Obamas keep the faith as first family heads for Martha's Vineyard

More than just a holiday playground for wealthy east coast Democrats, 'the Rock' has a long association with prominent African-Americans

The first family should be warned. Not everything on the glistening island idyll that is Martha's Vineyard will be available to them when they get there for their summer holiday today. The secret service will keep them away from the Obamarita cocktails and the Barack-o-Tacos being flogged in their honour in downtown Oak Bluffs. Indeed, any straying from their rented farmhouse will be strongly discouraged.

It even seems unlikely that Michelle Obama will get the chance to attend a meeting of the Cottagers Society, which is a shame because joining them for a few hours would absolutely be the natural thing for her to do. It is not just that the Vineyard is famous for being not especially impressed by the famous (because so many go there), but because this particular society's rules are especially strict. Its members are all black women dedicated to promoting education for African-Americans who reside on the island for four successive weeks a year – at least. Fly-by-nights, however illustrious they may be, are therefore not welcome.

For this unfortunate circumstance, the first lady can blame her husband and, of course, the economy. Never mind that his predecessor, George Bush, never worried about taking off almost all of August to set about the pesky undergrowth at his Crawford ranch in Texas. His father, George Sr, likewise would spend Washington's cruellest month at his and Barbara's spread in Kennebunkport, Maine. Even seven days on Martha's Vineyard will attract criticism, though. It is not the Jersey Shore, the Michigan lakes or anywhere "regular folk" might go to escape a recession. To a degree, the choice seems politically tin-eared and the predictability of it discouraging. Where does the east coast royalty of the Democratic Party congregate in August? On Martha's Vineyard, of course. How Bill Clinton loved to be there among the Kennedys and their yachts.

Yet there are reasons being attracted to it makes sense. It is easyish to curb the paparazzi. The Obamas have been there before and they are certain to have friends and interesting types dropping by. Professor Henry Louis Gates – the same Professor Gates who triggered global headlines after an altercation with a white policeman outside his Harvard front door last month – summers on the island. So do Spike Lee and Mr Obama's top aide, Valerie Jarrett.

Here, in fact, is exactly why Martha's Vineyard was a natural choice for America's first black commander-in-chief. For all its reputation as a summer playground for the elite, it is by no means an all-white one. Indeed, for generations, the island – the regulars refer to it as the Rock – has also been a favourite for holidaying black families, which goes to explain, for instance, the vigorous activities of the Cottagers Society. The history of racial integration dates back even to the days of slavery, perhaps because Massachusetts was alone among states in allowing slaves to inherit property. The island's only black whaling-ship captain was the great-grandson of a slave woman on the island who was also a landowner. Another important figure is Charles Shearer. Born into slavery in Virginia, he came to Martha's Vineyard and with his wife built a 12-room inn, Shearer Cottage.

The inn, which is still in business today, served for decades as the hub for black visitors to the island, famous and not so famous. Most were at least more or less well-to-do. Among those said to have stayed beneath its roof are the actor Paul Robeson, singer Ethel Waters and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr of New York. For decades, Oak Bluffs, with its dinky gingerbread homes in pastel colours, was for blacks what resorts such as Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod, and Fire Island, in New York, were much later to become for gay Americans. It was a place where they could relax among their own. Ask Bob Tankard of New Jersey, who has been visiting it for five decades and who is black. "I came up for the summer of 1959. That was the first time I had realised that blacks could be anything they wanted to be other than an athlete and entertainer."

Critics will carp, but for one group of regulars this week, the presence of Mr Obama in their midst – even if he is corralled in his fancy farmhouse – has an almost poetic importance. "There's so much pride. That family is like our family," said Skip Finley, a radio executive who holidayed on the Vineyard for years before making it his home. "There's a beautiful connection," agreed Mildred Henderson, an 84-year-old resident, who recalls the visits decades ago of Martin Luther King. (Some say that he even wrote his "I have a dream" speech while on holiday on the island.) "It's just wonderful that we've come this far."

As for Michelle, it is unlikely that she would really yearn for an afternoon of still more earnestness with the Cottagers. One week is little time to relax with her two daughters and husband. And who knows what matters of international urgency will disturb his time of repose.

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