On Tuesday, the African American Heritage Trail unveiled a plaque in memory of Esther, a slave woman who escaped to freedom in 1743.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub, co-founder of the Heritage Trail, said Esther was tied down aboard the ship Endeavor headed towards North Carolina but leapt off the vessel while it was anchored overnight at Edgartown Harbor. Her fate after escaping the Endeavor is unknown. The Heritage Trail received recognition for Esther’s story in October from the National Park Service. The tale is now officially included in the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a program made to “honor, preserve and promote the history of resistance to enslavement through escape and flight” in American history. “Every week, new people learn the African American history of Martha’ s Vineyard,” said Weintraub. The Esther plaque is the Island’s first location that is a part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
“Now, her story will be told,” said Weintraub. “This is a dream come true to have Esther’s story told and to have it permanently positioned on Memorial Wharf in Edgartown where the story unfolded is incredibly meaningful.”
Rev. Deborah Finley-Jackson, a member of the Heritage Trail’s board of directors, led a prayer for the event. Finley-Jackson thanked God for allowing Esther the opportunity to escape her bondage alongside a hope for present and future generations to pursue justice.
Weintraub approached Harry Seymour, an Island artist, to write a poem prior to the event, resulting in a piece named “Esther, Fugitive Slave.” The poem spoke of Esther’s journey to freedom, helped along the way by different people such as abolitionists and the Underground Railroad. Sharlena Seymour, a friend of Weintraub and an academic, read Seymour’s poem to the audience. Before beginning the poem, Sharlena said, “This is for all children, and for my children.”
Seymour gave a short speech after the poem was read. He said memorials such as these were important to help children understand the history of America and how it affects present society, such as the divisions that exist in the nation and the handling of Black individuals by police. “It is so critical that we place all of these things in the appropriate historical context,” said Seymour. In particular, Seymour said critical race theory is an important topic of study since, as he understands it, is a way to teach people their history “factually, honestly, about slavery and what’s happpened to African Americans in this country.” Seymour asked the audience to imagine if Martians came to earth and witnessed the racial inequities of America. Surely, they would want to know how it became like this. Seymour then asked the audience to think of the Martians’ mindsets compared to those of their children. Children enter the world with no knowledge about why society is the way it is. How will these subjects be explained to them? “It can only be explained with proper context,” said Seymour.
“That’s what we’re celebrating today. The human spirit, to people who will risk everything to do what’s right and the people who will risk everything to be free: the basic human right we all have,” said Weintraub.
When it was time to go up and see the plaque, Weintraub instructed the children and parents to go up first. “I hope that they can build a better world, and that they can learn the stuff we struggled to learn, they will learn just by looking at the plaque. This is for them,” said Weintraub.
As the children went up, the U.S. Slave Song Project Rituals Choir sang. The choir was originally founded in 2005 by Jim Thomas as a way to provide education about slave songs and their significance. Thomas led the choir in their singing. After the choir finished their performance, the rest of the crowd went up to see the plaque.
A reception was held after the event at Rosewater Market in Edgartown.