Ahead of her time

Emma Chambers Maitland plaque has a new home in Oak Bluffs.


A plaque honoring the life of Emma Chambers Maitland was inaugurated at the Crossroads Gallery in Oak Bluffs on Sunday, Oct. 18. The plaque has been on display at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum since March. The plaque was created by Barney Zeitz, and honors Maitland’s life as a world lightweight champion, boxer, dancer at the Moulin Rouge, teacher, and nurse.

Maitland’s house in Oak Bluffs was added to the African American Heritage trail in 2015. Maitland, born in 1893, was the child of sharecroppers in Virginia, but her drive to better her condition despite the rampant racism and sexism of her time led her to an illustrious and varied career. She left her home to live in Washington, D.C., Paris, and New York City, becoming first a teacher, then a stage performer, boxer, and finally a nurse. Towards the end of her life, she moved to Martha’s Vineyard. She died in 1975 at the age of 82.

“The board of the African American Heritage Trail (AAHTMV) are delighted to welcome Emma Maitland back to Dukes County Avenue,” the AAHTMV board wrote in an email. “All are welcome to honor this amazing life, to share community, celebrate the Vineyard’s African American history and join in the singing of ‘I Did It My Way,’” AAHTMV co-founder Elaine Weintraub added in another email, referencing Sunday’s ceremony.

Michael Blanchard, owner of the Crossroads Gallery in Oak Bluffs, said his gallery’s location — which is both on the same street as Emma Chambers’ house and is in the center of the Arts District in Oak Bluffs — was particularly appropriate to showcase the plaque. Blanchard explained that the plaque’s move was supported by other gallery owners in the district who wanted to support African American heritage on the Island. “We support diversity here, and we have quite a few artists of different ethnic backgrounds and people of color and I think we felt this would be an excellent way to honor the African American heritage here in Oak Bluffs,” Blanchard told the Times.

Blanchard explained that accepting the plaque at his gallery was important not simply for the Island community, but also because of larger issues of racism that have garnered media attention in the national political landscape. “When someone comes to you and asks you if you want to be a part of it, I just felt really compelled to say yes, especially with all the stuff that’s going on now in our political climate,” Blanchard said. “I’ve just been upset about all the things that are going on out there in the world right now when it comes to race, and I just feel very, very strongly that if someone asks, ‘Hey, can you support the diversity that we have in this town?’ there was no way I was going to say no.”

The Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail: mvafricanamericanheritagetrail.org/

Crossroads Gallery, 93 Dukes County Ave., Oak Bluffs. 617-448-3934; blanchardphotomv.com.