In 1998, Elaine Weintraub and Carrie Tankard founded the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard. Since then, more than 30 stops have been uncovered on the trail across the Island. The sites tell the stories of African American families and former slaves who either lived here or had some connection to Martha’s Vineyard. As more sites began to be uncovered over time, Weintraub decided to write a book, titled “Lighting the Trail: The African American Heritage of Martha’s Vineyard,” which details each site on the trail and its history. Since the initial publication of the book in 2005, Weintraub has published two more editions. The most recent edition of “Lighting the Trail” was released on August 29, and includes a more comprehensive detailing of old sites and newly uncovered ones.
Weintraub first moved to the Island a little over 38 years ago from London, England, and began teaching at the Oak Bluffs School. She predominantly taught children of color, and realized there was little to no African American history being taught to the children or found on the Island. “I realized that if they were going to have any chance at success, they were going to have to have the affirmation of their own history. There were all kinds of [books] on ghosts, haunted houses, movies stars, cooks, anything on Martha’s Vineyard, but absolutely nothing on African American history.” The lack of history led to her founding the trail, writing books about the trail, and becoming its research historian. Weintraub discusses in the book how the history of Africans on the Island dates from before the American Revolution to the present.
Weintraub believes that it’s essential that African American history be told and kept for future reference. “It’s important that there be a record of these stories so that [the stories] don’t get lost again. With my work as a researcher, I uncovered the story, but the story was already there, it was just buried and ignored,” said Weintraub. During the researching process, many of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School students were greatly involved as research assistants, and in other roles that helped to create the trail and the book.
Weintraub wants to show people that African Americans have been part of the Island’s history, just as long as the Europeans: “The only people who have been here longer on this Island are the Native Americans.” The books include such history as the Shearer cottage and first African American senator, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, after Reconstruction. Weintraub also wanted the books to showcase African Americans who might not have been famous. Weintraub says, “The lives of people who didn’t achieve world fame are in [the book], but they are an attestment to hard work and survival, and to doing well in a situation that wasn’t in [their] best interest, and that says great triumph.” She stresses the importance of the histories of all people being told. “I am strongly convinced that we all need a history, and I am equally convinced we don’t all get one.”
The Heritage Trail just dedicated site 31 during the weekend of August 22: “[The Heritage Trail] has generated a life of its own, and I hope it continues to. If we had an inclusive history, if we tackled the difficult questions that we all know exist, I think we could move forward.”
Weintraub is continuing to work with the Heritage Trail, and hopes to dedicate a new site at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School soon, titled the Nameless Trail. The trail will be lined with rocks that show the names of persons either enslaved on the Island or who escaped from enslavement to the Island.
“The Heritage Trail would put a plaque up that says this is the nameless trail, honoring all those who lost their names, their religion, because people lost everything.” In addition to continuing to work for the Heritage Trail, she is also publishing more work, titled “The Things I Had Forgotten” which will be published in 2021, part of an anthology of Irish writers and their memoirs: “You can’t really write about anyone else until you know yourself.”