Twenty-five years ago, the notion of creating an African American Heritage Trail on the Vineyard was inspired by the questions of a group of my students, who asked, “Where were all the Black people then?”
The journey since that time has been to uncover and celebrate that history, and students have been involved with each stage of the reclamation project. One young man who grew up immersed in the work, Jarrett Campbell, 42, recently reflected on the importance of the trail to him, and the impact it has had on his life.
Campbell’s earliest recollections of Martha’s Vineyard’s African American community are of visiting his great-grandmother, Geraldine, in her little house, which was adjacent to the old Oak Bluffs School playground. Geraldine and her husband, John, bought that house when they came to the Vineyard from Nova Scotia in the 1940s.
“I always knew Black people came down here,” Campbell reflected. “But it was not until we started digging into the history and finding all the old, forgotten stories that I learned anything about the Black experience here on the Island.”
Campbell said he wasn’t taught anything about Black history on Martha’s Vineyard in school.
“We did learn about the Wampanoag people, and that was great for the native kids. They had something to be proud of,” Campbell said. “But what we had was the Inkwell Beach — that was our spot. My brothers hung out there, and I was very comfortable being there in the summer with all Black people. There was something very special about being there with other Black people. It was easier, somehow, than always being the ‘only one.’ In the fall and winter, I was surrounded by all white people, so I was always one of the few Black kids. I loved Inkwell Beach, and I never went to any other beach.”
During his high school years, Campbell served as a student board member of the African American Heritage Trail, and helped dedicate new sites, research stories, and explore physical locations for the history he was learning.
“We were like hunters,” Campbell said, “walking through the woods looking for history and searching for the places where the stories had happened.” He was part of a group of students who worked on cleaning and landscaping the old Marine Cemetery in Oak Bluffs. Their work was featured on the TV program “Chronicle,” and Campbell’s commitment to the cause was immortalized. “To think,” he said as he stood in the cemetery, “that this little hill, right here, could be a forgotten grave.”
Looking back, Campbell said his work on the trail “meant everything to me. We worked together, and we weren’t talking on phones. We were looking into each other’s faces and talking to each other about story and legacy and the importance of place in that legacy. I want that for my children. I want to teach them where they come from, and leave them a legacy of pride.”
Resources were very limited for the African American Heritage Trail in 2000, when the site for Nancy Michael was dedicated at the Memorial Wharf. A small plaque was placed there, marking the extraordinary story of a woman born into enslavement in Chilmark who later haunted the waterfront in Edgartown, blessing or cursing the sailors as they left on four-year whaling voyages. It was advisable to accept her blessing and donate because, according to her obituary, she would publicly rejoice if a vessel went down captained by one who had defied her powers. Jarrett took part in the dedication of that site, and he recalls how important that was to him. “I was so proud when we put that plaque there,” Campbell recalled. “It was incredible to me that an African American woman was important enough to have a plaque placed in her honor at the Memorial Wharf in Edgartown. I always made sure that I told all my friends about her, and if we were down at the wharf, I would walk over to her and pay my respects. When I saw the new sculpture of her at the site last year, I had goosebumps all over. It is so beautiful, and it feels like her life has been recognized and appreciated all over the Vineyard. She has been given a place of honor. We brought her out of darkness and into the light.”
Campbell reflected on all that has been achieved by the African American Heritage Trail organization. “I have been watching it grow over the years, and see how it has become part of the Vineyard’s life, and that makes me so proud,” he said. “I feel like the story of people of color has become accepted and included, and that is very important to me. I want my children to grow up feeling that their legacy is an honored part of this place. I take my son, Logan, to Memorial Wharf, and show him the sculpture of Nancy Michael. I want him to grow up knowing about her. It’s amazing to think that what we dug up and brought into the light is now a permanent part of the Vineyard’s history.”
The trail will continue to grow and shine a light on the stories and contributions of people of African descent on Martha’s Vineyard. On July 26, a new site dedicated to Robert and Shirley Graves was unveiled at the Barn, Bowl & Bistro, where their business, Graves Machine & Tool Co., once was. Shirley Graves was the treasurer of the local chapter of the NAACP for many years, and Robert Graves operated a business on the Vineyard for 27 years. Several generations of the Graves family still reside here, and Robert and Shirley’s great-grandchildren led the dedication ceremony.
“The trail is a real community project,” Campbell said. “It tells the stories of the people who worked hard to find a place for themselves and their families on the Vineyard. I feel part of that tradition. I bought a house here, and I am the first person in my family since my great-grandmother to do that. I am part of a great story, and I have a legacy to pass on to my children: that sense of pride and belonging.”
Elaine Cawley Weintraub is an educator, mentor, and the cofounder of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard.