Abigail McGrath: Her family has been in Oak Bluffs for generations

Abigail McGrath at her home in Oak Bluffs. — Ralph Stewart

Interview by Kyra Steck

Who is anybody, you know? And who is anybody at any point of time? So let’s just do the easy part. I’m the one of the ones that people talk about. It was my mother’s grandfather who came here first, and that was in 19-0-something. They came over from Boston with a summer home, which is where Our Market is now in Oak Bluffs. That whole area was Black, every house on the strip was Black. Then there was a huge fire, and they moved up the hill into what is called East Chop, but also known as the Highlands. They’ve been there ever since. The road that my great-grandfather walked is exactly the same as my granddaughter walked, so there hasn’t been a whole lot of change.

I was born in New York, and my mother Helene and her cousin Dorothy were born in Boston. They came here when Helene was 2 years old and Dorothy was a matter of months. They were always summer residents until the recession of 1933, and then stayed [year-round] because they had to give up their house in Cambridge.

My mother moved down to New York City, just before I was born, so that she could say her daughter was born in New York City. She was a member of the Harlem Renaissance, and the key was to be born in New York.

In New York City, there were instances — splashes of incredible, incredible racism and difficult-to-bear racism. But they would just be splashes. They weren’t full-time, the way it was in the South, but they would always catch you off-guard because you wouldn’t expect it. I remember once in New York City, a bunch of us had gone ice skating at Wollman Memorial, and some nasty boys were chasing us, and we ran up to a policeman. And the policeman said, “What are you doing here? Get out of here!” The policeman was not on our side. That was a shocking thing, that the policeman was against me and not the bad boys who were chasing us. That was a realization or awakening.

I went to a private school in Manhattan, and at that time, they would have one Black person in each class, sometimes two. I remember taking my friends with me up the Island toward the end of the season, and they would all be white because I was the only Black girl in my class. And the idea of color never — it certainly never occurred to me, and I don’t know if it occurred to my friends or not. If it did, they never mentioned it to me.

When I was young, being aware of racial differences was not the front of my mind. The Island was accepting of that. I know Jill Nelson writes very well about this, and she says how food for her was lobster and baked beans. One always identifies with whatever the majority of the people there are. So yes, I grew up on fish cakes and baked beans, but it didn’t occur to me that it was not a Black dish. I grew up with an identity of being from New England. We were Yankees. Black Yankees, but we didn’t see it as anything other than Black Yankees. There was no caste system or judgment on it.

I may have felt that Martha’s Vineyard was socially segregated, but I wasn’t in any social groups, so who cares? And I don’t mind it to this day. I don’t care about social racism. I don’t care if you don’t invite me to a party. However, I do care if you tell me I can’t buy a house. I do care if the bank tells me, “No, we can’t give you a loan.” I care if they say, “No, you can’t get a job here.” Social racism is unpleasant, but who cares? Institutional racism is what one has to chase down.

Socially, everyone prejudges. I mean, come on, don’t tell me you don’t prejudge. Everybody prejudges. If you see a policeman walking down the street and you say, “Oh, I wonder what this man does in his time off.” Does he listen to the opera and sip wine? Or does he watch baseball and drink beer? That’s immediately judging somebody in advance of knowing them. And you can’t get through life in America without doing that. You see a Black kid with his pants down below his underpants without a belt on, do you say, “Oh, better hide my pocketbook,” or do you say “Oh no, this kid is a Rhodes scholar?” You cannot not prejudge a person. It’s a question of, When you do that, what are the consequences for the person?

On the Vineyard, it’s harder to generalize. It’s not Black and white. People keep saying, “as a person of color.” That’s very jarring because I don’t think of that. I think of “as a person.” And that’s what the Island is about — Islanders helping other Islanders. In fact, we’ve done that a multitude of times. We’re always getting together to take care of someone.

But during this period of transparency, it seems as if people are no longer embarrassed to show the feelings that they were taught to keep down. It seems to be OK to blame the victim, especially if the victim is Black. Our president condones it.

In every single case of injustice, the right — and not the very far right — has rationalized this heinous behavior and, in effect, said that “they had it coming to them.” Except, of course, in the case of a far-right, white supremacist teenager killing two people and injuring one. In that instance, it was “courageous.” The president himself said so.

These overt racist sentiments are not confined to “ignorant, Southern rednecks.” They are shared by “intelligent, Eastern intellectuals” as well. They are shared by our Chilmark neighbors who gave the finger to BLM protesters. They are shared by our neighbors who don’t know what “defund the police” means. They are shared by those who care more about the property that was destroyed in Kenosha than the fact that an unarmed man was shot in the back while his children watched.

When a woman wrote in the comment section of The Times that we don’t have that craziness on the Island, she was speaking from the privileged point of view of one who has never been the subject of discrimination. She had the luxury of seeing only serene cohabitation, in which it looked as if we were all playing in the same sandbox. Clearly, we are not.

For further proof, take a look at the anonymous [comments] that the paper receives. It breaks my heart to face the fact that people judge me, marginalize me, and hate me before I even open my mouth. Was it always like this? I guess so, but in the past, people kept those feelings inside. As a result, I was not aware of it, people said nasty things behind my back, not to my face. Is it better this way? Probably. It is painful, but it is honest.

Can I take this much honesty? It makes me weep to realize what a fool I have been for all these years. Perhaps I will get stronger, but I don’t want to get tougher. I don’t want to have to put on thick skin just to survive on the Island my family and I have loved for six generations, six naive generations where we thought we were in a safe and loving community.

This essay was sponsored by Island Housing Trust.


  1. So well put Abby. Barbie and I grew up in a sort of MV in Geneva, an International community, where diversity reigned. Discrimination existed, but less based on color than class, family background, accent, religion, etc…all foolish reasons to judge a potential friend in our estimations. My dad was a life-long member of the NAACP and so he made us aware of what was going on in the states, but it wasn’t until we returned to the States that we saw what was happening, and that in the newspapers and TV. I was a new bride when we went to Texas for an academic year and I actually lived in an overtly segregated world. I was not proud of the “privileged position” the color of my skin gave me. I sought out black friends and colleagues. When a house next to ours in N.VA went on sale I was all excited because my girlfriend was house hunting. She laughed at me and told me about miscegenation laws in VA, not to mention real estate restrictions. That prompted me to join the Fair Housing movement and get more politically involved. I had so much to learn and have been learning since. I look at my grandkids and their friends and see kids eager to change the world and I have to be optimistic, although it ain’t easy.

    Peace and luck to you ,

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