The freshman history classes recently traveled the Island’s African American Heritage Trail from Chappaquiddick to Aquinnah as part of their study of the history of Martha’s Vineyard. They visited the home of the Island’s only whaling captain, walked to his grave, paid their respects at the site dedicated to the life of Rebecca, the Woman from Africa and stood at West Basin visualizing the escape of Randall Burton, the man who had decided he would rather die than return to enslavement. Their crowded buses journeyed through the Island taking in a soul food lunch at the Black Dog Tavern and deciding what the topic they would choose for their major research project on the history of people of color on the Vineyard. The African American Heritage Trail board is offering financial awards for works of excellence. The student reflections follow.
James Robinson: It was just nice to hear about the whole of the African Americans on the Island. When we study history we usually hear about everywhere except the Island, and some very important people that have overcome prejudice to become successful were here. Aquinnah was the best part of the tour for me. You could stand at the site for Randall Burton and see the scenery all around it. It was very open. For my research project, I am working with Dylan Araujo and we want to learn more about Barber Hammond. He was born a slave, married someone on the Island and he was the first African American to own a business on Main street. When the fire burned down Vineyard Haven, he rebuilt and he did not have a barber’s pole so he painted a light post. I think that’s really symbolic of doing the best you can with what you’ve got. (I think he is still the only African American to own a business on Main street in Vineyard Haven.)
Dylan Araujo: I wish it had not been so cold when we went on the tour because it would have been good to get out more and do the walks. I liked being able to go home and tell my family all about what I had learned that day. They were very interested. I liked Barber Hammond because I thought he was just as cool as the basketball team and that was my other choice. He was the first African American barber on the Island. I like that. He was creative and determined.
Lucas Debettencourt: I really liked the Martin house on Chappaquiddick. It really made me think about the difference between Captain Martin’s life as a whaler and the White whalers who lived on the waterfront in Edgartown. I wish that we could have walked more but it was so very cold when we went. The next day the classes got to do a lot of walking. I am studying the Vineyard branch of the NAACP for my project, and I think it is very cool to see the progress of African American people from being treated so unfairly. Now we have an African American leader. We have all come a long way.
Cameron Gude: For me the best part was going to Chappaquiddick. I had never been there before and I thought it was very interesting. I am researching Randall Burton, and his escape to freedom. It seems cool to escape from the police when the law is wrong. It’s great that he had the courage to escape, and that the tribe stood up for him and saved him is very cool indeed.
Lacey Dinning: I loved the Martin House on Chappaquiddick. It made me understand how people used to live and how they had no luxuries and lived lives very different from ours. I am working with Madison McBride on a research project on the life of Emma Chambers Maitland. I really like having an interesting woman as my topic. She was really inspirational for girls. Emma was born very poor and went through a lot of sad times, but she became world female lightweight boxing champion. We don’t hear much about women in history so its exciting when you learn about someone like her.
Ariana Peters: I found the whole trip a very good learning experience because I honestly did not know anything about the African American people on the Island and it really opens up your eyes to the history of the Island that is not always brought to the table in school. Avery and I chose William Martin as our topic, the Island’s only African American whaling captain. We chose him just because we grew up here and being from here means that my family loves fishing, and so it was really interesting to learn about a black man who made his living on the sea.
Avery Miner: William Martin’s story as a whaler who lived on Chappaquiddick not in Edgartown like the other whalers was inspiring to me. It made me think about how everything was against him, and he managed to succeed. That made me believe that I can be whatever I want to be. Tim Peters : Our trip was pretty good. I liked seeing everything on the Island but the buses were crowded and I would like to do the tour again with a smaller number of people on the bus so I could hear everything that was being said. I found it interesting about Randall Burton. I learned information that I never knew about him on the trip and that gave me some ideas about different projects. The risks that Randall Burton took and the people who did not even know him took risks to help him. I like knowing that story.
We are looking forward to taking the trip again in the spring and walking to all the sites. Fittingly for a forgotten history, many are in secluded spots but the lives and stories uncovered by these young historians will be exhibited in January adding to the ongoing story of the history of Martha’s Vineyard.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub is chairman of the history department at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.