An online program celebrating Black history and women’s history on Martha’s Vineyard featured a discussion with two influential women who have made it their life’s work to combat inequality and oppression in all forms. The program was available in both English and Brazilian Portuguese, with interpreters and closed-captioning provided by the Communication Ambassador Partnership of Martha’s Vineyard.
During Sunday’s virtual forum, Elaine Weintraub and Carrie Tankard of the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP shared their stories, as well as the stories of past women on-Island who made their own marks in history.
Jenelle Gadowski, a member of the MV NAACP, moderated the discussion. She began by saying that every day, women “break barriers and shatter glass ceilings — making history.”
She said Weintraub, Tankard, their contemporaries, and countless others who came before them have important stories to tell that educate and inspire future generations.
“So communities understand and learn about the true history of people of color on Martha’s Vineyard — a history that is often covered up or partially told,” Gadowski said.
Weintraub, an educator, historian, and co-founder of the M.V. African American Heritage Trail, said her original goal for the trail was only four sites, so that people who walked by them could learn about the history of people of color on-Island, “whether they wanted to or not.”
Now, with 31 sites (soon to be 33), Weintraub said, it’s clear that the history of African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard is extensive, tragic, and vitally important to understand. “The history is always there, you just have to find it,” Weintraub said.
She said the tour program that largely funds the Island trail sites gives people the gift of a history they may have largely been deprived of. “We are really saying, ‘Hey, these stories matter.’ It’s all about honoring the stories,” Weintraub said.
And there are many of these stories of hardship and triumph that have been uncovered through extensive research and acknowledged at each site, and curated online through the MV NAACP list of trail sites.
Emma Maitland, a dancer, teacher, and boxer, is one such woman whose story has been uncovered and memorialized by the heritage trail. During her life, Weintraub said, Maitland defied barriers and didn’t let the white patriarchal status quo keep her from achieving her greatest ambitions.
“There are always challenges, often to yourself. We leave the ego at the door, and the gloves up at the other door, and keep our eyes on the prize, which is to build this trail, educate future generations, and make sure this history doesn’t get lost again,” Weintraub said.
By looking back at the life of someone who is connected to Martha’s Vineyard, Weintraub said, people can form a more deep and immediate relationship with that person’s story, and how it relates to their own lives. “You can know about enslavement, you can know about the Middle Passage, but the touch of a name and a person, that makes it all real,” she said.
She said the landladies of Oak Bluffs whose residences were included in the Green Book provided safe havens for people of color who weren’t allowed to stay in white homes or inns.
“Just this year, three more landladies’ stories have been shared with us on the trail. Those women were truly revolutionaries,” she said.
If Weintraub were to give one message to women and girls today, she said, it would be that “even though it may be harder for you, even though you will be patronized on occasion, or not received well for being determined, you must be determined.
“Stand up for who you are. If you are proud of who you are, you can be proud of who everyone else is, too,” she said.
Carrie Tankard, activist and first vice president of the MV NAACP, said that she used to take posters to different schools, libraries, and even the Corner Store in Oak Bluffs, that educated people on African American and women’s history.
Now that the heritage trail exists, Tankard said, members of the community have a way to share their stories, and the stories of their family and ancestors. “Many community members fed us information that we went and tracked down and researched. For some of the sites, they approached us, and wanted to tell us their story,” Tankard said.
Tankard’s message to women and girls today was, “Know who you are, do what you do, and keep moving. Don’t let anybody get in your way.”