Twenty years ago, the African American Heritage Trail History Project was born. Its mission was to research and disseminate the story of people of color on Martha’s Vineyard and to celebrate those stories by placing a series of engraved bronze plaques throughout the Island. In the early days, the goal was to have four sites that would be visible to all, and perhaps some day more could be added. There are now 30 sites and more to come. Since November 2017, four new sites have been added.

Building the trail is one important part of the mission, but other aspects of the work of the heritage trail organization include cultural education, mentorship programs, internships, scholarships and advocacy for students experiencing difficulty in school. The engine that generates the income to do all this is the summer cultural heritage tourism program. Each summer, hundreds of visitors take the trail and learn for themselves the profoundly moving and inspirational history of people of color on Martha’s Vineyard. Their participation in the project is vital in making sure that this previously uncelebrated history will never be lost again. The summer of 2018 was the busiest season yet, with five tour leaders working hard to make four tours a day possible during the frantic days of July and August.

Tour leaders are a diverse group drawn from every Island community. Each has a strong connection with the history that has been uncovered. Duncan Schilcher was in the first class at the regional high school that worked on the heritage trail, and for him it was an exposure to the fascination of real history. He went on to earn a degree in history. Christy Vanderhoop has a strong sense of family connection with the history that she shares with the visitors. Erica Belle Williams grew up in the summer community on Martha’s Vineyard and identifies strongly with the narratives that she shares with the guests. Her family has owned a home in Oak Bluffs for five generations, and for her the sharing of the history ensures that it will never be forgotten. Cleo Wild’s father Michael traveled on the first heritage trail tour and now she leads those tours. She appreciates all that she has learned about the Island on which she grew up. Julian Wise said the trail has been a source of information that he had never encountered in his formal education.

Intern Kyle Jennings, a freshman at the regional high school, worked with groups of guests throughout the summer sharing his grandmother’s story. Kyle’s family home is a site on the trail and he spoke of his Nana with love, explaining to visitors that she was a trailblazer for the rights of women and people of color.

The most common response from the visitors who take the trail is thankfulness that it exists. There is a sense of pride in this history. Sheryl Wesley, organizer of Legacy Week on the Vineyard, said: “The staff of the African American Heritage Trail are so knowledgeable and personable with great information to share . . . This event is a must-do while there. It’s for the entire family, girls’ trips, solo trips, couples, groups. It’s for all people, all genders and all races.”

Elaine Cawley Weintraub is the cofounder and director of the African American Heritage Trail History Project on Martha’s Vineyard.