March 31, 2006 – Transfer Day ceremonies at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas took a bittersweet turn Friday, as government officials spoke about fond memories, Virgin Islands history, and solidifying the territory's future by strengthening bonds with Denmark and the United States.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull began his speech passionately describing the territory's evolution from slavery, the building of local culture through the adoption of Danish customs, and the thoughts of thousands of residents as they witnessed the first official Transfer Day ceremony in 1917.
"That day was solemn," he said, "and the population looked on, as they lined the streets in front of Fort Christian with some degree of uncertainty as to what we could expect from the U.S. government."
While Turnbull added that the territory had "greatly" progressed beyond that historical moment in time, he also said that the Virgin Islands still had much work to do before residents are granted the same rights as citizens on the mainland.
He discussed fixing internal strife, moving toward self-government, and building the rights of Virgin Islanders so that they are afforded more national freedoms.
"We have to look at adopting our own constitution, determining our own permanent political status, gaining the right to vote in the national presidential elections, and having our Delegate to Congress vote on federal measures as a member of the House of Representatives," he said. "Those are our fundamental rights as Americans."
Delegate Donna M. Christensen spoke of the territory's need to become more independent by developing local industries such as agriculture, and diversifying business interests beyond the United States to include bringing in investors from countries such as Japan and China.
Christensen said her "greatest worry" is that the Virgin Islands is not "resilient enough" to withstand the impact the ongoing war with the Middle East will have on the federal government, which has to consider a mounting national debt, improving its domestic defense system and preserving its labor force.
"I think that the Virgin Islands is moving forward without a plan," Christensen said after the meeting. "And I think we need to sit down and really think about where we want to be in 11 years, when we celebrate 100 years of being a U.S. territory. This war is going to be a long one, and we have to solidify our position with the federal government, get things like voting established, and work towards our own constitution."
Preserving V.I. culture is also important, she said, "because our future is grounded in our history." Christensen said local youth do not have "an understanding or appreciation" of the territory's past struggles and triumphs.
"So we have to make some unique changes," she said, "ones that show courage and leadership – ones that will make us stronger and better than we are today."
Turnbull said the Virgin Islands has already begun to tread upon the path to change by cementing a relationship with the Danish government and establishing agreements that would help preserve the territory's historical buildings and records. New archival systems and initiatives are being put in to place to promote a mutual exchange of ideas, commodities, and even people.
Soren Blak, consul general of the Virgin Islands, said historical records are being put on microfilm in both the territory and in Denmark, and that students and officials from both localities are traveling across the Atlantic to participate in soccer programs, musical concerts and cultural celebrations.
Blak said the Danish research vessel Galathea 3 would be pulling into St. Thomas' harbor next year to conduct archeological studies which could further the link between Denmark and the Virgin Islands.
Ambassador Torben Getterman, consul general of Denmark to New York, said, "Such communication is necessary because it lets the territory and Denmark work together toward achieving a common future."
The featured speaker at Friday's event, Getterman said the two countries are inextricably linked through their histories and should continue to "build bridges toward each other" through shared experiences.
Reminiscing briefly, Getterman brought tears to the eyes of some audience members as he told the story of his grandfather, a sailor aboard the Danish ship Valkyrien, which passed through the territory about 100 years ago.
"Most accounts of that voyage were lost," he said, "but my father used to tell me stories about my grandfather, and how he fell in love with these islands and its people."
He said, "Even though my grandfather was unable to return to the islands, I feel, as I stand here today, that I'm closing this circle for him by returning, while opening a new door for us to the future."
Also speaking at Friday's event were Sen. Lorraine L. Berry, former U.S. Ambassador Terence Todman, and St. Thomas-Water Island Administrator James O'Bryan. There were performances by the Caribbean Chorale, the St. Thomas Heritage Dancers, the Lockhart Elementary Quadrille Dancers, and Estricia Viera, a student at the Charlotte Amalie High School on St. Thomas.
Transfer Day, which also comes at the end of Virgin Islands History Month, commemorates an event that occurred over eight decades ago, when the Danish West Indies were formally ceded to the United States by Denmark, thus becoming the (U.S.) Virgin Islands, in exchange for $25 million.
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