Vineyard activism, then and now

New exhibit connects local action with national movements from 1820 to today.

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is unveiling a new exhibit that explores the history of Island activism, going all the way back to 1820.

“Making Change: Stories of Vineyard Activism” will connect the microcosm of local actions to national movements of social justice, and will exemplify how the activism of today has built off the initiatives of the past 200 years.

According to the museum’s exhibitions and programming director, Anna Barber, a large part of the impetus for the exhibit is the activism that has taken place over the past summer. With major movements like Black Lives Matter and environmental initiatives like the fight against climate change, the people of Martha’s Vineyard continue to epitomize the strength and efficacy of community social involvement.

“A lot of this stemmed from everything that happened over the summer, and continues to happen today,” Barber said. “Our calendar got completely reshuffled, and while all of it was terrifying, we were paying attention to the peaceful protests and marches, many organized by the young people of the Island.”

The exhibit includes old photographs, petitions, news articles, and much more that showcase a number of different movements where the fight for social justice is ongoing.

Two major movements included in the exhibit are the ongoing movements for African American and Native American civil rights.

According to Barber, the exhibit also includes testimony from a number of activists, both contemporary and historical. “Linsey Lee interviewed a number of current-day activists, and people started donating pictures and signs they had made for recent protests and marches,” Barber said. “It occurred to us that this was an opportunity to be responsive in a small way.”

She continued to say that the exhibit is not meant to be the “last word” on any subject, but is instead intended to provide historical context to activism today, and to serve as a small step toward a deeper understanding of social issues.

The entire exhibit will be organized chronologically, with snapshots of national movements running parallel to the activism that has happened, and continues to happen, on Martha’s Vineyard.

“Events that were occurring on a national level are listed above, and Vineyard-specific stories provide a more close-up, local perspective below,” Barber said. “You will be able to look at what has happened on a larger, grander scale, in comparison with local initiatives.”

Of course, Barber said this exhibit cannot encapsulate all the initiatives taking place on both scales, but seeks to show how the Island is deeply connected to events happening all around the country.

One fascinating Island story tells the tale of Edinbur Randall, a man that escaped slavery while aboard a transport ship that made port in Holmes Hole. According to a documented interview excerpted from slave testimony from 1854 (available in the exhibit), Randall escaped to Aquinnah with the help of crew members, and there he found safety with the Wampanoag people.

“I took their [the crew members’] advice, and rowed myself to the east chop of Homes’ Hole, drew the boat upon the beach, rammed one of the oars down into the sand as far as I could, and made the boat fast to it; and then made towards Gay Head, where I found the Indians, who readily took me in, and kindly ministered to my necessities,” Randall’s testimony reads.

“They kept him in a swamp and put women’s clothes on him to disguise him. Then they were able to safely get him on a boat and sail him away,” Barber said.

She noted that although this is not specifically a tale of activism, it is a testament to the endlessly enthralling social history of the Island.

“Massachusetts outlawed slavery in 1783; this happened in 1854. So there was still a lot of persecution,” Barber said.

Another story included in the exhibit is the birth of the NAACP on Martha’s Vineyard, and all the steps the group took to forward the equity and fair treatment of African Americans.

According to Barber, within a year of the NAACP forming on-Island, they invited a group of students from Williamstown, S.C., to come to the Island and experience school here among an overwhelmingly white student populace.

“This was right as desegregation was happening, and it was all to bring those students to the Island in a welcoming way, and to make their first experience in school with white students a positive one,” Barber said.

With so many before us taking on these major challenges, Barber said we must learn from the past, and allow it to help inform future decisions that will determine our trajectory as a nation.

“I think history is both the problem and the solution. When we learn from history, both in how to behave and how to grow, we can make better, more informed choices. But we cannot ignore what has happened,” Barber said.

And for Island activists, the fight hasn’t stopped — it has intensified. “It is really clear that the fight going on right now for social justice is rooted in centuries of injustice,” Barber said.

She said elevating the voices of people of color and indigenous peoples is a central goal of the exhibit, and to tell the stories of those who stood at the forefront of change.

