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Martha’s Vineyard Polar Bear group began as safe space for Black swimmers, continues to thrive

“We’re there to celebrate ourselves, to celebrate each other," one member said.

This summer, men and women are continuing a yearslong tradition of taking an early-morning plunge into the chilly waters of Inkwell Beach, located on Martha's Vineyard.

The group, known as the Polar Bears of Martha’s Vineyard, heads to Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, every morning at 7:30 to exercise, swim and have fun in the water.

The official season runs from July 4 through Labor Day.

"You’ll see people coming from every direction, slowly moving into the water," longtime member Caroline Hunter told Sheinelle Jones on the 3rd hour of TODAY on Wednesday.

Hunter, who has been with the group for about 35 years, said the Polar Bears stay in the water for "at least an hour" before they pack up and call it a day.

Most members take part in the aqua aerobics that's taught by 81-year-old cardio instructor Brenda Davenport, and some will head out to the jetty for a nice swim.

"It’s about being playful while we’re doing something that’s very strenuous, something you cannot do on land," Hunter said. "The biggest surprise is for the very young people who come in and realize these older women have given them a tough routine."

Davenport calls new members the "new Bears." She says sometimes they misunderstand how cold the water can be. However, she tells them not to worry because "it will eventually get warm."

Like Davenport, Hunter has been teaching the young people in her family about the Martha’s Vineyard Polar Bears.

"I had the pleasure of bringing two of my grandkids," Davenport said.

"Yes, my daughter is a Polar Bear. So it’s a tradition that you want to share with as many people as you want to share the good things in life with," Hunter said.

The Martha’s Vineyard Polar Bears group has a rich tradition. It was founded in 1946 as a safe space for Black swimmers.

According to blackpast.org, Inkwell Beach was a popular location for African Americans. The beach was dubbed Inkwell because white people would use that name to reference the many Black people that spent time there.

"It’s a perfect location for the Polar Bears," Hunter said. "We’ve kept this legacy of welcoming people going for 76 years."

"I can remember when the group was very small," Davenport added of her 30 years in the group.

The Martha’s Vineyard Polar Bears group has created such a strong community that member Valerie Cooper recalled "going home and being somewhat depressed" after she had to leave her "wonderful experience" during her first year with the group.

"I wanted to bottle it," she said.

Cooper has been a member for 15 years. Hunter said she gets why some people find the group so inviting.

"We’re there to celebrate ourselves, to celebrate each other, to take whatever pain and drama life has given us, to leave that in the water to commune together and come out more whole," Hunter said.