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Constitutional Committee Calls for African History Lessons

Sept. 9, 2008 — The Fifth Constitutional Convention for the Virgin Islands' education committee drafted language Tuesday evening mandating some African history and culture be taught alongside V.I. history as part of the territory's standard civics curriculum.
Two committees — one addressing constitutional provisions on education, and the other citizenship, Virgin Islander rights, environment, cultural and historical preservation — met one after the other to discuss suggestions returned from the last plenary session, vote on whether to change their drafts accordingly, and button down the language where needed. It was a nuts-and-bolts session, with many minor changes in wording, verb tenses and the like approved by unanimous consent.
Placing a constitutional mandate to teach V.I. students more about their history has strong support within the convention.
"When I went to Catholic school as a child here, they didn't teach us anything about the Virgin Islands," Delegate Claire Roker said. "They taught us the catechism. And when I went to college in New York, they taught me American history. It was only when I came back home in 1964 I started learning about our culture. Our children are confused about who they are, because they don't know our Virgin Islands history, so we really need to discuss this."
Delegate Kendall Petersen also called for roots education.
"Our students know nothing about their roots before slavery," Petersen said. "It's not part of the cultural education in the schools. … African history is so vast. They should have some instruction on before slavery."
Delegate Lawrence Sewer cautioned that simply putting it into law or enshrining it in the constitution was no panacea.
"We have a curriculum designed to deal with the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean now," Sewer said. "But the teachers, many of them, don't take it seriously. …. Not everything rests on the curriculum. There has to be enforcement."
The committee on culture and Virgin Islander rights changed constitutional references to "citizen(s) of the Virgin Islands," to simply "Virgin Islander," and approved definitions of both an ancestral and a native Virgin Islander.
"I would rather us do away with the word citizen in this section and use the term ancestral Virgin Islander or whatever rather than citizen," Delegate Michael Thurland said. "In reality, we do not have the power to confer citizenship on anybody."
Attorney Lisa Moorhead, acting as legal counsel to the convention, advised placing definitions and philosophical statements within the preamble of the constitution, rather than scattered within its sections. The committee directed Moorhead and fellow counsel Carlyle Corbin to place the definitions wherever most appropriate, then vet the draft document for legal sufficiency.
Present were Petersen, Roker, Thurland, Sewer, Mary Moorhead, Kendall Petersen, Adelbert Bryan, Mario A. Francis, Alecia Wells and Gerard Emanuel.
The convention is coming down to the wire, with a revised deadline of Oct. 6 to produce a document. It has asked the Legislature for an extension, but to date has not been granted one.
The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1976 to allow the people of the Virgin Islands and Guam to adopt territorial constitutions. Any constitution has to be consistent with federal law and with the U.S. constitution. The form of the government must be republican in form, with executive, legislative and judicial branches, and it must have a bill of rights. But there are few other restrictions. The website itsourfuture.vi has excerpts and links to the full text of the relevant laws and much more information.
There have been four previous constitutional conventions, but no territorial constitution yet. The most recent convention was in 1980. (For a detailed history of previous conventions and extensive background information on the subject, see "V.I. CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTIONS: BACKGROUND.")
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