The African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s 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.
We are 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 Martha’s Vineyard. A vital part of that work is to identify sites and provide bronze plaques honoring that site as deeply significant to the story of people of color on Martha’s Vineyard
The History Project serves as a source of participative community education and celebration. For several years, the history classes at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School were involved as research assistants in the work of the Trail and acted as tour guides, site maintenance staff, mural painters, web site developers, and musicians. Several graduates of that program now work with us during the summer season to share their knowledge with our visitors. We continue to work in the Island schools.
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 Martha’s Vineyard. In pursuit of that goal, we have identified and celebrates sites in every town on Martha’s Vineyard. Four sites were dedicated in 2018. The expense of building the Trail is considerable and some income is generated through the sale of our book: available from this site, Island book stores, and Amazon.com, and from our active tour program. Contributions to the Heritage Trail are gratefully accepted and used to further develop the Trail.
Since our beginning in 1998, we have developed a community education program in many of the Island schools, and in media. We also actively advocate for students in the Island schools and speak in support of issues that we view to be fundamental to the dissemination of accurate and inclusive history. One of our important goals is to provide economic opportunity for Island people through employment on our cultural heritage tourism program. As part of our interest in education, we offer scholarships each year to students from the graduating class.
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.
Founders of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard
Carrie Camillo Tankard and Elaine Cawley Weintraub met in 1989 and recognized that they had a common mission. Both women were determined to introduce the history of people of color into the Vineyard schools.
As a teacher, Elaine, who is of Irish heritage, realized that the students did not have access to the African American history of the Vineyard and found that history was not available anywhere, and so began her research. That research uncovered a rich, undocumented history. She will never forget the years spent researching old archives, burial records, birth records, wills and the joy of finding the career of William A. Martin, and the obituary of his remarkable grandmother, Nancy Michael. William A. Martin’s great grandmother was Rebecca Amos, the woman from Africa enslaved on the Vineyard.
Ms. Carrie, who is of African American and Latina heritage, had spent many years in her role as vice president of the NAACP of Martha’s Vineyard visiting the Island schools, presenting them with teaching materials, and strongly advocating for an inclusive history. For several years, she presented exhibits showcasing African American history in all of the Vineyard libraries.
In 1989, they began their plan to combine their areas of expertise and the notion of building a physical Trail celebrating the stories of African American people on the Island was born. Their vision was to place bronze markers on the selected sites that told the story. They envisioned creating a Trail of four sites, and in 1998 dedicated the Shearer Cottage, the Vineyard’s oldest African American owned inn. Over the years, an active cultural heritage program was created and this helped to finance the further building of the Trail. In 2019, they dedicated site number 30, the Dukes County Courthouse where the career of Judge Herbert E. Tucker was celebrated.
They will continue to build the Trail, and dedicate many more sites.
The African American Heritage Trail continues to offer the cultural heritage tourism program and educational programs for schools and colleges, employment opportunities within the Vineyard community, and provides mentorships, scholarships for graduating seniors from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and advocacy services for students experiencing difficulty within the school system. The Cultural Heritage tour program each summer generates the income to provide all of these services, and to continue to build the Trail. The tours offered are authentically researched and our tour leaders are educated to provide a unique experience for our visitors.
Those who build the Trail can tell its story!
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.