Two new sites for African-American Heritage Trail
In February, Black History Month, the African-American Heritage Trail will dedicate two new sites on Martha's Vineyard. Next Tuesday, Feb. 9, long-time M.V. Regional High School (MVRHS) teacher Quinton Bannister will be honored with a plaque at the entrance of the high school. On Thursday, Feb. 18, students involved with the Heritage Trail will unveil a second plaque that will be located on the outside wall of the building housing Sweet E's Cupcakes in Vineyard Haven. The historic building was the site of the first African-American-owned business on Martha's Vineyard, and the plaque will honor barber/businessman William Hammond, popularly known as Barber Hammond.
The first of the honorees, Quinton Bannister, was the first African-American on the MVRHS faculty. He has been teaching at the high school for 32 years and will retire after this school year. Q.B., as he is known among staff and students, teaches history and law. Mr. Bannister moved to the Island from Washington, D.C., when he was 16 years old and attended the high school here. He started teaching history to students in the vocational program, while serving as a Vineyard Haven policeman in the summers.
"He's been a very welcoming teacher to many kids who wouldn't have found a welcome anywhere else," said Elaine Cawley-Weintraub, co-founder of the Heritage Trail and chairman of the history department. "I think it's been important for many kids of color over the years to have him as a role model. For kids who haven't find congruence, he's been a very valuable figure."
"He's very well respected and highly regarded," said Troy Small, a high school senior.
Ms. Weintraub refers to the speech made by Mr. Small at the recent NAACP brunch in which he spoke about the efforts of African-American trailblazers and the unique stresses that they faced. Ms. Weintraub said, "I think 32 years ago I wouldn't have liked to be the first African-American on the faculty."
On the plaque honoring Mr. Bannister are two inscriptions. The first, "We make the path by walking," is a phrase associated with the civil rights movement. Ms. Weintraub finds the quote fitting for someone who in her words, "has put one foot in front of the other."
The second inscription is a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: "The time is always right to do what's right." Ms. Weintraub explains that Mr. Bannister, who has a poster of the great civil rights leader on his wall, has often told her that on difficult days he looked to Dr. King for inspiration.
At the second dedication, the plaque to be placed on an outside wall of the building at 18 Main Street, reads "Barber Hammond - an African American entrepreneur who bought property and opened his barber shop in 1880 on this site."
Teacher Chris Baer recently completed research on Barber Hammond after he discovered that he is distantly related to turn-of-last-century businessman.
According to Mr. Baer, Mr. Hammond was born in Maryland before emancipation, so he was probably a slave as a child. After moving here he married a woman from Fall River who ended up working as a stewardess on the paddle ferryboat the Monohansett. Mr. Hammond purchased the storefront at a public auction and operated his barber shop at the location for 40 years, even rebuilding the store after the great fire of 1883.
"Here was a man who had success in the African-American community," said Ms. Weintraub. "With the Trail we're presenting different parts of the tapestry of the history. It's easy when you study African-American history to get caught up in the victim-hood. The nice thing about the Trail is that even the victims aren't victims."
Ms. Weintraub conceived the idea of the African-American History Trail in the early 90s when she was assigned a group of young children who were at risk for academic failure. She sought a way to engage the minority kids. "A lot of my teaching was around storytelling and role-playing," she said. "At one point I realized that these kids needed their own history."
Ms. Weintraub, a native of Ireland and a self-described history fanatic, began researching the Island's African-American heritage. In her quest, she came upon a number of invaluable sources, including Carrie Tankard. As it turned out, Ms. Tankard had long made it her mission to introduce black history into Island schools, and so the two women joined forces to research, present, and promote the Island's African-American heritage. They co-founded the Trail in 1997.
That year the first site was dedicated: the Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs. In 2008 they added the most recent site, the Dorothy West house. The two 2010 additions will bring the total number of Trail sites to 25.
The Heritage Trail has become part of the sophomore class history curriculum. Students study the people and events celebrated by the Trail and are assigned a relevant research project. Each year the kids take the tour of the Trail and finish the day with a soul food lunch. Many of the students are involved in research and maintenance and participate in the dedications. Mr. Small is the student member of the Heritage Trail board.
"The Trail has definitely made it easier to learn about my heritage," said Mr. Small, an African-American and Wampanoag. "It's given me a new perspective about how my heritage has played a part in my community."
Ms. Weintraub stresses that the point of the project is to memorialize those who have made a difference, including the unsung heroes, and not just the lauded individuals of the black community.
Of Mr. Bannister, she said, "He's not an aggressive kind of person. He's very shy." Despite his humble ways, Ms. Weintraub believes that the long-time teacher has played an important role in the community.
"There are many ways of making permanent and sweeping changes," she said. I think Q.B.'s done that in quiet ways. He's a quiet warrior."
Gwyn McAllister is a frequent contributor to The Times.