On any given summer day in Massachusetts, thousands of Black travelers join the hordes of passengers riding Steamship Authority ferries between the mainland and Martha's Vineyard and other islands.

But the Steamship Authority does no business with Black-owned companies.

An analysis of contracting records by the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting found that over the past five years, the Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority had issued 79 contracts, but not one went to a Black-owned business. The Authority does have two Asian American-owned businesses, and one Latino-owned firm as vendors.

Like many African Americans in Massachusetts, Jane Edmonds has traveled back and forth for years to Martha’s Vineyard aboard the legendary ships. She says does not like what she is seeing.

“I'm not convinced, based on anything I've seen so far, that the steamship authority can hold itself up as a model of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging,” she said.

Before the pandemic, more than 3 million passengers a year rode ferries from the mainland to the Vineyard and Nantucket. The Steamship Authority is a semi-autonomous state entity that is governed by a five-person board composed of one member from Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, Falmouth, Barnstable, and New Bedford.

Edmonds was a candidate for chair of the Steamship Authority Governing Board earlier this year, but that job went instead to James Malkin, a commissioner from Chilmark. Malkin is white, as are the other four Steamship Authority board members.

20200925_174305 (1) EDMONDS.jpg
Vineyard resident Jane Edmonds said she applauds any and all efforts to help the Steamship Authority change the way it does business.
Phillip Martin GBH News

Edmonds, who headed the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination under Gov. Michael Dukakis and worked for Gov. Mitt Romney as the director of Workforce Development, said if she had been picked for the job, she would have made contracting a priority.

“Part of my motivation was that the only time I see diversity with the steamship authority is on the loading dock," she told GBH News. "I've been going back and forth, paid tons of money like a lot of other people of color going on that same ferry, and if that's the only visible evidence of diversity that I can see, then I would start to ask questions.”

SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll said the Authority has tried in the past to find minority contractors, but is now working to expand those efforts.

“In our procurement policy, we do have a section about diversity and making sure that we are taking steps to get all our bids and our projects distributed to a diverse range of potential bidders,” Driscoll said.

For example, DHK Architects, a Latino-owned firm, has completed several design projects for the Steamship Authority since 1994. But Driscoll says there are only a few businesses that can compete for Steamship contracts because of the very nature of the work.

“We're required by Coast Guard regulations every five years, each one of our vessels has to have two dry docks. That's when the boat goes to a shipyard and is literally taken out of the water so that you can work underneath the hull,” explained Driscoll. “There's really only two companies in our area that have the properly sized facilities for that kind of work. And those are the two companies that bid on the projects all the time.”

The Steamship Authority admits that this level of expertise accounts for only half of its contracting needs. So, the official explanation for its mainly monochromatic procurement history leaves some Black island residents unconvinced.

“If you look, you will find," said Gretchen Tucker Underwood, who recently gave up her seat on the Dukes County Commission for health reasons. "If you look in a small pool or the pool that you've always looked in, that's what you're going to get. If you broaden your search, then you can find it.”

Tucker Underwood resigned before the Commission voted on the new Steamship Authority chair. She said she was not surprised that Edmonds was passed over for the position, or that zero contracts have been extended to Black companies for carpentry, oil delivery, food service, dock repair or other needs of the SSA. She says political and economic decisions on Martha’s Vineyard are often a matter of who you know.

“It extends to the Steamship Authority. It extends to the Board of Selectman. It’s an island. Everybody knows somebody, and everybody is somebody else’s brother,” said Tucker Underwood. “An island population has a smaller selection of people to apply and be a part of a larger entity. And we choose each other.”

Tucker Underwood said that is why the Steamship Authority must broaden its reach.

Some locals are offering to help the all-white SSA board to do that. Sandy Pimentel, the founder of the Martha's Vineyard Diversity Coalition, said her group is more then willing to work with the Steamship Authority to find Black and Latino contractors.

“What the diversity coalition can offer is that we have networks," Pimentel said. "We have African Americans who are in leadership roles who can connect us. You know, it's all part of the system. If you want to make change, we have to look like that change.”

Richard Peter Wharton said he also thinks he can help. Wharton, who is African American, is running for a seat on the Dukes County Commission, which chooses the Martha’s Vineyard representative for the Steamship Authority. He was 16 when he began working on the ferry docked in Oaks Bluff. That led to a career in the Navy, with Wharton ultimately serving as director of minority admissions for the Naval Academy.

“I'm used to seeking diverse talents in a very competitive pool, and putting that lens on the procurement and recruitment processes,” he said.

Wharton said if he can do that for the U.S. Navy, he can do it for the Steamship Authority, as well.

Jane Edmonds said she applauds any and all efforts to help the Steamship Authority change the way it does business.

“Because it affects ultimately the lifeblood of this community. It affects the people who choose to come here, whether they feel safe and welcomed. And I've seen evidence where some of the decision making has been, in my opinion, racist,” she said.

Driscoll, the Steamship Authority communications director, said he agrees that the organization could do more to bring in minority businesses.

“We're having the same discussions a lot of companies are. Certainly, we can do more to get our projects in front of a wider audience of companies that might be looking to bid on them. We’re committed to doing, and doing better,” said Driscoll.

He also said the Steamship Authority will begin by reaching out to Pimentel’s diversity coalition for advice on how to expand opportunities for businesses owned by people of color.