One of the most fascinating things about history, Barber said, is that it is being written every day, with the actions of each person.

“The story continues — it is being written right now by many amazing people who are fighting for what is right. They are standing on the shoulders of all those who came before them,” Barber said. “This is a very small piece of the picture, but we are attempting to use the stories, faces, and voices that we have available to put a mirror in front of our society, and realize how much work we have done, and how much we still have to do.”

Island activist Carla Cooper has been heavily involved with activism for the past five years on Martha’s Vineyard, and has been involved in social movements in one way or another for decades.

“I really dove in in 2015, when I could see the writing on the wall, and the direction this country was moving in, with the bubbling up of racism and bigotry,” Cooper said.

Cooper said one of her central focuses has been womens’ rights issues, such as sexual and reproductive rights and gender inequality. Most recently, she said she has been involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, and has been following the lead of African American and youth activists.

“I have just been trying to be wherever they need me, and really just be an ally in any way I can,” Cooper said. She also said she picketed with Vineyard Transit Authority drivers during their unionization and strike for fair treatment and fair pay. “We really worked hard to get the voices of those drivers out,” she said.

One thing Cooper said she thinks contributes to the energetic social involvement of the Island is the tight-knit nature of the community.

“You really get to know your friends and neighbors very well, and what we can do is speak out and make it known that we support them in any of their social justice initiatives,” she said.

But according to Cooper, there are issues on the Island that exacerbate inequity, and galvanize local efforts as well.

She said the economic disparity of a resort community is inherently linked with issues of housing, job insecurity, and food insecurity, and said, “Some of these problems really stem from living here in a community where everyday life is so expensive, but you still have to make ends meet.”

Cooper gave a shout-out to all the young Island activists who will compose the next generation of change makers. But her sentiment started with an apology for the lack of initiative on the part of her generation relating to these issues.

“I am sorry we left you with this mess. But I feel very encouraged by our youth being so empowered. I love that they are out there speaking the truth,” Cooper said. “Kudos to them, because they are the ones who will change our world for the better. Be persistent, and continue to push, because it is with persistence that you effect steady, incremental change.”

Island activist Eugene Langston-Jemison said he has been heavily involved with antiracism initiatives on-Island ever since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police officer.

But Langston-Jemison has suffered systemic racism for his entire life, and has always tried to stand out against these injustices.

He moved to the Island from Florida after experiencing extensive racial profiling, and found a community that according to him, was much more willing to work toward self-betterment.

“We have to do much more than just talk about systemic racism, and the Island community understands that,” Langston-Jemison said.

With so many Island youth such as Lizette Williams, Danielle Hopkins, Graysen Kirk, and many others raising their voices against inequity and implicit bias, Langston-Jemison said he feels empowered, and confident in the ambitions of the next generation: “It gives me hope when I see all these young people doing everything they can to have conversations with their friends, family, and community. It gives me hope that my child won’t fit the description when he is older.”

When Langston-Jemison was young, he said, he wouldn’t look the police in the eye, but on Martha’s Vineyard there exists a different relationship between people of color and law enforcement.

Although he is still leery of the police after so many years of racial profiling, Langston-Jemison said he sees Island police departments making great strides and “getting out of their comfort zone” with many of these issues.

“I feel that this Island is a special place in this world. The people here, they are galvanized by things going on in this world, and are willing to have the tough conversations,” he said. “I really do think we can be an example for the rest of the country.”

As for the future of community activism, Langston-Jemison asked, “Where do we go from here?”

He said he is confident that the Island community is moving forward in the direction of peace and togetherness, and away from the strife brought by injustices suffered by marginalized people.

“I just want peace, and I think that’s what the Island wants. And I have hope, and am comforted by the sense that if I was to die today, I know things are going to be much better for my child,” Langston-Jemison said.

The exhibit opens on Oct. 20, and will be available during the museum’s regular hours. Visit mvmuseum.org/visit, or call 508-627-4441 to register for a visit.