The NAACP Martha’s Vineyard branch issued a statement on Tuesday asserting that the Oak Bluffs select board has refused to hear a request to raise the Juneteenth flag in recognition of the federal holiday on Sunday.
“The NAACP Martha’s Vineyard branch is very disappointed that the Oak Bluffs select board has chosen not to even hear the request to raise the Juneteenth flag,” said NAACP President Arthur Hardy-Doubleday in the release. “Juneteenth has long had deep significance to African Americans and to the Oak Bluffs community, and this year for the first time it’s being celebrated as both a federal and a state holiday. We believe that the town of Oak Bluffs should be observing it too.”
In its previous meetings, the select board has mulled over a proposed, and later approved, flag policy, which as written, states that the town would prohibit any flags, other than those approved by the select board — flags of the U.S., commonwealth of Massachusetts, town of Oak Bluffs, and official military and POW-MIA — from being raised on any town property.
The board approved the policy after igniting another controversy with the NAACP over flying the Progress Pride flag. The board ultimately approved flying that flag for the first couple of weeks of June, but later board members expressed regret about that decision.
The NAACP MV branch was looking to fly the flag at Ocean Park from June 17 to June 20.
Hardy-Doubleday told The Times during a phone conversation that he thinks the City of Boston Supreme Court case regarding the flying of a religious flag at City Hall may have given municipal governments a reason to pause on establishing a flag policy. “But the upholding of that case is very much in line with what the pre-existing law is, which is that a flagpole is not subject to the freedom of speech doctrine — it is government speech,” Hardy-Doubleday said. “Unlike Boston, where anyone could apply, including a credit union, to get their flag raised, the Supreme Court is very clear that as long as you have proper oversight of it as a government, you can pick and choose who is and who is not able to raise their flags.”
Hardy-Doubleday wondered why the select board was not able to get the discussion on the meeting agenda, even though he said he spoke with chair Ryan Ruley on May 19, who asked if the MV NAACP would like to be on the agenda for a May 24 meeting. Hardy-Doubleday said he declined to request that the flag discussion be on that agenda, because he wanted to research the Supreme Court City of Boston ruling more. “What happened between May 10 when the select board adopted their interim policy and the meeting of June 9? It might just be that they don’t want to deal with the issue publicly — they would much rather just have a policy that prohibits it across the board,” Hardy-Doubleday said. “What they are forgetting is that we are in the business of welcoming people to this Island. We have over 100 years of history of welcoming African Americans to Oak Bluffs. If they are going to have a gospel brunch at the Edgartown Yacht Club, of all places, why can we not raise our Juneteenth flag on the Ocean Park flagpole?”
He added that this is the second year in a row where the town of Chilmark hasn’t responded to the MV NAACP request to discuss flags, but “at least this year they adopted a policy making it clear that it’s only the American flag.”
To Hardy-Doubleday, the refusal is “symbolic of small thinking,” saying that he was looking forward to taking a picture of the Juneteenth flag flying proudly in front of the Civil War memorial. “We are trying to put up a flag that symbolizes African Americans as Americans — it’s literally a red, white, and blue flag,” Hardy-Doubleday said.
Select board chair Ryan Ruley deferred to correspondence from town administrator Deborah Potter stating that the select board “respectfully declines” to add the Juneteenth flag discussion to the agenda due to the existing flag policy.
At the select board meeting Tuesday, board members got some pushback from a longtime resident.
After patiently waiting for over two hours, Oak Bluffs resident Russell Ashton stood before the board during the allotted time for public comment.
Ashton introduced himself, noting he’s been at his Oak Bluffs residence for 35 years, and has served on numerous town boards. Select board chair Ryan Ruley asked, “What is the problem?”
Ashton replied, “The problem is, the pride that has been stripped from the people of Oak Bluffs. The pride of raising the Juneteenth flag, for all the things people of color have been through, to have the success to put that flag up on that pole, and it was ripped from them, after all these years.”
Ashton spoke of his deep roots on the Island, and how his mother would have been “so proud to have looked up — and I know they would be looking down [from heaven] — at that flag flying.”
Directly to the select board, Ashton acknowledged the work that they do for the town, but “this one you failed on,” he said. “You’ve failed the people of color that come here to celebrate their heritage.”
He continued, emphatically stating, “People can make changes, people can say, ‘Let’s fly that flag.’” On comments made earlier by select board member Emma Green-Beach concerning having been present at the recent Progress Pride flag-raising ceremony at Ocean Park — and how she felt it was a profound, and “respectful” moment, Ashton suggested a reflection on those feelings, noting the same would be true for Juneteenth.
“You stripped the people of their pride in Oak Bluffs,” adding that he is “ashamed” of the board. Ashton said he hoped the select board would reconsider the request by the NAACP. “Let’s make history,” he said. “That is real history, because [African Americans] suffered, and they came to this Island to make it great for you and for me.”
The board did not respond to Ashton’s comments.
Abigail Rosen contributed to this report.