Photo Credit: Winston and Quiana Robinson
Travelers Make Record-Breaking Plunge In Martha's Vineyard Historically Black Inkwell Beach
This morning at 7:30am, 164 people gathered at the shore of Martha’s Vineyard historically Black, Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs. The group, mostly consisting of Black travelers who visit the historical beach often, ranged in age from 18 all the way to 70+. Together, at the direction of the group leader Ms. Caroline Hunter (who has been taking the plunge for nearly 30 years), they all took the walk into the chilly waters— going in at least shoulder deep first. They then spent nearly an hour in the water doing water aerobics, and mostly just taking in the historical moment through fellowship.
This “polar bear plunge” isn’t new. In fact, it has been happening every day— between Memorial Day and Labor Day— since 1947. This one, however, set the record for the most people in attendance. The last record-breaking dip brought about 120 people, including comedian Cedric The Entertainer.
History of the Inkwell Beach Polar Bears
According to The Vineyard Gazette, the tradition began in the late 40s when nine guests of Black innkeeper Myrtle O’Brien began going down to Inkwell Beach to swim. This was a time when segregation was very heavy, but many Black travelers felt safe at Inkwell beach. The original nine started as a group of avid Black swimmers who would go from the Inkwell to a nearby ship deck, and back.
The name, the Inkwell, was originally a derogatory reference given by nearby white beach goers because of the number of Black people that swam in the beach in the late nineteenth century. And, according to Blackpast.org, it is now the most famous of beaches across the U.S. to transform this odious nickname into an emblem of pride.
As the group began to grow, rather than leave out those who weren’t as strong of a swimmer, a secondary group known as the ‘polar bears’ began to form. It was a way to simply get Black people in the water and active. It was an act of resistance.
“The basic premise of the Polar Bears,” Judge Redd said to the Vineyard Gazette, “is that we’re hopeful. We’re an optimistic, very, very positive group. And it’s a positive reinforcement. You’ll come down, and the most negative thing in the water is, isn’t this a great day? Isn’t this a blessing? You can always come down for some positive reinforcement, even in the midst of this pandemic pessimism.”
Today, thousands of travelers make their way to the beach to take part in the polar bear circle. For all newbies, they are issued a card as a token of remembrance for their part in such a special moment. Many of the long time polar bear members are also Howard University alums, and it has become a big tradition for fellow HU alums, and other HBCUs, to visit the area during the month of August.
Black Film Festival Week is also currently being held there, which brought in a lot of the Black travelers who took the plunge.
The polar bears are an inclusive group. While it was started by and currently sees mostly Black people, they have seen a small trickle of non-Black supporters coming throughout the years to participate, mostly out of curiosity.
“Everybody is welcome,” Dr. Frances Gaskin said to the Gazette. “It started with nine people, but it evolved over the years. It just continued to get larger.”
Charlotte-based traveler Winston Robinson and his wife, Quiana, took the trip to Martha’s Vineyard and Inkwell Beach at the suggestion of a friend and Howard University Alum. They were a part of the record-breaking circle, and for them, it was a life-changing experience.
“We honestly didn’t know what to expect,” Winston Robinson shared with Travel Noire. “But, I’m so glad we were a part of this. It has added so much value to my perspective.”
The couple shared how during the exercise, Ms. Hunter took time to honor polar bear members who had passed on in the last year— one from cancer and one from suicide.
“She talked to us about the importance of taking mental health seriously,” Quiana Robinson said. “She also told us about the Ora Lee Smith Cancer Foundation that was started in honor of a Black woman who passed away from cancer. We spent the first 30-minutes doing your typical water aerobics, and then the second half— after we did the record-breaking attendance count— we mostly just had fun doing some freestyle dancing in the water.”
If you search the hashtag, #inkwellbeach on Instagram, you will find dozens of photos of Black men and women who have also joined in the historic Polar Bear circle. It is truly a beautiful sight.
You can learn more about the group through the Facebook Page, Martha’s Vineyard Oaks Bluff ‘Inkwell’ Polar Bears.