Heritage Trail is long, winding, and unfinished

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What began as a hopeful promise to a small boy many years ago has grown beyond both his and our wildest dreams. Those long-ago conversations when we had an ambitious vision to create a trail of four sites with bronze markers that would honor and preserve the history of African American people on Martha’s Vineyard forever seem quaintly charming as we prepare to dedicate sites Nos. 34 and 35 on the African American Heritage Trail.

Not only are we the builders of dreams and repositories of memories, our role has extended beyond history restoration and celebration, and now includes granting of scholarships and advocacy for students in the public schools, and education throughout the Vineyard community and beyond. Most significantly, we provide economic opportunity to the community we serve. We employ tour leaders who take the good news of a history documented and restored to the hundreds of visitors who seek this story each and every year. That tour program began with a creaking van that I drove around the Island with guests who sought to learn their history, while I simultaneously taught the stories and prayed that the van would not break down. Now we drive beautiful white vans, but the original message has not changed. We built a physical trail to tell 1,000 stories. It’s been a long journey punctuated by joy and challenge, but we have grown this dream so that it is a nationally known reality. 

In 2020, the pandemic meant that the trail organization could not tour, and that reduced our income, but we had much time to focus on our mission. With determination, we continued to develop the trail, and in August 2020, we dedicated the home of E. Jacqueline (“Jackie”) Hunt as site No. 32. 

In 2021, the slow process out of the pandemic meant that we started our tour program on July 1, believing, as so many did, that the pandemic was a receding phenomenon. The pent-up demand for African American history exploded upon us, and we were incredibly busy throughout July and August. As always, we heard the words that make us get up and put on our Heritage Trail T shirts again and again: “Thank you so much. We go everywhere, and there is never anything about us. This has changed my life.” One difference that we all observed this year was that the groups of people who toured the trail with us were more diverse than at any time in our 23-year history. Mirroring the national conversations about justice and inclusion, we found ourselves educating those diverse groups about the authentic history of Martha’s Vineyard. 

On July 27, we dedicated a site at Memorial Wharf in Edgartown honoring the story of Esther, an enslaved woman who in 1743 escaped in Edgartown Harbor while being returned to North Carolina, to the horrors of slavery. A diverse and representative audience of more than 200 people attended the dedication, and to the sounds of the spiritual “Great Day,” the commemorative plaque was unveiled by a group of small children. That story was 15 years in the making, and it was indeed a great day for inclusive history. It is the first recognized site on the Vineyard to be placed on the National Network to Freedom, the Underground Railroad Register of the Parks Department. A second Heritage Trail site has been awarded that designation at West Basin in Aquinnah. It’s been a long and winding road since the 1990s, when I chased the Vineyard’s only African American whaling captain, William A. Martin, and generations of his family through the probate records and shipping logs to unearth a story waiting to be told.

Despite the limitations placed on us all by the pandemic, we chased the dream of social justice and inclusive history throughout 2021. Not all stories are joyful. The Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School students created the Nameless Trail, honoring all those who lost their names through the crime of enslavement. A beautiful plaque mounted on a rock at the school honors those who were enslaved on the Vineyard, and those for whom the Vineyard was on the route to freedom. This was the year that we received national recognition, and for the first time, a sizable grant that will enable us to continue this work. The beautifully restored inn Dunmere by the Sea will join the trail early in 2022, and it represents a very important part of the history of African American people on Martha’s Vineyard. Originally situated on Circuit Avenue, it has been a fixture on Pennacook Avenue in Oak Bluffs since the early 1900s. Its inclusion on the trail represents a recognition of the hard work and initiative that characterizes the African American summer population on the Vineyard. Dunmere was featured in the Green Book and in Ebony Magazine during the 1960s, providing accommodation, solace, and beach access to travelers. 

This year we became aware of the expulsion of families of color from the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association between 1910 and 1920. The excellent research done by the Camp Meeting president, Andrew Patch, illuminates a sad story of prejudice, but it also demonstrates that people of color did live in the Campground, and were leaseholders prior to their expulsion. That is vitally important to know in creating an authentic history. There is a large white rock at the Campground in what is now a parking lot, but was once the home of 30 families.

In 2022, the Heritage Trail will work with the Camp Meeting Association to create a meaningful memorial to those families. Their names will be placed on that rock, and their stories told. No one can change the past, but in telling the story, we acknowledge the wrong that was done, and we grant visibility to those who were denied inclusion, and who simply disappeared from the collective narrative. That rock will be site No. 35 on the African American Heritage Trail.

There is much to think about during this tumultuous year, and never has it been more important to engage all in the telling of an authentic history. I remember many years ago the hours I spent cranking an old microfiche machine in the Edgartown library, and just as I began to despair of finding anything relevant, I came upon the obituary for Nancy Michael. It is an amazing document, but it represents so vividly all the parts of Nancy’s experience that enabled her, though born into enslavement, to “acquire great influence over the people of Edgartown.” We honored her with a plaque at the Memorial Wharf in Edgartown, but limited funds meant that the plaque was small, and the legend brief. We intend to remedy that by adding to her story at the wharf early in 2022. 

The more we know, the more we realize how much more there is to know. The work goes on, and the trail has gathered momentum as we create a physical entity that seeks to tell a million stories.

 

Elaine Cawley Weintraub, Ph.D., is an educator, a cultural historian, and a writer. She is the co-founder and executive director of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard, and is a passionate advocate for all those whose voices are not heard.

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