The African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard began as part of a promise to a little boy, and in 1998 the Shearer Cottage was dedicated as the first site on the Trail. The ambition was to reach a total of eight sites. That there were many stories was obvious, but the depth and range of the experiences that make up the tapestry of the African American experience on Martha’s Vineyard was amazing. From fugitive preachers to nationally known politicians, all the struggles and triumphs of people of color were part of the story of this Island. The Heritage Trail now has 25 sites with many more planned. The Trail stretches from one end of the Island to the other, honoring the events of national significance that played out on a smaller, but vitally important, stage.
In a yellow house next to Tony’s Market a story unfolded that embodies the range of the African American experience as it was lived by a woman born in Virginia in 1893. Her birth name was Jane Chambers but she later became more well-known as Emma Chambers Maitland. Her parents, Wyatt and Cora Chambers, were tobacco farmers and life was hard. She often spoke of working all season for a new set of clothes and two pairs of shoes, one for working in the fields and one for going to church. Despite the harshness of her life, Emma nursed an ambition to become a teacher and though her father strongly objected, she sought out a convent where she could find help to study. Without telling her family, she took and passed the teachers test.
Emma was ambitious and determined and within a few years left Virginia and headed to Washington, D.C., where she met her future husband Clarence Maitland who was completing his studies at Howard University. He graduated with his medical degree. Clarence and Emma married and she became pregnant with a baby girl. Within a year of their marriage Clarence Maitland died of tuberculosis leaving his young wife with a baby in her arms and no clear plan for the future. Reflecting on her life, Emmas observed, “I was a fiancee, a wife, a mother and a widow all in one year.”
Alone in the world with a child to care for, Emma decided to seek her fortune as a dancer and an actress. With the same force of character that had enabled her to pass the teachers certificate, she left her child with her parents and headed off to Paris where she danced in the cabaret and even at the famous Moulin Rouge. She traveled throughout Europe as a dancer and family lore has it that at one of her dancing engagements at the home of an aristocrat in Ireland, Emma had to strenuously rebuff the man’s advances. It must have been difficult for a dancer in the early 1900s not to be viewed as a woman who would welcome such advances. Perhaps as a result of this, Emma began to train with heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Taylor, and returned to the U.S. a certified boxer.
Back in the United States and very much immersed in the Harlem Renaissance era of theatre and dance, Emma danced in the famous musical Shuffle Along, the first Broadway musical written, produced and performed by African Americans. In 1929 she appeared in the theatre production Harlem at the Apollo Theatre. But it was as a boxer that Emma eventually became most famous.
In 1927 she had appeared in a boxing skit in Paris where she and fellow African American boxer Aurelia Wheeldin boxed for three rounds during their stage presentation. Both women had filed for licenses to box the French female boxing champion, Jeanne Le Mar. In the spring 2013 edition of The Journal of Sport there was a photograph of Emma Maitland and Aurelia Wheeldin boxing in Paris in their Tea for Two revue.
Emma was extremely successful earning over $500 a fight and being recognized as the female lightweight boxing champion of the world. The photographs taken of her during her boxing career show that dancing talents and exotic costumes were part of her performances.
It seems that Emma Maitland felt very strongly about women’s rights and she was very willing to support any woman who was not being treated fairly. A family story has it that she became a bodyguard for a widow who had inherited her late husband’s stocks, but as women were not allowed to hold the floor at the stock exchange this woman needed help. She hired Emma as her bodyguard to protect her from anyone seeking to eject her when she entered the building.
After retiring from boxing, Emma taught dance and gymnastics in New York with a great emphasis on the importance of “clean living.” She hated smoking and in an era when it was a very pervasive habit she absolutely forbade anyone to smoke in or around the gym. She bought a house on Martha’s Vineyard to spend summers and eventually retired here.
Even after working several careers as a tobacco farmer, a schoolteacher, a traveling dancer and actress, a professional boxer, a bodyguard and a gymnastics teacher, Emma Maitland was not done. In her later years she worked as a nurse. She died on Martha’s Vineyard in 1975 at the age of 82 and in the years that have passed her remarkable life has become largely forgotten.
Thanks to the generosity of her great nephew, Frank Chambers, the Heritage Trail has become aware of Emma’s story. She embodies all that the organization values. She is an incredible role model for young women who wonder about their own possibilities and for all people everywhere. Her life is the story of a woman who never accepted the limitations placed upon her. She was a fighter in every sense of the word, from her earliest days working in the tobacco fields through her years of international travel and theatrical revue and her success as world boxing champion. She embraced life with both hands, seeing potential in every situation.
In an age when for a young woman of color the possibilities were very limited, she broke all the rules and her courage and talents deserve to be remembered. Her life will now be celebrated by the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard and her story will be part of the narrative.