A tribute to our African American educators
The African American Heritage Trail dedicated a new plaque yesterday honoring three groundbreaking Vineyard educators, Helen Vanderhoop Manning Murray, Rufus Shorter, and Robert Tankard.
The plaque, located at the office of the Martha's Vineyard Superintendent of Schools on Pine Street in Vineyard Haven, is the 21st site on the trail that marks the achievements of African Americans in Island history.
Helen Vanderhoop Manning Murray, who died Jan. 25 at 89 years old is legendary as a Wampanoag/African American educator, mentor, and role model. She taught at Gay Head's one-room schoolhouse during the 1950s and 1960s and was a special education teacher at the Oak Bluffs School from 1968 until 1984. Ms. Murray served on many committees and was director of education for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head.
"Helen was a real community person," said Berta Welch of Aquinnah, her second cousin. "She believed in helping others. She believed strongly in education, that it was the key to success and that knowledge really gave the footprint of a happy life.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
"Helen was proud to be from Gay Head and a Wampanoag. She was equally proud of her black heritage and educated many on the history and cultural contributions of black Indians."
In a eulogy delivered at Ms. Murray's funeral, Ms. Welch wrote: "Next to her heritage one of the most important things to Helen was education. To her, education was also a living process. Her goal as education director of the tribe was to find out as much about Wampanoag history and culture and pass it on, to encourage others to continue education, and get back the Indian ways.
"She works endlessly to keep Wampanoag culture alive and the resurrection of our language and the realization of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Cultural Center are largely due to her efforts.
"When Helen taught in the one-room schoolhouse her main concern was to instill in the children that they be proud that they are Indian. And they all are very proud.
"Helen held wisdom. Young and old sought her opinion - whether as a neighbor, teacher, entrepreneur, a selectperson, tribal council member, or respected elder. She had strong opinions and shared them in a gentle way."
"Helen was a woman before her time in many ways," said Adriana Ignacio of Aquinnah, who was among Ms. Murray's students. "She did what she wanted to do and set her own standards. She lived her life the way she wanted to. She had a lot of friends of all walks of life, and people really looked up to her."
Photo courtesy of Vera Shorter
Rufus Shorter became the first African American superintendent of Vineyard schools in 1976, and served until his death in 1980. He came to the post after a rich career in education, first as a teacher and then an administrator in the New York City school system.
His widow, Vera, reminisced about those years: "He came to the Vineyard because he wanted to run a school system. He was tired of being an administrator; he was ready for superintendency."
She recalled, "Rufus was really, truly welcomed to Martha's Vineyard. There were very few in opposition to his being hired. It was a time when people were trying to see one another as human beings, to look beyond color. He was highly qualified and I think there was a feeling of - we should do this, we should try this."
Ms. Shorter continued, "Rufus always believed that all children are educable and he felt he could get teachers to work with this belief. His philosophy was to see the whole child and to know who each child is.
"He was the Island's first African American superintendent, but even more importantly he was primarily instrumental in building the addition to the regional high school, working closely with principal Greg Scotten and bank president Bill Honey. The benefits of that addition included the expansion of the culinary arts and automotive trades departments and the creation of the performing arts center. It did not only benefit the school but it benefited the larger community. Although he did not get to see the results in his lifetime, he was the one who got it off the ground.
"He did break some ground as being the first African American superintendent and he laid the path for Kriner Cash [the second African American superintendent] to come in. But his real achievement was in the addition to the high school.
"He thought that it is wonderful to be respected for your profession, but if you do something that helps more than yourself that's important. If you can help the larger community you're a person of substance."
Robert Tankard served as principal of the West Tisbury School from 1993 until his retirement in 2001. He grew up on the Vineyard, attended Island schools, and for 20 years was the health and physical education teacher at the Tisbury School.
"To be a principal on the Vineyard was great. To be the first black principal was a little difficult in the beginning," said Mr. Tankard. "But shortly afterwards it became pleasant because people realized that Bob Tankard had the tools to be a good principal, cared about the kids, the teachers, and the community, and was trying to make sure everyone had what they needed to succeed.
"As a leader at the West Tisbury School I worked closely with my staff to make it a standout school, a school that stood out for strong education and social needs. When I left, I never saw as many tears from people. It made me feel good that I did my job and it wasn't in vain.
"Being a principal, whether it was black or white, I just wanted to go in and do my job to the best of my ability and make things happen in a positive way for the kids. Because it's all about the kids. It's always about the kids.
"It never hit me that I was the first black principal or that there would be any repercussions. The West Tisbury School Committee was so open and accepting. There was a small group against my hiring, but there were so many more supporters. We made it and we had a great run. It is a time I'll remember and cherish all my life."