Empty houses on Martha’s Vineyard


Did you notice that smirk on people’s faces when they said, “So you live on Martha’s Vineyard. What did you think of all those immigrants they sent there?” It’s a trick question. Be careful when you answer, because they are going to follow it up with, “You sure got rid of them fast. It’s better that way.” What they are really saying is, “You guys put up a good front, but you didn’t let them stay long enough to get a lobster roll, let alone be your neighbor.”

Off-Islanders are jealous of us Island folks. They should be, and here’s why: We’re smarter than they are. Islanders are simply more intelligent, more well-read, more secure, and best of all, kinder than off-Islanders. The guy who used to slice my liverwurst at the Stop & Shop could quote every word of Noam Chomsky, including the footnotes.

Well, Mr. Off-Islander, we were prepared to have them as our neighbors.

Does anybody know how many empty houses are on the Vineyard from October thru Mayish?

I don’t know how many there are but, in my hood, 11 out of 11 are empty from late fall to early spring.

So naturally, when I heard that refugees were arriving on the Vineyard with no immediate place to stay, I said, “Use my place. It’s empty.” Up-Island writer Nancy Aronie, who is kinder than I, said, “They can stay with us.” Her husband, the good-looking pragmatist, said, “For how long?” just before he withered under her icy stare.

My first thought was from “Good Abby,” who said, “Let them stay at my place, I won’t be there.” My second thought was from “Not quite so good Abby” who said, “Now, perhaps there will be a population that will work for under $35 an hour.”

Then history kicked in. I could understand why people might be reluctant to trust their home to strangers. Many times when I have let somebody stay at my house during the winter, disastrous things have happened, and what I thought was a Good Deed turned out to kick me in the Ass.

One family refused to leave.

One family took all my furniture to the basement and left it there. (”We like it better this way.”)

One family set up a daycare center for working mothers on the Island.

One family let the pipes burst TWICE, ruining everything in the basement. 

So, what’s to stop these perfect strangers from doing the same thing? Well, there could be some social agency that looked over the dwellings. No matter what the cost, it would still be cheaper and kinder than putting them up in a hotel or a church, or an army base.

If they did it right, it could be like the Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund back in the day, when city kids would spend time with folks in the country. We could make friends with the refugees, exchange information, recipes, books. All sorts of cross-communications would be possible.

A stipend could even be given to the homeowner for “wear and tear.”

We don’t really have to talk about what a pig DeSantis is for pulling such a stunt, do we? Well, the sad news is, the idea wasn’t original with him. He stole it from a white supremacist action in 1962. Or as my friend, the Oak Bluffs writer Barbara Phillips, said, “So now we have state governments taking a page from the playbook of the White Citizens Council.” 

Here’s what happened:

It was called Reverse Freedom Rides. It was a deeply racist program, which was privately funded (unlike DeSantis’ use of tax dollars). The program transported Black people from the South (we were called Negroes then) to Cape Cod on a bus, “to show them Yankees what we been dealing with.”

The Greater New Orleans Citizen’s Council ran a newspaper ad in 1962 promising “Free Transportation plus $5 for expenses to any Negro man or woman or family (no limit to size) who desire to migrate to the Nation’s Capital or any city in the north of their choosing.”

There were flyers posted in prisons and other places of “ill repute.” Clearly, they were not scouting for “the best and the brightest.”

Actually, it was “the revenge of the angry white Southerners” against the volunteers on Freedom Bus rides, who went down South the previous year seeking desegregation and voter registration. I know because I was one of them. My son and I were with the Free Southern Theater sometime later. We heard all those first-account stories which were not published in the mainstream press. These African Americans were promised good jobs in the North and free transportation (“Just sign here and here and initial here … Don’t worry about a thing. You’ll be taken care of once you arrive.”) And guess what? They ended up at Joint Base Cape Cod. The same military base that the recent Venezuelans came to know as their temporary “home.” That base is like a giant chessboard on which the moving pieces are pawns.

Here’s where it gets tricky. How come DeSantis didn’t send Ukrainian refugees to the Vineyard? There are websites welcoming them to the Sunshine State. Ukraine Take Shelter is a website created by two Harvard students to help connect Ukrainian refugees with potential hosts. Just like the Fresh Air Fund! Folks are falling all over themselves trying to meet and greet the Ukrainian immigrants. Not the Afghans, or the Venezuelans, or the Colombians. Just the Ukrainians. True, the Ukrainians are getting a lot of ink at the moment, and we all know that if it bleeds, it leads, but come on, let’s face it: The Ukrainians are blonde. If Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that Blondes Are Beautiful. They have more fun. The cowboy in the white hat is the hero. The cowboy in the black hat is “a bad hombre.” 

Many people refuse to believe that what DeSantis did was a racist act. It had nothing to do with color. All the conservatives want is for the federal government to enforce the border. They think that all sorts of trashy people are coming to our sacred lands with the assumption that drugs, etc., come from brown-skinned countries, and not Canada or the Ukraine. They recognize that the people are refugees trying to escape horrendous living conditions. They just don’t want them here. Compassion is not a strong emotion for many conservatives.

If it is not race, then what is it? Did you see any white people on that plane? Not counting the pilot, of course. Did you see any white Cubans? They could have made a Tarzan movie out of all those chocolate heroes.

Did any one of them read Lynn Ditchfield’s “Borders to Bridges”? Well, they should.

