ — at the same Trinity Methodist Church, where we had sung hymns during Vacation Bible School so many years earlier, we were still not allowed to rent rooms in the hotels on the Island. Our Black guests stayed at Shearer Cottage and Maxwell House, or rented private homes.”

To help her put together this polished memoir, Ms. Walton credits Janice Gary, author of “Short Leash” and facilitator of the workshop “Autobiographical Writing for Seniors.” Ms. Walton also attended our own Susan Klein’s four-day study group, “Spice of Life Memoir Workshop,” the intensive organized around four days, all day, which led Ms. Walton to an enviable habit of writing from dawn to dusk.

All this healthy and creative input enabled the memoirist to build short, concise chapters, each one with its set of characters and timelines. Each is eminently readable in a way that will make you think you now know the whole Coleman ensemble. For life. A museum-worthy amount of photos have been archived within the chapters, between the chapters, and seemingly falling from the bindings of the book. 

Towards the end of “The Place My Heart Calls Home,” some useful appendices point to our Island landmarks, from the silver seas of Chappaquiddick to the red clay Cliffs of Aquinnah, and everything in between. Generations of African-American settler families on the Island also receive due notice.

This would be the perfect backyard hammock book, if we weren’t currently stuck in some windy, spitty, gray days in October. So get that fireplace loaded up with logs or, minus a fireplace, sit under the electric blanket as I’m doing, pick up a copy of this engrossing memoir, and slip into the magic world of Granny, summers with her grandkids on the Inkwell, circling home to the Highlands for just-out-of-the-oven apple pies, and have yourself the best book binge in the place we all call home.

“The Place My Heart Calls Home —Stories of an African-American Working Class Family … from Boston to Martha’s Vineyard.” A Nickel Down Publishing Co., $29.95, available at theplacemyheartcallshome.com.