The Inkwell: Wading into its history

Inkwell is more than just a beautiful beach, it is sacred ground.

I could feel the sun on my skin as my feet sank into the warm sand. I trailed along behind my mother, looking up at her and her tribe of Vineyard friends, who all knew each other since my mother began visiting as a child. Even at four years old, I was inspired by the confidence of these Black women as they paraded the shores of Inkwell Beach with pride. They held their heads up high with afros that appeared to touch the sky, and were greeted by almost everyone we passed by.

The sand vibrated with the sounds of hip-hop and funk music emanating from one boom box to the next. As I watched, people danced along the shoreline to anthems of Black liberation, and I felt the pure Black joy that accompanied the whole scene. Classic anthems such as “Say it Loud” by James Brown and “Respect” by Aretha Franklin were still being circulated through this musical pipeline more than 20 years later.

Inkwell Beach has always been the place to be in the summertime for my community. I had been attending beach days at the public beach in Oak Bluffs with what my mom called the “sistahs” and “fellas” since I was a newborn baby, baptized just up Seaview Ave. at my grandparents’ church, Trinity Episcopal, in 1994. By the age of 10 I was old enough to ride my bike all on my own from our home next to Tony’s Market, down past the bottom of Circuit Avenue and then across Seaview to the Inkwell. It was a short ride just down the street and the Vineyard was always safer than being anywhere off-Island. As I walked the beach, it was as if our community’s ancestors were guiding me and celebrating our freedom through me. There is a continuum of history for the African American community here at the Inkwell that stretches from the 19th century to current day.

When I was about 13 years old, I remember hearing “Inkwell” pronounced, not with the endearment and pride to which I had grown accustomed, but with a sneering contempt. The first time I heard it referred to in a derogatory way, I was hanging out at Niantic Park with a group of friends. I was the only kid of color when I told them about my inspiring excursions down to Inkwell Beach. To my surprise, one of them said their parents don’t like going to that beach with “those kinds of people.” Unsure how to feel about this statement, I brushed it off in the moment — even though the words were piercing. When I later asked my grandparents what this meant, they explained how they knew the beach got its name, and it was to my dismay that it was born of prejudice. Growing up, “The Inkwell” was always a name I knew my people to carry with such pride and grace, so how could it have originated from such a negative place?

Fast forward two years, I remember being about 15 years old and attending my very first Polar Bears of Martha’s Vineyard ceremony at 7:30 am with a close family friend. That’s when I realized just how deep were the undercurrents of history that flowed through the waters off that beach. The Polar Bears and the Inkwell are intertwined because historically people of color visited the beach because it is a space where they felt welcome and free. The Martha’s Vineyard Polar Bears has been a safe space for Black swimmers since it was founded at the Inkwell in 1946. I remember how excited I was that morning to finally be joining the tradition. After an hour of what I thought was just going to be water aerobics, it quickly revealed itself as so much more than that. Initially, I stood off to the side, seriously contemplating if I was actually going to get into the freezing cold water that morning or just watch from the sand. To my surprise I looked up to see women of color coming from all directions of the beach, and forming a circle in the water, as if the spirits had summoned us there. I ended up becoming a link in the circle, and the coldness of the water was transformed into a warm delight in my heart as we bowed our heads for a beautiful opening ceremony prayer. As we raised our heads, it was as if our troubles were lifted off of our shoulders and sent up to God; I instantly felt lighter and more at peace. The hour of water exercise was definitely more challenging than I could have ever expected, but the support of the women of all ages around me encouraged me to push through.

It was at the end of class that day that I asked a few of the Polar Bears about their opinions on the origin of the beach’s name to see if it coincided with what my grandparents gathered. Since I heard there were several different narratives to this story, I wanted to see if there was a common thread amongst my people, and I soon discovered there was. It was true that many believed the beach was given the name during the Jim Crow era by white settlers who were referencing the Black beachgoers in a derogatory way. As I sat on the bench surrounded by several Polar Bears, one of them being 96 years old, they shared their Inkwell origin stories with me with pure excitement and enthusiasm. After hearing these stories, it was clear that this odious nickname quickly became reclaimed as a badge of pride in my community. It is initiatives like the Polar Bears that have been taking place at the beach for over 75 years that enrich the soil and keep generations of African Americans celebrating our incredible histories on the Island.

On August 24, 2022, longtime member Caroline Hunter was interviewed by Sheinelle Jones on NBC’s “TODAY” about the Polar Bears. She told the audience all across America, “We’re there to celebrate ourselves, to celebrate each other, to take whatever pain and drama life has given us, to leave that in the water to commune together and come out more whole.” The mission Hunter spoke about is exactly what I experienced, and very similar to the overarching themes to my conversations that day about the Inkwell name and origins. Each and every woman wanted me to realize that I was not just joining a water aerobic ceremony, I was partaking in a spiritual ritual, a sacred ceremony. They also wanted me to realize that yes, we will be met with adversity all our lives, but we have the ability to shift our focus and reclaim our power. As a 15-year-old girl, still figuring out my purpose and place in life, it was truly an inspiration to have such wisdom shared by my elders. I felt a connection in spirit. As I took part in our collective immersion into the water that day, I also took on a responsibility to shed racism, negativity and hate brought against me, and use it as hydro power to continue rising up to my greatest potential.

When I sat down to talk to second-generation Polar Bear Leona Martin in early April this year, she reminisced about attending Polar Bear ceremonies from a very young age alongside her mother Evelyn Tyner, who was one of the original Polar Bears. Martin expressed just how much it meant to both of them to be sharing these memories, and still joins in on the fun from time to time, even though her mother is no longer with her and she suffers from various physical ailments. Leona’s story is common among the Polar Bear community, and the Inkwell community as a whole. Inkwell Beach is a safe space that has created a place of belonging for generations of African Americans, and always celebrates our return no matter how much time has passed, or what condition we come in. The Inkwell is not just a beach, it is a place of healing and rejuvenation, in the spiritual sense of the words. Now, at age 30, I share the same long-standing passion and devotion for the beach as those I knew and saw growing up, and I still visit frequently when I am on the Island to feel that sense of revival. To this day, the beach still welcomes the African American beachgoers every summer season, and the Polar Bear community year-round, but also welcomes annual Juneteenth celebrations, Historically Black Colleges and Universities reunions, a spot on the African American Heritage Trail and so much more. The greatest gifts that can be passed down from generation to generation are the rich histories and legacies of our communities. Inkwell Beach has always been, and will continue to be, that staple in the Black community on the Island. It is essential for our Vineyard community as a whole to share and celebrate these stories and legacies so that they are not forgotten.