Many years ago I had a wonderful job with a budget, but no one, including me, had the first idea what I was supposed to do. I enjoyed the freedom and loved the children.
My only brief? Do something different. A pertinent piece of information is that my group were very predominantly African American and in response to a question from one of them relating to Island history — “Where were all the black people then?” — I began a journey that took me through dusty archives, probated wills, old crew lists and the minds and memories of those who always record their world.
Years of work gave me the story of a family that began in Guinea, West Africa and ended with a man of color sailing as a captain on the whaling ships. There were wonderful moments such as when I discovered the obituary for Nancy Michael after days of reading creased microfilm, or when I held a copy of William Martin’s marriage certificate in my hand. There were times when I cried, such as reading the deposition relating to the life of Rebecca, the woman from Africa who was enslaved, beaten and robbed of her name but loved by an “Indian man” named Elisha Amos, who left her a house for her lifetime with instructions to his nephews to cut wood and hay for her.
These stories were for my children of color to give them their place in the narrative, but it becameobvious that the stories belonged to all of the Island’s children, which is why each year the sophomore class at the Regional High School heads out on a daylong tour of the Heritage Trail, a physical trail across the Island celebrating the stories of people of color. One thing I do know is that we all need to know each others’ stories rather better than we do. Our young students are better informed than the generation who went before them.
I mention this story to inform my readers of the origins of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard History Project, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to researching and sharing the stories of people of color on the Vineyard.
Interestingly, during this week my knowledge of African American history in New England has made me an apparent expert on other issues and I find myself with two minutes to reply to questions such as, “Why do African Americans come to Martha’s Vineyard?”
It is question for which I suspect there are many answers, but I wonder, could it be that African Americans come to the Vineyard to enjoy a safe, beautiful environment in the company of friends and family with whom they feel comfortable?
I recently returned from Ireland where I spent five weeks and there was something very easy about being in a place where I understood how people spoke, what they spoke about and I quickly reverted to old habits of beginning an evening out at 10:30 p.m. and sleeping until 11 a.m. Could the summer experience of people of color on Martha’s Vineyard be the same kind of homecoming?
The impetus for this storm of interest in African American history is the arrival of our President for a vacation with his family. This President’s election excited and engaged my students in ways that I could never have imagined. To them he represented an inclusive America, one that honored the person of color, the native child, the child living in a nontraditional family, the varying religious beliefs, the new American and the one whose family could be traced back to the Mayflower. In the words of one of the students: “He’ll care about us because he knows what life is like.” The commitment of these young Islanders to Mr. Obama is absolute and their faith in him immense. They wrote about their hopes for him for their column in the Gazette and appeared on local television explaining why he inspired them.
On July 4th, when school was out, I met one young woman from the class at the parade in Edgartown. Her family and mine ate ice cream together at the Dairy Queen and she asked: “Have you heard? President Obama is coming. Call him and tell him how much we like him and that we want to see him. We could have a barbecue.”
I did not call him, but I join my voice to theirs to welcome the President who seems to belong to all of us.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub is the cofounder and board president of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard, and history department chairman at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. She is the author of Lighting the Trail — the African American Heritage of Martha’s Vineyard.