When I was seven years old, my parents thought it wise to send their only child to eight weeks of summer camp, to know life in close company with other children. They heard about a camp in the Catskills that was racially integrated with intention — “diverse,” in 21st-century speak. The camp would no doubt would welcome their little Negro girl. And they did, for seven straight years.

I enjoyed this camp. It was run by a band of young adults mainly from Greenwich Village. Post-beatnik, pre-hippie types. Men wore work shirts and ponytails. Women wore peasant blouses and rugged sandals. Everyone, it seemed, played guitar.

As an adult, I would later reflect that the camp had a decidedly left-leaning orientation. I mean really, really left. We learned union, anti-war and civil rights songs. Peace signs were everywhere. Joan Baez was our goddess. Pete Seeger was a frequent visitor, playing his banjo and leading us in politically impassioned song around the campfire. I soaked it all in.

In August of 1963, in the waning days of camp season, we older campers were gathered in the dining hall for an important announcement: camp was going to end three days sooner than scheduled because most of the staff would be heading straight to Washington DC to take part in a big protest march the day after. It was for the cause of racial equality. Thousands of people, black and white, would be coming from all over the country.

And we campers could come along, too.

We bubbled and squeaked with excitement. There were two requirements, the camp director continued. We piped down and held our breaths. First, we had to be at least 13. Yes! I had just made the cut. What else? We had to get permission to go from our parents. So one by one, we prospective young marchers on Washington called home from the phone in the director’s office. My heart thumped as I dialed. Mom and Dad would be so excited for me.

What was I thinking.

“Sweetie, I’m afraid we have to say no.”

Or words to that effect.


“Because we have ferry reservations to go to Martha’s Vineyard and we don’t want to lose them.”

I am not making this up.

On the last day of camp, the buses rolled from the green hills of upstate back to the asphalt of Manhattan’s Union Square. Campers and counselors heading to the march immediately boarded another bus bound for Washington, while I was banished to the deep leather backseat of a late model Lincoln Continental.

I was mad as hell. Thirteen-year-old style.

Granted, the irony was not so large in 1963. Beyond New England, Martha’s Vineyard was barely heard of, let alone labeled as the playground of the rich and famous. Nevertheless, I was going on a beach vacation, while other people — white people — were on their way to march for black people, because in Oak Bluffs the week leading into Labor Day was sacred. Heaven forbid we miss George and Mary’s annual 5-to-7 cocktail party. Or the Oak Bluffs tennis tournament.

We don’t even play tennis. How bourgeois did we have to be?

If memory serves, I sulked for most of the road trip. It was my job. I may have sulked at least until I-95 veered northward in Providence, abandoning our boulevard barge to the slower pace of secondary roads, small towns, roundabouts, the Bourne Bridge and the forested final straightaway to Woods Hole.

By the time we crested the overpass with the vista of the harbor before us, my thoughts may have turned entirely to the Clam Bar in Oak Bluffs. As we crossed the Sound, any remnant of sulking probably evaporated like a 30 per cent forecast of Vineyard showers.

Fast forward 10 years. The news media are abuzz about the milestone anniversary of the historic March on Washington. Replays of King’s speech. Film footage of the crowds — hundreds of thousands strong. Minus me. I was wistful. But I was a grownup now. I was over it.

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary, I happened to be with my parents at a dinner party with family friends. The conversation turned to reflections about the March. I was a grownup all the more by then. I was chill. Until Mom turned to me with a chuckle and said: “You probably don’t remember this, but when you were at camp that summer and...”

Yes, she went there.

“Oh yes I remember!”

Hello, my inner 13-year-old. She laughed but she didn’t keep it shut.

“I wasn’t allowed to go to the March because we had to go to Martha’s Vineyard instead,” I said. And for a touch of sarcasm: “But that’s okay. It only turned out to be one of the biggest events in American history. Eighty years from now, on the 100th anniversary, I could have wobbled on a cane before an assembly of wide-eyed children to speak about my first-hand experience. But noooo.”

On this night, it was I who got schooled. For the first time, Mom revealed that Martha’s Vineyard wasn’t the reason I was denied. She and my father denied me because they were scared. Life experience had taught them a thing or three. They knew that peaceful intentions could turn to provocation, by one side or another. They knew which side wouldn’t win. They had also known life in Washington, a city of very southern persuasions. And they knew their child’s sole protection would have been a handful of idealistic twenty-somethings who were about as naive as I was.

Both my parents paid the “black tax” many times over, in active protest or by passive default. Like Martin Luther King, they had a dream — that one day their child wouldn’t have to pay that tax too.

For sure, they had dreams for themselves, too. Like maybe two-putting the seventh green at Mink Meadows. Or scoring a reservation at the Homeport. They earned every one of their Vineyard vacations. And then some. Thank you, Mom and Dad.

Shelley Christiansen lives in Oak Bluffs.