Island Heritage

With President Obama Set To Vacation On Martha's Vineyard, Residents Embrace The Island's Trail Of Black History

August 23, 2009|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,

When President Barack Obama and his family arrive this week in Martha's Vineyard for vacation, Carrie Camillo Tankard and Elaine Cawley Weintraub would like nothing more than to show them a little piece of Martha's Vineyard that has nothing to do with T-shirts or ice cream stands, stunning oceanside cliffs or gently sloping sandy beaches.

They envision telling Michelle Obama about Nancy Michael, a slave whose blessings mariners believed could keep them safe on long voyages; having the first lady stand at the grave of Capt. William Martin, the first black master of a whaling ship; and visiting Shearer Cottage, which in 1903 became the first black-owned guesthouse on the island.

All three are part of the African-American Heritage Trail of Martha's Vineyard, a growing

network with 22 sites highlighting what was until recently "the undocumented history" of the island's black roots, says Weintraub, chairwoman of the high school history department.

The trail was born of curiosity and necessity. Weintraub was a new teacher who came to the island from Britain in 1984. She noticed that there was nothing in the curriculum about African-Americans on the Vineyard, even though her class had more than a dozen black students.

"So, off I go to buy all the stuff on black history I can find," she says. "Except there isn't any."

Weintraub initiated her own research on Martin, which led to unearthing stories about the sea captain's grandmother and mother.

"I thought, 'There's a whole story here, and I have to find it,' " Weintraub says.

As "vice president forever" of the Martha's Vineyard chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Tankard says she had been on a similarly frustrating mission: lobbying for inclusion of local black history in schools. A mutual friend introduced Tankard to Weintraub in 1993, and the spark for the trail was born.

"The roots of black America run deep here," Tankard says. "We wanted to make sure that the black history of the island is never forgotten again."

Weintraub studied obituaries, ships' logs, court papers and tattered newspaper clippings. Tankard, who moved to the island to raise her six children after the 1967 riots in Newark, N.J., tapped into her network of local connections for additional material and financial support. The trail marked its first site, the Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs, in 1997.

"We've come a long way since then," says Tankard. "Today, the trail covers the island and honors the full spectrum of the African-American experience."

Three new sites are expected to be marked with plaques later this year.

That Oak Bluffs serves as the spiritual trailhead is understandable. The town, known in the 1800s as Cottage City, has long been a summer magnet for families of color. Local historians say black servants who came with the white families for the summer began buying land and building homes. Their ranks swelled in summer with the arrival of people who attended religious camps.

Over the years, the community has drawn prominent civic leaders, actors, educators and artists, who beat the heat and relaxed in the multicolored gingerbread cottages packed tightly together and in sprawling homes with inviting front porches. Singer Ethel Waters, actor Paul Robeson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spent time on the Vineyard. More recently, Oak Bluffs has welcomed Spike Lee, Oprah Winfrey, Diana Ross and then-Senator Obama.

Part of the draw, says Jill Nelson, author of "Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island," is being a member of a community of professional and successful people who most of the year find themselves in the minority. And while not a racial utopia, Martha's Vineyard has a well-developed sense of the "live-and-let-live" philosophy.

"People come to the Vineyard to lay their burdens down," Nelson says. "For years until 9/11, there were two mailboxes in front of the post office: One said 'On Island,' and the other said, 'America.' In many ways that summed up the uniqueness of the Vineyard. We're in the United States - same language, same currency - but a very different vibe. People who make it to the Vineyard come here to relax. You don't come to the Vineyard to mess with other people."

This time, the Obamas are staying on the other side of the island at Blue Heron Farm, a 29-acre spread in Chilmark that is better suited for security and seclusion. The farm is in a less-populated area with fewer tourist destinations, so any Obama activity is likely to lead to fewer disruptions on the sometimes traffic-choked roads. While few expect the president to make the social scene, many in Oak Bluffs expect that the first lady will venture out to see old friends.

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