Making Waves: How the Polar Bears Swim Club Buoys Its Members

When most beaches banned Black people, this club, founded in 1946 on Martha’s Vineyard, offered a refuge for those turned away from other places to swim. It's still going strong, and everyone is welcome.

group of polar bear club members
Lisette WilliamsGetty Images

When Lisette Williams was a teenager, the last thing she wanted to do on summer mornings was join her mother, Caroline Hunter, for a swim in the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean. But a few years later, when Lisette finally tagged along, she realized she had been missing much more than an invigorating dip. Caroline is a longtime member of the Polar Bears, a historically Black swim and social club that has been gathering on Inkwell Beach, on the northeast tip of Martha’s Vineyard, for more than half a century.

lisette williams
Lisette Williams with family friend, Dr. Armand Gonzales, Sr.
Courtesy Caroline Hunter

For decades, the Polar Bears, a group of mostly women of diverse age and background, have kicked off their season on or around July 4, gathering on the beach for a breakfast potluck to reconnect with old friends and welcome new ones. They sing a rousing rendition of Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Are For,” and then a minister (there always seems to be at least one in the crowd) offers a prayer before they dig into grits, blueberry pancakes, sausage and coffee. Soon the crowd makes its way to the water, often coaxed by the elder members, and forms a circle. Newcomers move to the center, where they introduce themselves and are greeted with hugs. Then the group splits — swimmers do laps between two jetties, while exercisers stay in the shallows (some, like Caroline, grew up during segregation and never learned to swim). “They look forward to seeing each other; they’re so supportive,” says Lisette, who often prefers hanging out on the beach to swimming. “It had a big impact on me.”

So much so that when she encountered tough times, such as after the death of her father in 1998, she turned to the Polar Bears for support. The first time she shared the news of her divorce, in 2005, was in the water. Others “shared their own stories of broken relationships and prayed over me for strength, healing and clarity,” Lisette says. She was particularly touched when the Polar Bears purchased a bench in honor of her maternal grandmother which sits near Inkwell Beach. It didn’t surprise Lisette that they were there, wrapping their arms around her and her mother, because that was what the Polar Bears did best. It was what they’d always done.

The story of the genesis of the Polar Bears has an air of legend, having been told and retold through the years with tweaks and added flair. It’s a tale of racism and resilience, surely, but mostly one of friendship and community. It goes like this: In 1946, innkeeper Myrtle O’Brien, something of a health enthusiast, would strongly encourage her guests to join her and other Black residents at Inkwell Beach for an early-morning swim. Afterward, the group would return to the inn for biscuits and coffee, their names written on glass mugs in red lipstick (or red fingernail polish, depending on who is telling the story). Some say they called themselves the Polar Bears as a nod to the Atlantic’s relentlessly frigid waters.

The Polar Bears’ origin has an air of legend. It’s a story of racism, resilience and so much more.

The origin of the name of the Bears’ home beach, Inkwell, remains debated, reflecting much of the history of Black people on the Vineyard. Some insist that the name was a racist reference to the skin color of many who spent their days there, while others maintain that it referred to the ink from the pens of Harlem Renaissance writers who came to the Vineyard. Still others say that it was based on the dark, ink-colored seaweed that sometimes washed up on the shore.

Local historian Skip Finley, whose family has been on the island since the 1950s, subscribes to yet another notion: that light-skinned Black people, such as writer Dorothy West, called the beach Inkwell to make it clear that they too were Black. What is indisputable is that Inkwell was one of the few beaches along the Atlantic seaboard at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th that Black people could visit before desegregation. Consequently, Martha’s Vineyard, especially a section called Oak Bluffs, gained a loyal community of prominent Black residents and second-homers — most recently President Obama, who purchased a house nearby in 2019.

polar bear club member card
A Polar Bears membership card. Annual dues are $5, but no one is turned away for inability to pay.
Lisette Williams

The Polar Bears have welcomed a fair share of prominent people over the years, including Cedric the Entertainer, Queen Sugar author Natalie Baszile, jazz singer Cassandra Wilson and White House correspondent April Ryan. But being a Polar Bear is about more than rubbing elbows with Black royalty. The Polar Bears “are an example of the best Martha’s Vineyard can be,” says Linsey Lee, who works at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum as curator of oral history. “The water, the nature, the unique Vineyard character. The derring-do to get out there at 7:30 in the morning.” Linsey is a Polar Bear herself — though, she admits, a lapsed one. Recordings she has made over the years of a handful of the Polar Bears’ stories are included in the museum’s archives. “There’s incredible love for the Polar Bears,” she says.

