History with a passion

Overton House, the Villa Rosa
The Overton House, or the Villa Rosa in Oak Bluffs on Seaview Ave. is the 17th site on the trail. Owned by civil rights political leader Joe Overton, the house was known as the "Summer White House" to many important African Americans in the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and J. Philip Randolph were all guests. Photos by Eleni Collins

By Eleni Collins - February 22, 2007

Ten years ago, most people did not know Martha's Vineyard was home to slaves in the 1700s. Nor did they know that William Martin was the only African American whaling captain from the Island, or that there is an old marine cemetery in the woods next to the Lobster Hatchery in Oak Bluffs. Since its establishment in 1997, the Martha's Vineyard Heritage Trail, and the people behind it, has been working to change that.

Heritage Trail co-founders Carrie Tankard and Elaine Weintraub met in 1990 through a mutual friend who told them, "One of you has the stories; one of you wants the stories; together you both would be able to get this done," recalls Ms. Weintraub.

Her curiosity of black history on the Island rose when one of her second-grade students asked her, "Where were all the black people?" during an Island history lesson. "I knew there was a story here that wasn't being told. That is what the trail is about: all the stories being told."

Once Ms. Tankard and Ms. Weintraub started researching, they found plentiful information on the lives of many black people who had lived on Martha's Vineyard since the 1700s. Using newspaper articles, firsthand accounts, house of correction records, and the Dukes County Intelligencer, to name a few, the two historians delved into available material.

Memorial Wharf
The site dedicated to Nancy Michael is on Memorial Wharf in Edgartown. Nancy was the grandmother of whaling captain William Martin and the daughter of Rebecca. After a vigorous court battle, it was decided Nancy was never a slave, although she had been enslaved, because slavery had not been legal in the state at that time.

Since its beginning, the trail has become a staple in Ms. Weintraub's high school history curriculum.

"The trail began with a slow start, but it was a success as a student project. At first it was not supported. New ideas don't always fly, and when you're in a new place where people have always done things the same way, they don't understand."

By involving her sophomore students, a new age group began to learn the recently discovered history. "The whole point of the trail is that before we did the research, nobody knew any of this. Now a whole generation knows," says Ms. Weintraub. Through modeling, taking pictures, landscaping, writing, and doing artwork, her students have contributed a large amount to the actual trail, the book, and the web site.

The first time Ms. Weintraub remembers active participation from her students was when they toured the uncharted trail in its beginning stages. After seeing the sites, the students embarked on their own projects on the individuals, like Rebecca, the woman from Africa, and William Martin.

"It seems like every year, something gets added by the kids," Ms. Weintraub says. "Whether it's a new site, or cleaning up a graveyard. Sometimes it's doing great artwork, like the murals, or organizing a survey on the Martin House, just what needs to get done. The students have a real piece of this. It's not just my doing."

Student involvement continued on the trail's recently made and informative web site, mvheritagetrail.org. The site is home to biographies and descriptions of the people and places that make up the 17-site trail. Student-made sites specific to points of interest, links to previously published articles, and the authors' historical research tools are available to view.

This June, two new sites will be added to the trail. The first will be at the Grace Church in Tisbury. The plaque will be dedicated to the Martha's Vineyard NAACP, and more specifically, to a group of three women.

In 1963, this group of three Island women traveled to Williamston, N.C., with the hopes of integrating a Sears store after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Eventually, the women helped found the Island's chapter of the NAACP, with the help of Audria Tankard, Audrey Levasseur, Toby Dorsey, and Lucille Dorsey. Currently, two of the women are still living on the Island.

The second addition will be found where the old West Tisbury library used to be, which now belongs to the Historical Preservation Trust. The women who traveled to North Carolina met there to plan their trip.

Most recently, in July 2006, the trail dedicated a site at Cottagers Corner in Oak Bluffs. The Cottagers, the group of professional African American women, was formed in 1956. The Cottagers are known for their generosity to causes such as the local hospital, library, and the NAACP.

With new sites appearing, a dedicated board of directors, and a wonderful group of students and teachers from the past and the present, the trail has become a success. Though she is the mother of the trail, Ms. Weintraub speaks about a trail favorite.

"I love the site to Rebecca, the woman from Africa, at Great Rock Bight. It's a walk to get there, but it's a tradition. People put rocks, feathers, pretty stones, and shells there for her, and the site is very emotionally beautiful."

Complete and limited tours are available year-round, and Ms. Weintraub also offers workshops for teachers and historians. "Off-Islanders take the trail and are surprised. 'There was slavery on Martha's Vineyard?' they ask," Ms. Weintraub says. For trail and tour information, visit the web site.

In an effort to widen the general scope of learning history, Ms. Weintraub is enthusiastic. She elaborates, "We compartmentalize history. There's 'women's' and 'black' in February. People don't realize it's all part of the same story, or the passion you feel about it. It's the historian's passion, but it's also the passion of justice and fairness."