An Island-Wide Tour Honors African Americans On Martha's Vineyard

Sep 17, 2018

One of the tour vans of the Martha's Vineyard African American Heritage Trail.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

From behind the wheel of a grey mini-van, long-time Martha’s Vineyard resident Elaine Weintraub leads a tour of the island’s African American Heritage Trail.

“The purpose is to affirm African American presence wherever it occurred,” said Weintraub, Director of the Heritage Trail.  

Weintraub moved to the Vineyard from the UK in 1984, and began teaching at-risk African American first-graders at the Oak Bluffs School. While visiting a local bookstore, she was surprised by the lack of information about African Americans on the Vineyard.

Elaine Weintraub is Director of the Martha's Vineyard African American Heritage Trail.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

“They had a huge table in there of books about the Vineyard: ghosts of Martha’s Vineyard, trees of Martha’s Vineyard, mushrooms of Martha’s Vineyard. But there was nothing on African Americans,” she said.

That’s when the idea for a commemorative trail took shape. Weintraub and her team of volunteers initially dedicated four sites, and commemorated each with a bronze plaque. There are now 30 sites around the Island. Weintraub is usually contacted by family members or others who propose that a particular site be added to the trail. That was the case with the Federated Church in Edgartown.

“Frederick Douglass gave a sermon there against slavery and against the second fugitive slave act and the bounty hunters and all the horrible things that happened in 1857, and they approached us and said ‘We want to put the church on the Heritage Trail,’” Weintraub said. 

The sites along the trail honor politicians, artists, writers, civil rights workers, and in some cases, former slaves.  One stop along Duke’s County Avenue is the former home of Emma Maitlin, who was once the world lightweight female boxing champion. Another site is the former home of Senator Edward Brooke, the first - and for many years the only - African African American in the U-S Senate.

One of the commemorative plaques along the African American Heritage Trail.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

Martha’s Vineyard was generally a safe place for African Americans in the early 20th century, but there still were restrictions on where they could live or own property. Many had jobs at some of the stately homes and inns in Edgartown – but they couldn’t stay there. So many stayed at boarding houses on the outskirts of Oak Bluffs operated by African American women known locally as “the landladies.”

“The last landlady’s house was across there, number 121. Miss Louisa Izett was the original landlady, and used to say, ‘It was nine dollars a week, and if you didn’t have nine, we’d take seven,’” said Weintraub. 

This area became a haven for local African American working people, who socialized and held card parties and dances, often attended by people like Adam Clayton Powell.

Another stop along the tour is the Overton House, a large, impeccably-restored Victorian along Seaview Avenue in Oak Bluffs that’s played host to a who’s who of noted African American guests over the years: Jesse Jackson, Jackie Robinson, A. Phillip Randolph, Jesse Owens, Dr. Martin Luther King. Fidel Castro even stayed there once. 

The Overton House in Oak Bluffs once hosted guests including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Jesse Jackson.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

Every season, thousands of people sign up for the tours, which last anywhere from 1-1/2 to four hours. Weintraub and her volunteers conduct three, sometimes four tours a day. They’re always full. 

“On almost every tour, we will hear from people, ‘You don’t know what this means to me. Everywhere I go, it’s as if African Americans don’t exist. They have no story,’” said Weintraub.

But that story is now being told, and will continue to be celebrated as more sites are added to the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail.

To find out more about the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail, visit: mvafricanamericanheritagetrail.org.