African American Heritage Trail receives $120,000 grant

Vineyard trail will use money to expand online presence and bolster community connections.

The African American Heritage Trail of Martha's Vineyard is receiving a $120,000 grant to expand research, outreach, and education — so that folks can learn about the vast African American history and culture of the Island. Courtesy African American Heritage Trail of Martha's Vineyard. — Courtesy African American Heritage

The African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard will use a recently announced $120,000 grant to expand the organization’s online reach, deepen its research initiatives, make new community connections, and strengthen existing ones.

Through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund — a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation — 40 different entities are receiving grants totaling $3 million.

For the Vineyard trail, the grant money is invaluable, as it will go toward expansion and compensation of the existing research and outreach team, led by Heritage Trail co-founder Elaine Weintraub. 

The two-year grant will also deepen the organization’s collaboration with one of the nation’s leading preservation professionals and professors, Fallon Samuels Aidoo. 

Aidoo’s research of African American homeownership and entrepreneurship on the Vineyard helps people recognize the value and vulnerability of cottages, cottagers, and their businesses now and in the past.

According to a press release from Heritage Trail officials, the award also enables them to hire a public historian who can engage individuals and institutions on and off the Island — from historic district commissioners to seasonal residents and workers — in telling the full story of African American history and culture on Martha’s Vineyard. 

“We look forward to working with the National Trust to adopt digital technologies for heritage documentation, to strategize preservation of endangered historical sites, and to develop education, advocacy, and tourism around the Heritage Trail,” the release states.

In a phone conversation with The Times, Weintraub said the grant will essentially allow the trail to expand the work they are already doing, and create partnerships with Island entities in order to make the history and culture of African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard visible to anyone who may be interested. “We are certainly going to develop our technology more so we can do a lot of digital storytelling. We are in the business of saving this history, and Martha’s Vineyard in so many ways has a unique African American history. There are very few places in America that have that heritage of property ownership and enterprise among African American people,” Weintraub said. “It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to research those stories, and then find an effective way to tell them.”

In order for that information to be most accessible and informed, Weintraub said, the director of outreach and research will take on that responsibility, after Weintraub herself had served as the lead researcher for the past 20 years.

According to Weintraub, another role the new position will serve involves public outreach and coordination with organizations that share similar goals, such as advancing the knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of African American history on the Vineyard. “Building community relationships is certainly a vital part of how we have done as well as we have over the years — we have excellent and warm relationships that have stood the test of time, and I think that will be a big part of what this person will do,” Weintraub said. 

As the Heritage Trail website continues to improve, the organization is looking to social media to expand its reach. 

Weintraub said one goal of hers is to incorporate video stories into the website layout for each stop on the trail, explaining the history of the landmark, and tying it in with an actual person who lived on Martha’s Vineyard.

The grant is a blessing to the Vineyard, as it will provide a national, and even an international platform for the conversation around the vast and unique African American cultural history of our Island home, Weintraub said.

“When I began this work a long time ago, there wasn’t anything like that. I think having that opportunity to showcase the history of Martha’s Vineyard in an inclusive way that embraces the communities here and honors the people here is a huge asset to Martha’s Vineyard,” Weintraub said. “It places Martha’s Vineyard on the national stage not for being a vacation spot, but for being this place that provided solace, comfort, and opportunity to African Americans.”

Part of the original impetus for creating the trail on Martha’s Vineyard, according to Weintraub, was the education of students, and the implementation of African American history and culture in school curricula across the Island.

With the new position and other opportunities made possible by the grant funds, the Heritage Trail’s presence in local schools will continue to grow, and the stories of African Americans here will continue to be told for generations to come.

“One wonderful part about getting this grant is that it guarantees that we will be able to keep this going forever — these stories won’t just disappear,” Weintraub said.