Nancy Michael site to get new plaque

Nancy Michael’s plaque in Edgartown. The site will get a facelift and another plaque with new artwork. — Eunki Seonwoo

The Nancy Michael site in Edgartown on the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail is getting cleaned up and honored with a new plaque.

Heritage Trail executive director Elaine Weintraub met with Edgartown select board members Monday to detail the plans for a new plaque that would have Michael’s name, as well as artwork of her and a whale. A half-circle plaque would be placed on the tree at the 20-year-old site. Currently a metal plaque is affixed to a rock at the tree’s base.

“We want to clean and polish it, and just above it [add] a half-circle that would be 32 inches wide,” Weintraub said. 

Michael was born into slavery in the 1770s, and sold to Joseph Allen of Tisbury in 1779. Allen “held and used her as a slave for a series of years,” according to the Heritage Trail website. The town of Edgartown eventually sued the town of Tisbury in 1851 to claim “reimbursement of money spent supporting Nancy Michael, a public pauper.” Edgartown’s view was that Michael was Tisbury’s responsibility since she had been enslaved in that town.

“The case was heard at the Superior Court in Barnstable in 1851. The verdict was taken for the defendants, Tisbury, who had claimed that Nancy had never in fact been enslaved because slavery was no longer legal in the commonwealth of Massachusetts at the time of her enslavement. A previous court action had been taken by Edgartown in 1813 to force Tisbury to pay for the maintenance of one of Nancy’s children, born about 1810. Judgment had been rendered against Tisbury in 1813, but all records of the court in Barnstable had been destroyed by a fire in 1827,” the Heritage Trail website reads.

In her obituary, Michael was described as “naturally possessed of kind feelings, she was very fond of children and unusually attentive to their wants … possessed of a strong natural mind, she acquired great influence over some of our people, by many of whom she was looked on as a witch.”

Michael was considered to have the power to give good or bad luck to men leaving on long whaling voyages. The mariners would seek her protection before leaving.

Michael’s obituary concludes by saying, “Her strange power and influence over many continued until the day of her death, though for two or three years past she was mostly confined to her room. Taking her all in all, she was a most singular character, and it will doubtless be a long time before we shall look upon her like again. She was a professor of religion, and we believe at one time adorned the profession. May her good deeds live long in our remembrance, and her evil be interred with her bones.”

The select board did not take a formal vote, but said Weintraub could proceed with the restoration and addition of a plaque at the site. Town administrator James Hagerty said he would work with Weintraub to finalize a design.