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Filmmaker recalls when the Vineyard was a haven

For generations, African-American families have trekked to Martha's Vineyard for summer vacations.

The town of Oak Bluffs has been a haven for the black middle class -- a place where doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who typically operate in the mainstream white world can come together with their peers and socialize without thinking about race.

Tonight, in a bittersweet PBS documentary, filmmaker Stanley Nelson recounts his own childhood summers on the Vineyard, and reflects on how tourism and development there have changed the community into a place he and many other longtime residents don't recognize. Along the way, he explores the complex impact of segregation and racism on affluent blacks and the price paid for "making it."

"A Place of Our Own," which is part of PBS's "Independent Lens" series, airs on WGBX-TV (Channel 44) at 10.

Narrated by Nelson, who won an Emmy Award for directing the PBS 2002 documentary "The Murder of Emmett Till," the one-hour film is deeply personal. Nelson spends lots of time interviewing his father Stanley Sr., in an attempt to understand why he divorced his mother and left the family's Vineyard oasis when Stanley Jr. was 16. What he discovers is that his father, who was a successful dentist in Manhattan in the '60s, could not recover from the pain of growing up during segregation in the 1920s. Although he had achieved the American Dream, he could not find peace.

He is not alone. Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates Jr. is another Oak Bluffs resident who describes to Nelson how racism has impacted his life. "I bought this great house in Lexington, Mass., no black people in my neighborhood and I was terrified of being stopped by the cops," he tells the filmmaker.

So Gates made up an excuse to go to the local police station and introduce himself and tell everyone where he lived. "I did it so they could see this face and they'd see that car and that these guys wouldn't bust me when I was driving through there at midnight. That's pathetic . . . that's sad."

On Oak Bluffs, things are different, explains Gates, who is interviewed at one of the Vineyard's beaches. "It's great to be able to associate with people who share your interests, educational background -- to put it bluntly your class interests. That is what is unique about Oak Bluffs. Black people doing well is the default, that is the norm. . . . And we should be proud of that."

The film begins as Nelson, who wrote the script with his wife Marcia Smith, is opening up his family's beachfront home for the summer season months after his mother, Liel, has died. Like many matriarchs, Liel was the glue of the family and the reason Nelson and his three siblings would come together every summer. Nelson recalls the annual birthday party for his mother and the countless parties where friends and family would gather. This summer the house is silent.

The program goes on to showcase black-and-white photos and home-movie clips of black families lounging on the beaches in the 1950s in elaborate one-piece swimsuits. The images make for fascinating viewing -- especially when Nelson contrasts them with present-day footage of young people on the Vineyard's beaches, wearing thongs.

Oak Bluffs remains a destination for many black families, even though the wider world has become a less segregated place. At the same time, the close-knit community that once found refuge there has dispersed. "A Place of Our Own" is a compelling look at how important Oak Bluffs was in defining and nurturing that group for a century. And Nelson's openness about his own family's journey is moving, if heartbreaking. He makes a convincing case that people will always need refuges.

Suzanne Ryan can be reached at sryan@globe.com

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