African American Heritage Trail Holds Celebration Event

By Elaine Cawley-Weintraub
Article originally published in The Vineyard Gazette, August 30, 2002

The African American Heritage Trail History Project of Martha’s Vineyard serves as a source of participative community education and celebration. Its vision is of an island history that embraces the contributions of all: a history in which all of our people can find their stories. There are great commonalities between peoples and the events that have shaped our wider world have played out on our own Island stage. In recent years, the Trail has honored the Wampanoag Tribe for the role that it played in the rescue of a fugitive from enslavement during the years of compromise between the states that preceded the Civil War, and the fishing community of Menemsha for their anonymous journey with the fugitive to New Bedford, and on to freedom. The plaques that were placed on the tribal land at West Basin and in the village of Menemsha honor the human spirit of courage and generosity that prompted those islanders to disobey the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act, and to follow their individual consciences.

The landladies of Oak Bluffs whose spirit of entrepreneurship created a place for people of color to stay on the island in the early twentieth century were also Heritage Trail honorees. There is a bench at Hiawatha Park dedicated to the changes they created, and one at the home of Mrs. Ora McFarlane at 121 Lower Circuit Avenue. Other jewels on the Trail include the home of Charles Shearer, a man who began his life in enslavement and ended it as a respected owner of a home that hosted guests such as Paul Robeson, Adam Clayton Powell and Harry Burleigh. The story of John Saunders, who is reputed to have brought the methodist religion to the Island, is celebrated at Pulpit Rock on the land bank property adjacent to Waterview farms. The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School houses a plaque that celebrates the achievements of the multi ethnic basketball teams of the 1970¹s. Three murals, painted by students Joe Murphy, Bronwyn Burns, Lauraye White and Brooke Emin, decorate the school. They relate some of the stories of the people whose lives are commemorated on the Trail.

The Heritage Trail History Project was responsible for the research into the life of William Martin, the Island’s only African American Whaling Captain. His was an American success story. Martin was the grandson and great-grandson of enslaved women who rose to become a master of the whaling ships. His grandmother, Nancy Michael, a woman of power in Edgartown maritime life, has a plaque dedicated to her on the Memorial Wharf. His great grandmother Rebecca Amos, the woman from Africa is honored at a site at Great Bight Reserve where a custom has evolved of visitors leaving shells, feathers, rocks, anything that is of natural beauty, to honor the life of this remarkable woman.

This is the story of the Heritage Trail and its continuing mission to embrace all of our communities and to honor their memories and contributions. The Trail is now involved in an ambitious quest where it is hoped to acquire the home of William Martin and preserve it for the whole Island. It is hoped that the house, which is an architectural treasure though in urgent need of renovation, can be saved and become a center of research into Island history for use by all who love and cherish our Island heritage.

The Trail is holding a celebration of history and community on August 31st to share the story of Captain Martin¹s house. It is a unique physical reminder of our whaling history. The house is a testimony to the determination and talent of William Martin. It is a tangible reminder of the struggle of an African American man to become a master of the whaling boats. It stands as evidence of his success and acceptance within the whaling community. It stands on Chappaquiddick, an old saltbox, one of the last of its kind. If it is allowed to disappear then one of our last tangible links with the maritime past that honored the expertise of all mariners will be lost forever.

Jennifer Clark of the Facing History and Ourselves institute will be the keynote speaker at the Heritage Trail event . She will speak of the importance of memory and tradition in honoring all of the stories and help her listeners recognize the tragic impact that racism, anti semitism and all forms of prejudice have had on our ability to truly understand our shared humanity.

The community history celebration will be held at Vila Rosa on Beach Road in Oak Bluffs. Presently the home of the Zila family, this house was once the property of Joe Overton who was a political organizer in Harlem. The house has been magnificently restored to its Victorian grandeur, and Mr. Zila has a guest book that shows that the Overton family entertained such luminaries as Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson and Harry Belafonte. It is interesting to observe that all of these famous Americans touched the lives of people from outside their own community, and their own country. As a child, I often heard the expression ³before you could say Jackie Robinson.² It referred to how quickly something had happened. I knew that expression long before I had ever heard of Jackie Robinson, the famous baseball player. Dr. Martin Luther King, the world¹s most famous warrior for peace, is a household name all over the world and has served as a role model for oppressed peoples everywhere. When Malcolm x prayed with muslims from all over the world at Mecca, he became a citizen of that world, and a model for spiritual renewal.

The path has been made for the Trail by the strength and courage of those whose lives had an international impact and those who quietly made their own path through walking it here on the Vineyard. The community celebration invites all to join in sharing and honoring our Island story.

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