New sculpture unveiled at Memorial Wharf

Island artist pays tribute to slave.

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The African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard unveiled its newest addition to its collection of historical markers on Sunday morning — one of the several events taking place on the Island to commemorate Juneteenth.

Located at the Memorial Wharf in Edgartown, a new sculpture featuring Nancy Michael, crafted by Island artist Barney Zeitz, was placed above the existing plaque, which reads “African American Heritage Trail, Nancy Michael (1772–1856), ‘A most singular character.’”

The stainless steel sculpture commissioned by the Heritage Trail and sculpted by Zeitz marks a significant shift from the nonprofit’s past. Weintraub explained the Heritage Trail had struggled to pay for plaques and markers. Now, as the heritage trail gains traction, booking more tours than ever before in addition to receiving generous donations, the nonprofit has been able to broaden areas of focus and invite additions to the trail. 

Preceding the unveiling, Heritage Trail executive director Elaine Weintraub provided a brief overview of Michael’s life for those gathered.

In 1778, 6-year-old Michael was sold to a family in Vineyard Haven following the death of the Chilmark slaveholder. Three years later, slavery was abolished in Massachusetts — unbeknownst to Michael; she remained enslaved for years to come. Eventually, Edgartown demanded reparations be paid to Michael by Vineyard Haven, citing the state’s abolishment. “Edgartown did a good job at establishing that enslavement had existed [in addition to] who was enslaved,” explained Weintraub. 

In the depths of her research on Martha’s Vineyard’s African American history, Weintraub came across an obituary written for Michael, which led her on a path to learn more about the former slave. Michael had been a prominent presence in Edgartown, having been thought to possess supernatural powers; specifically, the ability to influence the fate of whalers as they embarked to sea.

The unveiling of the statue was met with applause by the few dozen present. It features the wording, “Wise woman Nancy Michael, born enslaved in Chilmark, became a person of influence in Edgartown — who blessed or cursed the whaling captains before they embarked on long voyages.” The piece was forged and welded by hand, and involved no casting, explained Zeitz.

“She was a very remarkable character in her day, naturally possessed with kind feelings,” read Michael’s obituary, relayed by Heritage Trail co-founder Carrie Tankard. [Michael was] “possessed of a strong natural mind; she acquired great influence over some of our people and by many of whom, she was looked upon as a witch … her strange power and influence over many continued until the day of her death.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. This unveiling has been on my calendar for weeks and at the last minute I was sick. I wanted to be present to resurrect the memory of this memorable woman who became such a power in the Island community. This despite the enslavement she had to endure, years beyond the passage of Massachusetts’ abolition of slavery in 1783…..much like the Black slaves in Galveston, TX who finally learned of their freedom on June 19, 1863, over 2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Lincoln. Kudos to Carrie Tankard and Elaine Weintraub for all the work they have done and continue to do on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard. Hail to Barney Zeitz for this amazing tribute so lovingly forged and welded by hand, capturing the entire spirit and heritage of this remarkable woman and the times in which she lived. Thank you MVTimes for the good coverage.

  2. Outstanding. By the Way if you haven’t had the opportunity to visit the Eastville Cemetery one of the African Sailor burial areas since it was rehabbed. It is totally changed. It is across the street from the Hatchery and adjacent to the Lagoon

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