With particular reference to African American people

James Smadbeck
3/20/03

My thesis statement for this paper is that opportunities for advancement for people of color on the island of Martha’s Vineyard have been limited in our history because of discriminatory practices in the allocation of work. In this study, I have examined archival census records on Martha’s Vineyard to seek support for my thesis statement., and have such data to formulate theory.

“[In the nineteenth century], most free blacks were confined by racism to low-paying jobs [and to living] in cellars and shanties,” (Before the Mayflower pg. 77). Many of today’s residents of Martha’s Vineyard may look at that quote and come to the conclusion that the Vineyard and its population of African Americans has always been too small for such travesties to have occurred. But with a look through past censuses it can be found that not only was there racism on the island but that its small area may have been part of the problem, especially in the time between the end of slavery and the end of the whaling industry. From 1790 to the mid-1800’s African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard were forced into jobs that were low paying, dangerous, and at that time still associated with enslavement. I theorize that this because of the color of thei r skin.

Massachusetts had one of the lowest populations of African Americans, let alone enslaved people, in the United States before slavery was abolished in 1790. Except for in portions of Connecticut and Rhode Island, the rocky soil and hilly land made farming in New England almost impossible. The fact was that there wasn’t much need for enslaved labor, outside of the few private farms and the cranberry bogs, and as a result slaves in Massachusetts were mainly confined to domestic and maritime jobs. It came as no surprise when all of New England abolished slavery by 1790, leaving the North to then on be known as the home of the freemen.

After this time many African Americans were left with no jobs and families to feed. In large areas like New York City and Philadelphia, where mass production was not yet in use and artisans were in great need, this was not a problem. “A very large portion, and perhaps most of the artisans of Philadelphia were black,” (BTM pg. 78) and New York was home to some of the most successful African American caterers and restaurant owners of the time. It was a little different in religiously stricter Boston and the much smaller towns that surrounded it. These towns had their own set of artisans and didn’t need African Americans taking business away from them. “As freemen, not only were the former slaves dependent on themselves for the sale of their own labor, but in addition had to face the competition of white working men,” (The Negro in Colonial New England pg. 304).

As a result many African Americans failed to succeed as artisans in these small towns. This left only the jobs that the enslaved people had formerly worked in that were yet to be filled, as New Englanders had not yet gotten used to doing the tasks for themselves. Many freemen returned to the bogs they had worked in, to the house they had cleaned in, and the whaling ships they had sailed on. Even after freedom had promised so much they found themselves doing the same labor for minute wages.

This fact can be supported by the 1850 federal census. In this census twenty-one out of the twenty-five African Americans in Edgartown (the maritime and African American populous center of Martha’s Vineyard at the time) were either sailors or employed as housekeepers and three of the other six were too young to have jobs. Worse than that, it can be seen that eight of the ten sailors lived in the shanties given to maritime employees too poor to own their own house. The 1880 census is even more decisive, as by then Edgartown had an African American population of 60 and still only eighteen of those were not sailors, laborers, servants, or housekeepers. Thirteen of the eighteen were still in school and two others were sea captains (Martin and Webquish, both of mixed descent). So in total only three African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard, almost a hundred years after slavery was abolished in Massachusetts, had managed to get jobs other than those traditionally connected to slavery (two owned farms and one was a hotel cook).

Of course it was not only Edgartown that left African Americans out of the job market. Chilmark, in 1880 (the year where the census marked occupation), only had twenty-six of its eighty-eight African American residents not in the traditional jobs, but it, like Edgartown, was a maritime town and the main industry in the area was whaling. Tisbury on the other hand, was more of the industrial town on Martha’s Vineyard yet, despite having a shoe factory during this time period, still only managed three of its sixteen outside the traditional jobs.

Many people may look at the facts stated above and just blame the problems on a weak job market and the focus the island put on whaling. Of course this also has evidence mounted against it. For example, in 1850’s Edgartown not only were there about 40 jobs specified in the census that were not traditional slave jobs but over twenty of the people who had those jobs had absolutely no competition. With so many jobs that were not even represented by two citizens of Edgartown, some as familiar as a shoemaker, dentist, barber, hotelkeeper, or teacher, it’s hard to believe that really only three of the twenty-five African Americans didn’t have jobs traditionally related to enslavement, and that the twelve sailors among the other twenty-two decided that going months on end chasing whales in often dangerous water was better than becoming a barber or other safe profession. It’s hard to believe that unless it was true that the African American residents of Martha’s Vineyard had almost no chance of succeeding as independent artisans in such a tight knit community.

