Uncertain Future for House of 19th Century African-American Whaling Captain

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EDGARTOWN, Mass. — In the 18th and 19th centuries, whaling was a big business here, and it was a diverse business, too. As Arthur R. Railton put it in his book “The History of Martha’s Vineyard,” “almost every whaler had men of color in its crew” — Indians, descendants of slaves and even people from places like the Cape Verde Islands, off the coast of Africa.

But, Mr. Railton went on, “men of color only infrequently made it to positions of responsibility.” Usually they ended their voyages with little to show for their work.

William A. Martin was an exception. The grandson of a woman once kept as a slave in Chilmark, he went to sea as a boy and, according to accounts from the time, immediately stood out for his skill and pluck, and for being literate. By 1878, he was a ship’s master, the only African-American whaling captain from the island and, historians say, one of the few anywhere in the United States. By 1890, when he returned to land for good, he had commanded three whaling ships.

Today, though, his story is little known. His gravestone in an old burial ground on the island of Chappaquiddick, at the east end of Martha’s Vineyard, says nothing of his eminence at sea. The nearby house where he lived stands empty. Though it is only a few yards from Chappaquiddick’s only paved road, the house is so well hidden by cedar trees and bushes that few people notice it.

Now, its future is uncertain.

Tom Doyle said he and his wife, Amy Goldberg, physicians in Providence, R.I., bought the house and its quarter-acre lot for $350,000 in 2006, in hopes of restoring it and getting it listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

“It was a small house that needed a lot of work, and the price started to be within reach,” Dr. Doyle said. “I am not African-American, and I have never been on a whaling ship — but I like history, and it had this evocative feel.”

But on a recent visit to the house, he recalled what happened when he brought a contractor to look at the place. Restoration plans were “pie in the sky,” the builder declared. “He said, ‘I could take this thing down and put it in the dump for 25 grand,’ ” Dr. Doyle said.

Meanwhile, the couple had their second child. Their work schedules, his at the Veterans Affairs hospital and hers at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, were arduous. And they realized that family members and friends were not necessarily enthusiastic about the inconvenience of getting to Chappaquiddick, which is reachable only by a small ferry.

So they put the house on the market. The question is, will its next owner rise to the restoration challenge or, as may be more likely, take the contractor’s approach and use the lot for a new house?

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