FIRST PERSON: Black community on Martha’s Vineyard coalesces around tragic drownings of twin brothers

By Allison J. Davis

NABJ Black News & Views

OAK BLUFFS, Massachusetts – I did not hear the sirens that night, but in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, the ocean air knocks me out. Walking to town the next morning, I learned of the tragedy on the “Jaws” bridge about a mile from where we were staying. Four young men jumped off the bridge and two were dead or presumed dead. Spending our August’s on the island, I always cautioned my own sons from jumping off that bridge, nicknamed the “Jaws” bridge because it was a filming location in the famous movie. Both of my boys weren’t strong swimmers, so I was confident that neither one was brave enough to take the leap. 

The first body was recovered within hours. The search for the second had begun. As we followed reports, we assumed that the young men were drunk. Who would leap off the bridge close to midnight and in the dark? It wasn’t much later  when we learned that the two missing men were brothers, Tavaris and Tavaughn Bulgin, from Clarendon, Jamaica, who lived not far from my ancestral home in Bunkers Hill. Like many Jamaicans, the brothers were seasonal restaurant employees at establishments on Martha’s Vineyard. Their untimely deaths were the talk of the island. Most parents knew that the bridge was a big meeting spot for teens. After the incident, it was strange to drive by and see no teens crowded on the railing ready to take their turn into the ocean. A tradition enjoyed by generations was no longer, at least for now. 

An impromptu memorial for brothers Tavaris and Tavaughn Bulgin, who died after jumping off of the "Jaws" bridge on Martha's Vineyard in August, 2022. Photo credit: Massachusetts State Police.
An impromptu memorial for brothers Tavaris and Tavaughn Bulgin, who died after jumping off of the “Jaws” bridge on Martha’s Vineyard in August, 2022. Photo credit: Massachusetts State Police.

My mother had always talked about Oak Bluffs as a sacred ground for Black folks. So many of her Harlem friends owned cottages there and it was her hope that one day, she could brag that she had a home in OB. I thought that to be quite strange as my mother, a Jamaican, didn’t like the sand or the water. The thought of a 45-minute ferry trip to get on and off the island made her nervous. Island life was certainly not for her.  However, years later, my cousin purchased a summer home less than a mile from the Inkwell (the beach where Blacks congregated) and that became our good fortune. When my two boys were very young, August on the Vineyard became our family tradition. 

For many of my generation, summers in Martha’s Vineyard were slow and safe. My oldest son learned how to ride a two-wheeler in the empty parking lot of MV High School. My husband, an avid cyclist, rode safely around the various island communities.  As my son became more confident on his bike, we let him ride to town to meet up with the children of other vacationing families. I knew he’d be safe and fed. There were a half a dozen families with whom we were close. We didn’t see each other often during the school year as our friends lived in D.C., Los Angeles and Boston, but we all picked up where we left off each August, continuing the traditions we established — celebrating August birthdays and enjoying the many “fruits of the sea”. 

As our children began their college years, the cluster of teens dwindled. Most had summer jobs at home, and some were unable to take the month off. Interests changed too. My son played college basketball and he was on the court most days. My younger son hadn’t found a crew on the island he could hang with so his interest in the Vineyard wasn’t as keen. We also noticed that the slow, relatively uncrowded island was no more. It was becoming harder to find a place to spread our blanket at the Inkwell and more difficult to travel around the island by car. Restaurants were packed and there was an increasing number of “things to do” on the island. Most were about being seen and networking.  Even getting our car on and off the ferry became a chore. Obtaining car reservations for a Saturday or Sunday required us to stay up late or wake up early to queue up by phone or computer. The Vineyard we knew no longer existed.   

The sun over Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Melanie Eversley, Black News & Views
The sun over Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Melanie Eversley, Black News & Views

As Jamaican tourism slowed in the summer it was just heating up in the Vineyard, providing jobs summer after summer for Tavaris and Tavaughn Bulgin. Both were said to love their work in the kitchen at Nomads, the beachfront restaurant where they worked. Their boss described them as having charismatic personalities and unshakeable faith that made them a joy to be around. The pair bragged about cooking for President Barack Obama. When they weren’t in the kitchen, the young men could look out the window of the restaurant to see the fun everyone was having at State Beach or they could watch the teens jump off the local bridges. I don’t know if that was the motivation for their folly, but their deaths seem to bring the immense activity of Oak Bluffs to a halt, if only for a short while. As we walked down Circuit Avenue greeting old friends, our conversations began with, “Did you hear?” 

Two separate GoFundMe fundraisers to help the brother’s family have collected more than $230,000 — one organized with the help of Nomads’ owner, and the other organized to help with funeral expenses. Most of the many people who donated didn’t know the Bulgin brothers; didn’t know that Tavaris was a school teacher and Tavaughn was a musical prodigy and athlete.  Yet, they were both our children. As one vacationer noted on social media, “The Village of the Vineyard will forever hold these two young men in our hearts.”

Allison J. Davis is a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists and founder of Coopty Productions

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