The African American Heritage Trail of Martha¹s Vineyard is a physical entity comprised of 30 sites dedicated to the formerly unrecognized contributions made by people of African descent to the history of the island. At each of these sites a descriptive plaque has been placed.
There is also a non-profit corporation, the African American Heritage Trail History Project, which is dedicated to the research and dissemination of the history of the African American people of Martha¹s Vineyard.
The History Project serves as a source of participative community education and celebration. The sophomore history classes at the Martha¹s Vineyard Regional High School are involved as research assistants in the work of the Trail and also act as tour guides, site maintenance staff, mural painters, web site developers, and musicians.
The Mission of the Trail is to continue to research and publish previously undocumented history and to involve the Island community in the identification and celebration of the contributions made by people of color to the island of Martha¹s Vineyard. The expense of building the Trail is considerable and some income is generated through the sale of our book: available from this site. Contributions to the Heritage Trail are gratefully accepted and used to to further develop the Trail. Presently, the Trail is anxious to acquire the former home of the Island’s only African American Whaling Captain, William A. Martin.
Please send any contributions to:
The African American Heritage Trail, P.O. Box 234, West Tisbury, Mass. 02575.
Your gift will be tax deductible, and your name will be placed on a monument of remembrance.
More information regarding Slavery & Martha’s Vineyard
Martha’s Vineyard is a relatively large island (approximately 26 x 14 miles, depending on the tides) and is located 2.5 miles off the southern coast of Cape Cod, on the northeast seaboard of the USA. It is steeped in the history of whaling and maritime business, and its people have been sailors since the earliest times when the Native American people knew it as “Noepe”. It is perhaps not coincidental that the story of the African-American people of Martha’s Vineyard has two common themes: spirituality and maritime expertise.
Evidence is readily available showing that human beings were bought, sold and probated as property on Martha’s Vineyard. Research at the Vineyard Museum uncovered a copy of a bill of sale from Zacheus Mayhew (1684-1760) of Edgartown to Ebenezer Hatch of Falmouth. The sale in question relates to Peter, a ten year old “Negro boy”to “have and to hold to the life of the S e Eben r Hatch, his heirs, executors, administrators and assigns for ever.” (Vineyard Museum archives) The date of the bill of sale is June 19, 1747.
Governor Thomas Mayhew’s grandson, Samuel Sarson, who died August 24, 1703, included in his estate “a Negro woman valued at twenty pounds.” In 1734, the estate of Ebenezer Allen of Chilmark included “Negroes” valued at 200 pounds along with two beds for servants, glasses, one pound five shillings, knives and forks at 18 shillings and 600 pair of sheep at 510 pounds and 17 shillings.” Jane Cathcart of Chilmark, in June 1741, willed her “molato (mulatto) servant, Ismael Lobb, now in the service of Captain Timothy Daggett of Edgartown .. his freedom during life after he shall arrive at age 30.” Cornelius Bassett’s personal estate at the time of his death in 1779 included “one Negro boy, Pero, 33 pounds. One Negro woman, Chole (Chloe?) 27 years … 150 pounds. One garl (girl), Nancy 7 years … 180 pounds.” Samuel Bassett of Chilmark owned land in both Chilmark and Edgartown. His will, probated in 1770 details his property listing “one Negro woman, two boys … sixty pounds .. pitchforks, scythes, rakes.”
Puritan Massachusetts’ ambivalent attitude toward the enslavement of African people is best illustrated by the anti-slavery tract: “The Selling of Joseph”, written by Reverend Samuel Sewall in 1770. “Liberty,” he states, “is the real value into life, and one ought not part with it themselves or deprive others of it but upon mature consideration.” (Higginbotham, p. 61). The Reverend Sewall’s statement was the first public anti-slavery statement, even though enslaved Africans had been brought to Massachusetts Bay Colony since 1638. Mr. Sewell made several visits to Martha’s Vineyard.
It has been widely suggested that the puritan settlers found slavery repugnant, but there is clear evidence that the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers were deeply involved in the trade and by the 1700’s New England was the most active slave trading area in America. It is to be expected that Martha’s Vineyard would be similarly involved in the trading of enslaved people, and much documentation exists that enslaved people were a part of the life of the island.
Despite the institution of enslavement, a significant development emerged in Massachusetts. At no time during its history did people of color lose the right to use the courts to challenge their status. Nor did they lose the right to inherit property in certain circumstances.