“Despite the handicap under which they labored, the free Negroes of colonial New England were slowly shaping the foundation for the Negro families of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” (NCNE pg. 314) That quote conveys that even though many African Americans were treated badly and forced to work for low wages in the free North, some were still rising to the top and making it easier and easier for African Americans of the future to succeed. Martha’s Vineyard also had a few of these important people. People who rose to own farms and captain ships.

The most notable of these people is obviously Captain William A. Martin an African American who started out being considered just a mariner in the 1850 census yet worked his way to the title of sea captain thirty years later. His efforts may even have led to his nephew being able to become a self-sustaining fisherman, as told by the 1910 census. Other people also helped out in this way like Daniel Webquish, a man of Native American and African descent, who lived at the same time as Martin and who also was able to become a sea captain, and the ten farmers who worked independent farms according to the 1880 census.

All those people were able to help the future African Americans, in that, at the time that they lived the whaling market was declining and, in turn, so was the source of most of the jobs of African Americans. These people helped other African Americans realize what they could do in the future, mostly by showing others how they could become their own men in the sailing and agricultural industries. By the 1900’s the whaling industry had died out and the population of African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard was now focused mainly in the low-income cottages of Cottage City (now Oak Bluffs). This didn’t mean that progress stopped even though the population of African Americans in Edgartown had dropped from a high of sixty down to eighteen, a level it had never been to since shortly after slavery was abolished. No, of the eighteen, ten of them we re self-sufficient cooks or fishermen. At that time it was the only Dukes County census to have recorded having more than 50 percent of the African American population of any town employed in self-sufficient jobs unrelated to slavery and prejudice. African Americans could then start over in a new, better Martha’s Vineyard created by the death of whaling and great people like William A. Martin and others.

“Whatever work the free Negro secured was virtually identical with that done by the slave, who… engaged in all types of labor. Freedom frequently wrought no change whatever in their labor status,” (NCNE pg. 305). In conclusion, Martha’s Vineyard has never been unfamiliar with African Americans. In 1776, before slavery was abolished, there were over sixty slaves and freemen on the island mostly for domestic and maritime duties. The African American population of Martha’s Vineyard was centered around young women being housekeepers and men being sailors and seeing that our population was small and our whaling industry big it was no surprise that we had the third largest percentage of African Americans in Massachusetts. Even the two counties with higher percentages, Nantucket and Boston, both were centered by huge whaling ports. Most African Americans, while whaling was still a big industry, could hardly find work outside of the maritime trade. This forced many of them into low wage whaling jobs and government houses. Through this time a few African Americans were able to rise through the ranks and make a living through jobs unfamiliar to African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard. Even though the population of African Americans dramatically dropped after the whaling industry went under the examples these people made still went forward and not only helped African Americans learn to sustain themselves but white people to learn to accept them also. By 1910, the African American population of Edgartown had fallen to eighteen, but ten of those had self-sustaining jobs, the largest percent ever.

Bennett, Lerone Jr. “Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America”, Chicago: Penguin Books, 1984.
Greene, Lorenzo Johnston. “The Negro in Colonial New England”, New York: Atheneum, 1974.
Pease, Richard L. “1850 Census of Edgartown.” http://history.vineyard.net//edgcen50.htm (March 11th, 2003).
Pease, Richard L. “1850 Census of Chilmark.” http://history.vineyard.net//chilcen50.htm (March 11th, 2003).
Pease, Richard L. “1850 Census of Tisbury.” http://history.vineyard.net//tiscen50.htm (March 11th, 2003).
Swan, Judy. “1880 Federal Census of Edgartown.” http://history.vineyard.net//dukes/cen80e.htm (March 11th, 2003)
Swan, Judy. “1880 Federal Census of Chilmark.” http://history.vineyard.net//dukes/cen80c.htm (March 11th, 2003).
Swan, Judy. “1880 Federal Census of Tisbury.” http://history.vineyard.net//dukes/cen80t.htm (March 11th, 2003).
Swan, Judy. “1910 Federal Census of Edgartown.” http://history.vineyard.net//dukes/cen10e.htm (March 20th, 2003).

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