In some respects, we’re all family on the Vineyard. We’re a diverse group, often fiercely independent, but united by the fact that we’ve chosen to live in a place that’s surrounded by water. This is the second in a series of stories that shine a light on various families on the Vineyard, who each in their own way contribute to the richness and vitality of the place we call home.
The Tankard family relocated to Oak Bluffs from Newark, N.J., in 1961, and were one of the first African American families of the modern generation to live on the Island full-time. The nucleus of the family was Audria Tankard, the matriarch, and her husband George, and they had 10 children: George, Reginald, Shirley, Merle, Patricia, Myrna, Brenda, Bob, Audria (“Sissy”), and Carol. George and Audria, George Jr., Reggie, Shirley, and Merle have now passed away.
In a telephone conversation with Pat, the fifth Tankard sibling, she explained some of the family mythology to me.
“Mother was a real dreamer,” Pat said. “She loved the song ‘Old Cape Cod’ by Patti Page, which began, ‘If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air, quaint little villages here and there …’ and decided she wanted to visit this idyllic place for herself.” In 1958 she took Pat on a trip to see Cape Cod, but instead of going to the Cape, she ended up in Kingston, Mass., and stayed at the Kingston Inn.
“Some folks took us on a tour of the Cape,” Pat said. “They told us if we liked the Cape, we’d really like Martha’s Vineyard.”
After returning home the next year, the Amsterdam Times, a popular African American newspaper at the time, ran articles extolling the Vineyard for its natural beauty and the way it embraced the African American summer community. The following year the Tankards rented a cottage in Oak Bluffs that slept 17 people for $500 for the season. Bob, “Sissy,” Carol, and Brenda came to stay, joined by nieces and nephews who came up with their children.
And Audria began to notice a change in her children’s behavior. For one thing, as was the custom with summer kids in Oak Bluffs, her kids got summer jobs, something they wouldn’t have thought to do if they were in Newark.
Upon returning home, Audria noticed that Newark was taking a turn for the worse, and she launched a plan to scrimp, save, and do whatever they had to do to move to the Vineyard full-time. Sissy Tankard, the ninth oldest sibling, directed me to an interview conducted with herself and Pat by Linsey Lee, the oral historian of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
“The Vineyard,” Sissy told Linsey Lee, “was a totally different lifestyle. Where we came from there was literally a huge, huge square block with like 1,600 families. When we came here, you had maybe 7,000 year-round people on the whole Island. So it was like, ‘Wow! Is this for real?’ But we adjusted.”
Bob Tankard, the eighth oldest sibling, spoke to me at his office at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services about his transition from Newark to Martha’s Vineyard. He was going into 10th grade at the time. “It was culture shock,” Bob said. “After Labor Day, the streets were dark and empty. At the time I wanted to be a professional baseball player. I was being scouted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the high school didn’t even have a team.”
At first Tankard thought it was the worst move his mother ever made — and then he realized it was the best move. “I don’t think I’d be where I am today had it not been for the opportunities that opened up to me on the Island,” he said.
For one thing, Tankard was surrounded by lots of African Americans who were doctors, lawyers, businessmen and women, and in Newark that just wasn’t the case.
“I was sitting on the wall at the Inkwell one time,” Tankard said, “and I asked the kid sitting next to me what he wanted to do when he grew up, and he said he wanted to be a doctor. I told him I wanted to be a school principal. Thirty years later I ran into him again, and sure enough, he was a doctor and I was the principal of the West Tisbury School.”
Bob had received encouragement and support simply from being in proximity of high-achieving African Americans in Oak Bluffs, but he also got a big boost from serving in the Army in Korea. He enlisted with 10 of his friends from the Island, after graduating from high school in 1964.
His battalion commander recommended him for Officers Candidate School, and one of his senior officers gave him advice that would prove to be prescient. He told Bob that when he got out of the military he should go to college and give back to his hometown. “It was prophetic,” Bob said. After getting his master’s degree and later his doctorate, he went on to become principal at the West Tisbury School for nine years.
But in talking with other Tankard siblings, it was clear that the values instilled in all the kids started at home. “My father was a truck driver and believed in the ethic of hard work. And my mother was a fighter for her rights,” Pat Tankard said, “and for the rights of her children.
“They taught us that we were as good as anyone else, and we could do anything we wanted to do. We just had to make up our minds what we wanted to do. And we had to apply ourselves. We never heard, ‘You can’t do this because of the color of your skin, you can’t go there because of the color of your skin,’” she said.
And it was that kind of belief system that made Audria a natural fit for the NAACP on the Island, where she served for several years. Getting involved with the NAACP became a family tradition for many of the Tankard children as well. “I was treasurer for a few years,” Bob said. “My sister-in-law, Carry Tankard, is a vice president, and has been with them for about 50 years now.”
“Back in the ’60s it was mostly white people like the Murphys and the Whitings on the Island who were members of the NAACP. In fact, my mom was one of the first African Americans to be involved with the group,” Bob said.
He explained that that had much to do with what race people identified with. “There were other people of color on the Island … Native Americans and Cape Verdeans,” he said, “but they didn’t necessarily identify as people of color.” So while interracial relations on the Island were generally cordial enough, it was nuanced. “It was acceptable to go to dances and dance with white girls,” Bob said, “but actual dating interracially was frowned upon.”
“My parents always taught us from birth that we’re as good as anyone else — we weren’t ever focused on race,” Pat said. “We always lived in integrated neighborhoods, always had friends of all different nationalities, so race was never a real thing with us. You could do whatever you wanted to do and be whatever you wanted to be, and you could be successful at it.”
Raised with that belief system, it’s no wonder that the children were no strangers to achievement, with an emphasis on giving back to the community.
Sissy was a nurse at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston for 45 years.
After 40 years with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Pat retired as welfare director of contracts for communicable diseases. Then, moving to the Island, she became involved with the Boys and Girls Club and with Community Services.
After a career at Martha’s Vineyard Insurance, Carol retired to do substitute teaching on the Island.
As for Bob, where do we begin? In addition to being principal of the West Tisbury School, he served as chair of the Cape Cod Collaborative, which oversees alternative education for students on the Cape and Islands. He’s on the board of MVTV, has his own show, “Tank Talk” on the network, and currently works for Martha’s Vineyard Veterans Outreach Advocates. He’s vice president of both the YMCA and the Sharks baseball team.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Pat told me that every so often, the family likes to get together for a reunion, and there can be as many as 80 or 90 people who attend. I asked her, “What’s it like to be a Tankard?”
“Growing up,” she said, “we learned that the most important thing there was, was family. We were taught that if one of us got sick we had to spend an hour of our playtime to sit with that person so they wouldn’t feel isolated, and that taught us the values and principles that we would always be there for each other.”
And be there for others as well, I might add.