Clearly, his act was not only one of revenge against so-called liberals, it was meant to stir up the flames of racism which are raging in this country as well as others. It frightens many people to see poor folks with brown skin and raggedy suitcases arriving here. It’s politically advantageous to insinuate that they are “bad hombres,” immigrants instead of refugees who have traveled hundreds of miles to escape life-threatening circumstances for the chance to simply live and work in peace. This image of strange alien hordes, reminiscent of “the yellow terror” of the late 19th and early 20th century, is just too scary for many people. It gave rise to the saying, “Not in my backyard.” They are asylum seekers, got that? Asylum seekers.

Ukrainians on the other hand, unlike Syrian, Afghan, Haitian, Guatemalan, Honduran, and El Salvadoran refugees, are characterized as “civilized.”

The African Union and Human Rights Watch have actually documented in true Chomsky style how slanted the press is in describing Ukrainians as a “nation of prosperous, middle-class people” who are not obviously refugees. They look like any Europeans that you might welcome as your next-door neighbors. I don’t remember ever hearing that sentiment with regard to refugees of color.

In a study by Claire Adida, Adeline Lo, Melina Plata, Lauren Prather, and Scott Williamson, they discovered that “Americans at large … favor refugees who share religion or ethnicity with the majority population. Here’s what you need to know. NATO was founded to protect ‘civilized’ people. That means White.” (Don’t look at me, I didn’t say it, the committee did.)

So, since we Vineyarders are so smart and kind and intellectual, why don’t we start preparing for the next episode now? Why don’t we get a list of those empty houses whose owners are willing to greet asylum seekers to our Island? Let’s find out where all that funding is coming from, and get a piece of that pie for our Island. An organization that could incentivize and oversee sharing of unused dwellings on the Island, and join the folks promoting affordable housing. Look at it this way: DeSantis was able to pay $12,300 for each refugee. It wasn’t his money; it was tax money. We can get that same tax money. 

We can do it. We have Indigenous Peoples Day. We have Martin Luther King Day. So shake out those guest sheets, put up some new towels, and “be prepared.” Surely we can have Filling Up Empty Houses Day.

Think about it.


  1. Very generous of you to offer your home to these poor refugees. Many of your good hearted neighbors should do the same.

  2. Interesting article, Abigail! I may not agree with everything you write, but I’m open to ideas and intelligent discussion.

    You might already know this but the Oxford definition of a ‘refugee’ is “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster”. Per the UN, the war in Ukraine is Europe’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. More than 6 million civilians (mostly women and children) have fled Ukraine – the vast majority seeking refuge in neighboring countries including Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

    • The Venezuelan migrants who were tricked onto the buses bringing them here were asylum seekers, not refugees. The Ukrainians leaving Ukraine are refugees.

  3. I thought about it but not long. Bad idea, I assume the seasonal homes owned by seasonal people are already renting their property if they want to. That isn’t a new idea. Keep in mind just because it sits empty they are still paying taxes yearly but not using the services fully as year round people. To me I see that as a benefit.

  4. They want you to keep paying the taxes, not use the services yourself but fill the houses with seasonal workers, teachers and others who cant afford–then they dont want you to build big houses. Its the rich who keep the island alive by creating jobs and paying taxes but we are not to like them.

        • wow !!! just WOW !
          So I guess you were not the head of a fortune 500 company?
          You can’t afford to fly around the world for Jesus ?
          You don’t own a house in Melbourne Beach Fl. And Chilmark ?
          And you never claimed to be a multimillionaire on this forum while referring to me as an “average carpenter”?
          I think you have…
          But on second thought, I guess you might actually be poor since you can’t afford to honor your word and donate a thousand dollars to the MV hospital.

  5. Abby, once again you have managed to help us face the contradictions and complexity of our humanness with humor!
    The ideas you brought up inspired me to wonder about options and possibilities. MV showed how a small community can respond with compassion, kindness, and human decency to people who have been forcibly displaced, seeking asylum, refuge, and simply a better life. Our Venezuelan guests taught us lessons person-to-person when they spoke of the sacrifices and the dangers that they encountered just to seek what we all aspire to: living without fear, securing work in a safe environment, and contributing in meaningful ways to society.
    At the same time, we have recently increased our Island population with “Covid refugees.” Our housing, facilities, and workforce are stretched to the limit. We need careful strategic planning that some Island agencies have begun. That means that all residents (renters and home owners) should have a say; that we resist the negative myths and forces that try to pull us apart; that we recognize our mutual needs, contributions, and our strength in unity.
    I am inspired by other places (for example, in Maryland, CA, and Washington, DC) that welcome newcomers and support resolutions like the following: “Whereas, as part of this tradition and obligation, the City of Takoma Park allows all residents over 16 years to vote in City elections, whether or not they are citizens of the US.” It’s time for our young people and all residents to have a say in our towns.

  6. Thank God for Abigail Mc Grath
    She always tells it like it is with a wicked sense of humour.
    Why doesn’t she write more pieces for you?

  7. Somehow I missed this the first time around. Thank you, Abigail, for an informative, humorous, pointed (barbed?), intelligent, and timely piece of writing. Well done!

  8. Great Article as usual Abigail! Thank you so much for this excellent, funny and informative piece. The humorous parts are very valuable for bringing people together in our shared love of laughter instead of causing negative reactions and separation. Thank you so much for the comic relief. We Love you. ❤️❤️

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