The truth of the history and legacy of widow Eunice Rocker has not come easy. Propagandized versions of her life have been shared until recently, when Patricia D Rocker saw a repost of a 2006 story about Eunice Mathews Rocker on the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s (MVM) Facebook page in November, during Indigenous History Month. Patricia went to the museum, approaching them and telling them the story was wrong, explaining that she and the rest of the Rocker family knew the full and true story told to her by her grandfather. From there, researchers with the museum went back and looked for more information within Eunice’s past. Andrew Patch, president of the Campground Association, even started looking into Cottage City documents from that time, which was when it was newly formed. From this, the researchers found that the townspeople of Edgartown, Cottage City, and the constable from the time had lied. Once contacting the museum about their 2006 story and repost of it, Patricia brought up the idea of a discussion panel to which the museum hosted on the morning of the plaque unveiling, and many of the historians looking back into the 2006 story attended. As a group, they discussed many factors of the case and gave out a copy of the story of what had been printed many years ago. As for the plaque itself, Patricia had contacted Elaine Cawley Weintraub, historian and co-founder of the African American Heritage Trail. They decided to move forward and the Chappaquiddick Tribe of the Wampanoag Nation, Whale Clan tribe, fundraised and funded the plaque as a memorial to Euncie.
Eunice’s true story has now been told and honored with a plaque on a house in the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association in Oak Bluffs that has ties to the Rocker family, and now the Wilson family who owns it.
Eunice Rocker was a Chappaquiddick woman of African and Wampanoag descent. She endured racism on the Island, and in 1886, fought against the forced removal of her and her nine children to the Tewksbury Almshouse. Ultimately, with the money she won from the case, she bought property in Cottage City, now Oak Bluffs. The story that has been told, until now, involves Eunice’s removal from the Island in1883 being due to pauperism. Latest findings, found by going back through documents from the time, identified contradictions between Eunice’s story, passed down through members of the family, and the European-American narrative of her life story, giving way to her retold remembrance.
Patricia D. Rocker, council chairwoman of the Chappaquiddick Tribe of the Wampanoag Nation, Whale Clan, said she contacted the Martha’s Vineyard Museum about Eunice, and said, “I’d like her to have her real story told, and we were calling it her story as opposed to the story that has been told in the past.” The full, retold story can be read in the photo above of the plaque unveiled on the Wilsons’ house on Friday, July 22, where various members of the community, the Wilson family, the Rocker family, and the African American Heritage Trail and Chappaquiddick Wampanoag Whale Clan gathered and were present at the unveiling on Central Avenue at the Campground. Shiane Berry, an eighth generation of Margret Mathews and seventh generation of Eunice Methews Rocker, read the plaque aloud to the crowd after its unveiling on Friday afternoon.
Patricia spoke to the crowd that gathered at the unveiling, calling the experience a “whirlwind,” but appreciative that Eunice’s story was finally able to be told after 140 years, and as a “case of critical race theory.” She said, “We are here in supporting our family and making sure the truth is told … the truth must be told by all of us for all of us to understand.”
Margaret Oliveira, granddaughter of Harry Rocker, one of Eunice’s nine children, shared that she grew up with Eunice’s story, and did not want it to be told, as it hurt the family to know what happened to their ancestors. She said that after talking to members of the panel where they explained the need they felt to tell the story, they opened her eyes. Oliviera said, “I feel proud of my ancestors, instead of being embarrassed at what they went through … A weight lifted off my shoulders, because all these years it was a bad story, but it turned out to be a wonderful, wonderful story.”
The Times spoke to the Wilson family at the unveiling, at which they explained how they were contacted and informed about the history of their home as fifth-generation owners. Eliza, Katherine, and Allison Wilson are great-great-great-granddaughters of a retired matron of the Charles Street Jail (now a hotel), who bought the Cottage City home in the 1940s at a time when women didn’t even have credit cards.
The Wilson girls learned about the extended history of their home this past Mother’s Day when Andrew Patch, president of the Campground Association, reached out to them in light of the new version of Eunice’s life story, and left them in shock and surprise. With this discovery of new information, Katherine Wilson said, “we know our family history of the house, we knew nothing else. What a surprise to find that it’s so significant.”
When asked about how she feels being one of the owners of a house with such a rich history, which will be publicly shared through a plaque, Eliza said, “that’s even more of a responsibility and a stewardship that we have with this house, and the legacy and what Eunice went through … we are just honored that we can be shepherds of this wonderful legacy of strong women.” She added that it is important to remember that what happened to Eunice Rocker was not unique and happened all over America during that time, but added, “The fact that Eunice was able to sue is something most people didn’t do, because if they had we may be looking at a whole different landscape of our nation.”
Allison Wilson also spoke about the process of uncovering the truth of the past. “To see all these things in other parts of the country, where they are really looking back at some of their history, I’ve been watching that now for a while, and to be able to have our house be a part of that is amazing.” She also called their family history “female-centric,” her sisters adding how powerful it is that their daughters will get to grow up and eventually own the house, knowing the full history of it and the strong women who were part of it.
While the Wilsons were welcoming and honored to accept and facilitate the sharing of Rocker family history, Elaine Cawley Weintraub, historian and co-founder of the African American Heritage Trail, shared that is not always the case. She said gratitude is owed to the Wilsons, as she has had experiences while building the trail where a story they would like to share gets shooed away by the current owners of the house, but that the Wilsons “embraced it.”
Updated to clarify some of the history and who was responsible for conducting research, as well as to add more details -Ed.