The African-American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard

The trail’s 30 sites each commemorate some aspect of the complex history of, and contributions made by, people of African descent on Martha’s Vineyard.

By Joe Bills

May 22 2023


The sun sets over Menemsha, recognized on the African-American Heritage Trail as the site where slaves Randall Burton and Edgar Jones were among those who escaped captivity with the halp of the Wampanoag tribe.

Photo Credit : Photo Courtesy of Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism / CC BY-ND 2.0

Since 1998, the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard has been breathing new life into a portion of the island’s history that had been too often ignored. The trail’s 30 sites each commemorate some aspect of the complex history of, and contributions made by, people of African descent on Martha’s Vineyard.

The trail, which spans every town on the island, is governed and maintained by a non-profit research and education group called the African American Heritage Trail History Project, and research is ongoing, so new sites continue to be added.

Located about two-and-a-half miles off the southern coast of Cape Cod and called Noepe by its original Wampanoag settlers, the island is believed to have been renamed Martha’s Vineyard after the infant daughter of British explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, who first visited in 1602.

The first Africans to arrive on Martha’s Vineyard came as slaves. Although the region’s views would eventually evolve, in the early 18th century New England was among the most active slave trading regions in the Americas. The history of slavery on the island is documented in preserved bills of sale and wills dating back to the 1700s.

Free African-Americans were also drawn to the island over time, first in search of jobs in the whaling industry, and as then, as the community on Martha’s Vineyard grew, by the Baptist and Methodist revival meetings held at the Oak Bluffs campgrounds.

Dorothy West, a novelist and short story writer whose works were among the most acclaimed of the Harlem Renaissance, moved to the island in the 1940s, and culd often be found on her front porch in Oak Bluffs.
Photo Credit : Judith Sedwick/Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America

The bronze plaques of the Heritage Trail span the island, each honoring a person, place, development or moment of significance, from the earliest African arrivals right through the 1970s, 1980s and beyond. In Oak Bluffs alone, stops along the trail include the Myrtle Avenue home of writer and pillar of the Harlem Renaissance Dorothy West, the Pulpit Rock where Methodist minister John Saunders preached, the house of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., two places of worship, a cemetery, and pair of guest houses that catered to black guests, and the home of Joe Overton, a political organizer, known to have hosted luminaries ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to Harry Belafonte and Jackie Robinson.

There are also stops honoring the high school’s integrated sports teams, the founding members of the Martha’s Vineyard chapter of the NAACP, and the Wampanoag Tribe, the island’s original residents, who ignored the Fugitive Slave Act and aided many African Americans in their pursuit of freedom.

Emma Maitland, whose incredible career took her from Moulin Rouge in Paris to boxing rings in New York, is one of many notables whose stories are preserved on the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Heritage Trail.

A journey on the Heritage Trail introduces visitors to many interesting people, including pastors, artists, and politicians. There are business and community leaders. Several island residents earned national recognition in their fields. A case could be made, however, than none are more interesting than relatively unknown Emma Chambers Maitland, who was born to Virginia tobacco farmers in 1893 studied at a convent in order to become a teacher, then met, married and had a child with a medical student, who died of tuberculosis less than a year into their marriage. Leaving her child in the care of her parents, Emma set off on an adventurous life that included dancing at the Moulin Rouge in Paris and becoming a boxing champion, earning upwards of $500 per fight, before eventually retiring to Martha’s Vineyard.

During his Presidency, Barack Obama and his family famously vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard, further elevating the island’s already high profile as a tourist destination and also calling attention to the African-American Heritage Trail and the island’s complex racial history.

Guided tours or available in multiple forms throughout the summer, so you can choose one of several segmented tours lasting about 90 minutes each, or opt for to go all-in for a complete four-and-a-half-hour deep dive.

For tour availability or additional information, visit