On Saturday, with a kind breeze and blue sky as the backdrop, the African-American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard celebrated the life and local contributions of Judge Herbert Tucker Jr. with the unveiling of a plaque on the front wall of the Dukes County Courthouse on Main Street in Edgartown.
Opening the ceremony, Elaine Weintraub, co-founder and director of the heritage trail, welcomed a large crowd, and spoke of the importance of remembering our history and recognizing that African-American history exists and is part of our common story. The trail is in its 20th year, and has an active program of education and mentorship for the Island’s young people. The site honoring Judge Herbert E. Tucker Jr. is the 30th, and there are sites in every town on the Island.
Tucker’s life was inspired by a belief in the law, its power to create justice for all, and a determination to fight discrimination wherever he met it. He was instrumental in the desegregation of the Boston Red Sox, and throughout his life, his legal career was characterized by compassion and empathy.
Tucker’s involvement with the NAACP was a lifetime commitment, as was his love of the law. He lectured at several universities, and was appointed by President John Kennedy to represent the U.S. as ambassador to the Republic of Gabon.
Tucker was involved with a number of organizations over the years, including serving as the grand basileus of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity from 1955 to 1958. His alma mater, Northeastern University, named him the alumnus of the year in 1971. Tucker and his wife, Mary, have two children. Tucker died on March 1, 2007.
The Rev. Debbie Finley Jackson, a board member of the heritage trail, led a blessing and prayer of gratitude before the dedication: “We ask for blessings on the work of the African-American Heritage Trail, which affirms for us that we are here.” Jackson gave praise to Mary Tucker, 100 years old, wife of Judge Tucker. Mary Tucker was honored with flowers and tribute as the great woman behind the great man, and was surrounded by her family, including great-grandsons Jason, 23, and Brandon Mercer, 19, who attended the ceremony to unveil the plaque.
Magistrate Thomas Teller stood on the steps of the courthouse and spoke from memory about first meeting Judge Tucker, and how they became not just co-workers, but friends. He spoke about Tucker with respect and admiration. He said, “Today is a great tribute to a man who adored his family, they were the stars of his life; he was a good man, and a good friend of mine.”
Superior Court Clerk Joe Sollitto followed the heartfelt speech by Teller, noting that Judge Tucker was a mentor to him and that they spoke daily. He added that Judge Tucker was highly respected by all, whether they were defending or prosecuting attorneys, or were themselves being prosecuted. Tucker always showed great respect for the dignity of every person, and had compassion “especially for our juveniles.”
Tucker’s daughter, Gretchen Tucker Underwood, a Dukes County commissioner, remembered meeting people on the street over the years, and if asked was she Judge Tucker’s daughter, would answer yes cautiously, in case he was a judge on their case. But she learned that his legacy of kindness and respect for the dignity of all people translated positively into day-to-day meetings, even years after his death. Tucker Underwood told the crowd that the importance of placing the plaque at the courthouse was a reminder of her father’s character and spirit, and that his respect for others and their respect for him remained very much alive in memory at the courthouse. “Today,” she said, “is Judge Herbert E. Tucker Day.”
Tucker Underwood thanked everyone for attending, and invited the crowd to enjoy food and refreshments at a reception at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Once there, relaxing in the afternoon sunshine, people discussed Tucker’s work and the work of the heritage trail. I spoke to a few board members. As the youngest member of the board, James Jennings, 37, told of his understanding of the dedication. He said, “Collaborative effort is important. A plaque outside the courthouse today speaks of the commitment of government. When people enter the courthouse as defender or prosecutor, they will pass this plaque and understand that oppression does not strive here.”
And finally, in the words of Judge Herbert Tucker Jr., inscribed forever on the plaque: “While my depositions will have to be fair, they must also reflect a recognition of the wrongs that helped to create these problems.”