Wading in For Health and Harmony

Being in the water can be great for people’s health, as the longevity of some of the Polar Bears’ matriarchs suggests. Caroline Hunter is 74, and her friend Fran Gaskin is 84. It’s not uncommon to hear of Bears in their 90s. Soon after she joined the group, Caroline noticed that many Polar Bear women in their 70s and 80s “were walking straight upright — their skin looked good, they had a quality of life that I admired,” she says. “I’m convinced there’s magic in the salt water.” Part of it, she says, is the value of exercise, especially later in life. “That’s just good science; we didn’t invent that,” she says, but it’s also the community: “That renewal experience of the water is also a renewal of the experience of being human.”

“I’m convinced there’s magic in the salt water,” says Caroline Hunter, a longtime member.

That said, the group and its members don’t shy away from topics that originate on dry land. In 2017, when white supremacists took to the streets of Charlottesville, VA, Caroline, a longtime activist, organized a Polar Bear prayer vigil that included local members of the island’s chapter of the NAACP as well as local police officers. More recently, following the death of George Floyd, the Bears again came together, though on Zoom because of COVID-19 concerns. “We talked candidly about how people felt,” says Caroline, noting that a number of white Bears had said they wanted to be more active and were seeking resources. “Some wanted to be more engaged in the protests and didn’t know where to start,” says Lisette, who, like her mother, is a well-known activist on the island. “Others were interested in having uncomfortable conversations with members of their families and didn’t know where to start. So we talked about all of it.”

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"We are conscious about the community we’re creating,” says Caroline. “We are intentional about sharing the power of the water, the power of the joy and connectedness we feel."
Lisette Williams

All Are Welcome

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Caroline Hunter with fellow Polar Bear, Yvette Raven.
Courtesy Caroline Hunter

Over the years, the group has grown not only in numbers (there are now roughly 2,000 registered Polar Bears, with close to 200 people attending swims at Inkwell Beach some summer mornings), but also in diversity. Today, three-quarters of a century after Myrtle and her guests first went for a swim, the Polar Bears are mostly but not entirely female, mostly but not exclusively Black, mostly but not only accomplished professionals. Lee notes that one of the hallmarks of the Polar Bears is how intergenerational it is. Children and grandchildren, she says, return to the island and are “welcomed back into the community, introduced again to the elders.” Caroline and Lisette are part of a long tradition of mother-daughter Bears, which includes their friend Fran Gaskin, an octogenarian whose mother started the Monday morning breakfast tradition and whose daughter and granddaughter are Polar Bears. “If you want to join, you’re going to have to get into the water,” says Caroline. Annual dues are $5, but no one is turned away because of inability to pay.

But the group does have one expectation of everyone who attends: “Treat people on land the way we treated you in the water,” says Caroline. “It’s about welcome. Open arms. Loving. No matter who you are.” These rules add a “spiritual component” to the Bears, says Marisha Clinton, who has been a Polar Bear since 2014, when she bought a place in Oak Bluffs with a view of Inkwell Beach.

“We are conscious about the community we’re creating,” adds Caroline. “We are very intentional about sharing the power of the water, the power of the joy and connectedness we feel. It is political and spiritual all in one breath.”

The group has one expectation of members: Treat people on land the way you were treated in the water.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Polar Bears to cancel the 2020 season, but they started off this year on a positive note: On January 1, Caroline took to the Atlantic for a true Polar Bear plunge. Invigorated, she did it again on January 2. (Lisette opted out.) And last month, they again gathered at Inkwell Beach for the start of the 2021 season, albeit with a few somber adjustments. For safety reasons they didn't have the kickoff potluck breakfast and the numbers for the exercise circle are on the low side. They also celebrated the lives of four members who died since the last time the club met. Still, the sun was shining, the water warm (relatively speaking), and the club that weathered all manner of storms since 1946 was back together again.

Fittingly, the Polar Bears’ mantra — I am the source of my joy and infinite possibilities — has little to do with swimming. For Lisette, it’s a reminder of what the group has represented for her and so many others over the years. “Any time somebody is going through something,” she says, “we lift them up.”

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