Martha’s Vineyard has long been a multicultural oasis with a rich tradition of attracting visitors and settlers of many races and nations, and a Native American community that has survived and flourished. The efforts of the MV African American Heritage Trail organization and the Heritage Trail History Project have done much to chronicle the Island’s rich African American tradition, and invites visitors to explore this legacy through the people, places and history of Martha’s Vineyard.
Flight from Slavery
Two sites on the trail marked with plaques honor brave locals who aided runaway slaves in their quest for freedom. The first plaque, located on tribal grounds in Aquinnah, commemorates a group of Wampanoags who hid a fugitive slave who had escaped from a boat in the harbor. The tribal members risked prosecution in defying the Fugitive Slave Act, and resisted the temptation of bounty money, to conceal the escapee in Aquinnah. They then took him to Menemsha to board a boat to New Bedford. The anonymous fishermen who stowed him aboard the boat are honored with a second plaque in Menemsha.
From Misery to Prosperity – a Former Slave’s Story
The Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs was the first historic site to be dedicated on the Heritage Trail. It was the home of Charles Shearer, a Virginian who was freed from enslavement by the Union Army. He was literally freed when soldiers found him beaten and chained in a barn owned by the slaveholders who had abandoned him to escape from the oncoming army. He served in the Union Army providing food through the hunting and fishing skills he had learned from Native Americans, finally attending school to become a teacher. Shearer eventually moved to Massachusetts with his Native American wife. He worked for many years as head waiter at two of Boston’s premier hotels. In 1903, Shearer and his wife bought a cottage in Oak Bluffs from the Baptist Church and the family eventually turned the property into a guest house for African Americans. Shearer cottage is still a thriving and popular summer guest house for blacks, and counts among its many distinguished guests – Harry T. Burleigh, singer and arranger of Negro spirituals; actor Paul Robeson; Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Jr.; Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, America’s first African American psychiatrist; Lionel Richie and the Commodores.
From Slavery to Freedom – An American Success Story
The man who initially inspired Heritage Trail co-founder Elaine Weintraub to begin research into African American history on the island, who, though one generation removed from slavery became an important and respected figure in the Edgartown whaling community. William A. Martin was the only African American master of a whale ship from Martha’s Vineyard. Although raised in poverty, his skills as a seaman allowed him to rise to the highest level in the prosperous whaling industry, in which he was regarded as a expert and trustworthy captain. Martin’s roots can be traced directly back to a slave ship from Africa, and the three generations of remarkable women who preceded him, are honored with plaques on the Heritage Trail. Two locations associated with Martin himself are also points on the trail, although neither the site of his former home nor his grave are yet marked with plaques. The work of the Heritage Trail History Project to make the house a vital part of the Trail continues.
“In every community, there are stories dimly remembered or lost in the margins of aged official documents. The Heritage Trail History Project is about finding those stories and giving them to our island community. Our intention is to help build an inclusive history that speaks for all” -Elaine Cawley Weintraub, Co-founder African American Heritage Trails
Among the numerous sites identified on the African American Heritage Trail are the Oak Bluffs homes of prominent African Americans and the Pulpit Rock, where the man who introduced Methodism to the island first preached to his enthralled followers.
Tours of the Trail are offered during the summer months. There is also a non-profit corporation, the African American Heritage Trail History Project, which is dedicated to the research and dissemination of the history of the African American people of Martha’s Vineyard.
For More Information
Visit mvafricanamericanheritagetrail.org for more information on the project, established sites and those in development. The story of the creation of the Trail, and the public history work of the Heritage Trail History Project is described in a book by Elaine Cawley Weintraub Lighting the Trail – the African American Heritage of Martha’s Vineyard available from Bunch of Grapes bookstore.