Exploring the African American Heritage Trail

Eighth grade students bring history to life.

Eighth grade students from West Tisbury School gather around another stop along the American Heritage Trail in Oak Bluffs. — Gabrielle Mannino

The eighth grade class of the West Tisbury School spent an entire school day creating their own personal answers to the questions: What is history? What does it mean to you? There are many other ideas to consider when answering those questions, such as whose stories count as history and whose do not. As part of their study of both history and of their own environment, the students spent the day exploring many places, including Great Rock Bight Preserve, where there is an African American Heritage Trail site honoring Rebecca, the African woman enslaved on Martha’s Vineyard.

Most of us know that Paul Revere gave the warning to the rebellious colonists that the British were coming — though whether he would have used the word “British” is arguable — but do we in this community know that the warning that the British were landing during the Revolutionary War was actually given by Rebecca? The dry lessons of the Civil War take on new meaning for the students when they stand on tribal land at West Basin and read about the heroic rescue of Randall Burton, a fugitive from enslavement, by the Wampanoag Tribe.

Von-Trai Porter, 14, stands in front of the Powell House along the American Heritage Trail in Oak Bluffs. – Gabrielle Mannino

The students’ excursion into living history was coordinated by the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard, whose sites stretch from one end of the Vineyard to the other, and during the day the full diversity of the lives of people of color on this Island was explored. In Aquinnah, it was Burton’s dramatic, daring rescue; in Chilmark, the realities of enslavement; in West Tisbury, it was the lives and quiet heroism of five Vineyard women who chose to risk their lives by traveling to the South because as Nancy Whiting, one of those women, said, “I didn’t want my kids to grow up and ask me why I did nothing about the greatest moral question of the century.”

Lauren Serpa’s third grade class will visit the Vineyard Haven section of the Trail and meet with Robert Tankard, whose name is included on a plaque at the superintendent’s building honoring the first African American educators.

The eighth grade tour ended in Oak Bluffs, where the story is one of achievement and hard work. The oldest African American-owned inn on the Island is still operating at the Shearer Cottage. The Colemans, an African American family whose father, Ralph Meshack Coleman, was the director of the Boston Black Theater during the New Deal  still occupy their home at Coleman’s Corners. The Powell House, home of New York congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, still stands with the largest plaque on the Trail, explaining in detail the achievements of one of the giants of the 20th century and Sen. Edward Brooke’s life of achievement and challenging the racial norms of his era is celebrated on the Trail as the first African American senator elected by popular vote.

The students climbed the porch at the Overton House and sat where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote some of his famous work. Both racial and gender norms were challenged when the eighth graders hit Dukes County Avenue, former home of Emma Maitland, the world lightweight female boxing champion, who also danced in Paris, acted in New York, taught in Virginia, and who accepted no limitations.

It was a rare opportunity for the eighth graders, who thought history was an abstraction, to find that the famous achievers, the quiet heroes, the entrepreneurs and those who changed all our lives are part of their own story. This Island is their environment and they are adding to the collective story with their own lives. They shared their ideas. Reflecting on the events of the day, West Tisbury student Mae Baird noted that “history is all about choices and mistakes made by the people who came before us. We should learn from it. There were people who felt unsafe and they had to go to great lengths to protect themselves and their families.”

Eighth grade students from West Tisbury School gather around the Powell House plaque along the American Heritage Trail in Oak Bluffs. – Gabrielle Mannino

The students placed rocks and metal hearts on which they had written their names and words of their choice, such as freedom, justice and equality, at the site for Rebecca. After visiting the site, Emmalee Maciel observed: “I knew about slavery but I didn’t think it was real. I learned today that it did happen. I understood that.” William Mayberry nodded thoughtfully and agreed that he had never thought of African people living on the Island, and Rebecca’s story had brought that reality home to him.

“History is really anything that isn’t happening now,” said Teagan Fenner, “but I realize that I have walked past the Heritage Trail site in Menemsha a thousand times and never looked at it or read it. Today I did.”

Von-Tran Parker was particularly engaged with the story of the fugitive from enslavement, Randall Burton, and his rescue by the Wampanoag Tribe. “I read about Randall in the Heritage Trail book before we took the tour and when I stood at the site honoring him, I wanted to tell him that we are still here. As an African American boy, I am very grateful to the native people who rescued him, and to those people who stood up for justice and fairness. Some of them were white and some of them were African American, but they did what was right.”

The definitions of history varied between students. For Nick Cowan “history is something that shows hope. People were in bad places, and found refuge. There are lessons we can draw from the people we learned about today, and I now have places I can go if I need inspiration.” Hardy Eville noted that “What happens in the past is written by someone. It’s their point of view, and not always true. I lived in New York City and I used to go to Harlem with my mom, and I was fascinated by that huge statue of Adam Clayton Powell. I was excited to go to his house today and learn more about him and what he achieved in his life.”

The young historians had much to reflect on and the last word goes to Sam Fetters: “I loved the entire day. I enjoyed everything and it opened my eyes to how things could be. Rebecca was enslaved but she was also the one who gave the warning to Martha’s Vineyard that the British were landing. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote some of his major speeches on the Island, and five women were brave enough to go to the South during the Civil Rights era. The Powells and the Tankards began their work here. It’s the story of our history.”