Oct. 1, 2007 — Virgin Islanders on Monday commemorate Contract Day and the ensuing labor riot that led to the Fireburn of 1878.
In Buddhoe Park in Frederiksted at 7 p.m., residents will reenact those historic events and link them to present-day labor struggles.
After the Emancipation of July 1848 — proclaimed in Frederiksted, which then become known locally as "Freedom City" — planters instituted a policy of contracts for the freed laborers in order to retain control over them. After 30 years under harsh and unfair conditions, a labor riot erupted in Frederiksted on the first day of October, known as Contract Day — the only day of the year when workers were allowed free movement between plantations.
The book Robert Skeoch: Cruzan Planter, gives one of the few firsthand reports of the events that fueled workers anger.
Labor contracts were entered into on an annual basis and provided that the Negro should give a full years work to the estate on which he lived. He could not quit without a pass from either the manager or the owner, Skeoch wrote.
Glen Kwabena Davis, head of the revived Culture Division at the Department of Education, said the period of contract was a time of gross exploitation.
People were forced to spend their wages at the plantation shop; some had to pay rent to the plantation owner, said Davis. If you made five cents a day, by the end of the week you owed all you made and maybe more to the plantation owner.
Rita Stinson of the United Caribbean Association (UCA) is one of the organizers of Mondays reenactment. Stinson said the events of 129 years ago are still significant today.
People should come because it was a labor riot and we still have issues with labor today, said Stinson. If we dont stand and unite, todays workers will remain in the same condition. If you dont know your history, you are lost.
The history of Contract Day and the Virgin Islands are taught in the public schools, according to Desiree Miranda, history department head at the St. Croix Educational Complex.
At Complex, ninth grade students are required to take the equivalent of a year's studies in V.I History, said Miranda. If they haven't taken it in ninth grade then they take it in 10th grade. Because the classes are 90 minutes long, one semester is equivalent to a year of study. Extra activities happen in March during V.I. History Month and in May when the school hosts its Caribbean Expo.
Gene Emanuel, an associate professor of English at the University of the Virgin Islands who has also chronicled V.I. history, said todays workers would do well to take a cue from the laborers of 1878 and reexamine their present-day contracts.
That was a day when the power of the people was primary an example that should be foremost in our minds, Emanuel said. We need to keep that vision and reexamine labor to see the value of our own contracts.
Todays workers should move to the music of those dancers and we should re-evaluate what is our worth in todays workplace, Emanuel added.
Stinson said Mondays events will begin with a production of local author Richard Schraders play "Queen Mary and Dem," about the women involved in the uprising. Actors will then take to the streets holding flaming torches high and re-enact — minus the actual conflagration — the "fireburn" that left most of Strand and King streets in flames.
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