Carrie Camillo Tankard was born in Newark, N.J., and would probably have spent her life there had it not been for the violent riots that rocked the city in 1967. Fearing for the safety of their six children, she and her husband, George, fled to Martha’s Vineyard, where George’s mother owned a home. “I had no idea how to live in the country,” she reflects, “but with bullets tearing through the windows of the project where we lived, I had to learn quickly. That was the end of the stiletto heels I always wore, and at the age of 42, I had to start learning to drive.”
Though Newark in 1967 was a hotbed of political activity and consciousness raising, Miss Carrie was not politically active. Both of her brothers were members of the Nation of Islam, and she laughingly recalls disputes with them when they insisted on changing their names because they “did not want to carry a slave name.” Her response to their statement was characteristically calm: “Well, your name is Camillo and that is your Mexican father’s name, so what is your slave name?”
The Newark connection recently resurfaced when Mayor Ras Baraka visited the Vineyard and took the tour of the African American Heritage Trail. He told a story of how he, as a high school student, had tried to avoid traveling to Howard University on a field trip. He waited for an opportunity to get off the bus, but as he made his escape, his guidance counselor apprehended him and pushed him back on the bus. The name of his guidance counselor was Rosita Holiday, Ms. Carrie’s sister.
After joining the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP in 1969, Miss Carrie served that organization in numerous capacities, and for many years she has been the vice president. Her focus has always been on working to create an inclusive and respectful environment for all, particularly in the Vineyard’s schools. “For me, it’s never been about the politics of anger and despair. It’s always been about equality. I believe that there is so much work to be done just to build respect for diversity and to shatter stereotypes. Most people mean no harm, but they just don’t know enough about people who may be different from them. That’s why education is so important.”
Carmen Amadeo, Miss Carrie’s daughter, believes her mother was inspired to be an activist by her own mother’s example: “I remember that Granny always used to say if you don’t take part, you don’t get to complain.”
There is no doubt that Miss Carrie values her community, and feels comfortable joining several organizations. In addition to her 53-year career with the NAACP, she is the cofounder of the African American Heritage Trail, and a member of the League of Women Voters and of the Cottagers, a philanthropic organization of African American women who own cottages on Martha’s Vineyard. Each of those organizations is important to her for different reasons.
Speaking of her belief in the values and mission of the NAACP, she praises its commitment to justice, and the role that the organization plays in Vineyard life: “I believe in what they are trying to achieve, but when I look back over all the years I have spent being part of that mission, I do feel a little disappointed. We have had our triumphs and our successes, and we are an integrated, multiethnic group who care about making the world a better place, but it often seems that we get two steps forward and then we fall back three steps.”
As a member of the executive board of the NAACP, Ms. Carrie gets to vote on questions of policy and to discuss issues that have arisen, but her true passion is as the organizer of the George V. Tankard Memorial Race, an annual event sponsored by the NAACP that draws members of the extended Tankard family from all parts of the country.
The African American Heritage Trail means a great deal to her, and she values the fact that it began in her own neighborhood: “It’s telling all our stories and showing that African American people have been part of the Island’s history for hundreds of years. It showcases the achievements of hardworking people who succeeded in building community and businesses that created wealth. I love the way that the Trail brings attention to our stories. The exhibit at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum on Emma Maitland, the world lightweight female boxing champion, gave everyone a chance to learn her story, and it gave me a chance to try boxing with the champion’s gloves. The work done by the Trail organization also shows how difficult the struggle was for people of color. It tells the whole story, and it’s very important to me because of my children and grandchildren. I want them to know that they have a history, and that it matters. We must keep uncovering the stories and sharing them because everyone needs to know, not only African American people but all people. We never got included before the Trail began, and our story is a big part of the true history of the United States.”
Young people and their education are topics very close to Ms. Carrie’s heart, and it’s significant that in her role with the League of Women Voters, she spends time at the regional high school registering young first-time voters: “I am not there to tell people who to vote for, but I do want them to understand that they should vote. It’s their right, and I believe it is also their responsibility. People have struggled to get that vote, and we should honor that struggle.” She also values her role with the Cottagers organization, where she is responsible for working on choosing the students who will receive scholarships. The emphasis in choosing who should receive a scholarship is always on giving a helping hand to someone who needs that support.
Reflecting on her lifetime of activism, Ms. Carrie recognizes the importance that she places on education. “I never had a chance to go to college,” she notes, “but I have always made sure that I surround myself with smart, educated people and I learn from them. I am a listener, and I think about what I hear and how it relates to what I know. I was a constant presence in the schools when my own children were students, and I believe that we should do the same for all the children. Everyone benefits from an inclusive environment. I know when I am at the high school registering voters, I am probably the only brown face that they see that day, but that’s important: to show up, be there, and be seen, and treat everyone’s child the way we would want our own to be treated.”
Elaine Cawley Weintraub, Ph.D., is an educator, a cultural historian, and a writer. She is the co-founder, with Carrie Camillo Tankard, 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.