More than 100 years ago, Queen Coziah led hundreds of coal workers, mostly women, down the streets of Charlotte Amalie, demanding pay in Danish currency, not the Mexican silver whose value had plummeted.
A century later, the spirit was the same as Queen Coziah marched again Saturday, this time in the person of Mary Ann Golden-Christopher, who, balancing a basket on her head, re-enacted the 1892 demonstration in the fourth Dollar fo’ Dollar Culture and History Tour.
Though not in the hundreds, Christopher’s Coziah led an army of followers, again mostly women, dressed in white and chanting and singing, "I don’t want no 65 cents on the dollar. I want dollar fo’ dollar, or we pitch it in de harbor."
Participants engaged the spirit of the march, many playing scratch band instruments as they tramped along behind the present day Queen, attracting the attention and sometimes participation of tourists and others visiting downtown.
The tour was the inspiration of Ayesha Morris, who traces her roots to Trinidad and Tobago and who moved to St. Thomas from Washington, D.C., six years ago. Morris was intrigued after reading an account of the 1892 coal protest. She had an idea.
Partnering with two friends, Dara Cooper and Jahweh Davis, she founded the tour, was led Saturday by culture bearers Myron Jackson, V.I. Cultural Heritage Institute executive director, and Glen "Kwabena" Davis, local folklorist and director of the Department of Education Division of Cultural Education. Morris herself danced a spirited bamboula..
Jackson explained that Coziah and other coal laborers had organized the strike because they had "had enough of being exploited by unscrupulous merchants" who had flooded the St. Thomas market with Mexican silver and other coins that had continued to depreciate in value. At the time of the strike, the silver was only worth about 65 cents on the market, he said, and workers had taken to the streets demanding their full wages, asking that they be matched "dollar fo’ dollar" with Danish currency.
Jackson stopped at each site along the two-hour tour, taking time to explain the significance of each place. At 80 Kronprindsens Gade, a building in an alley behind what is now First Bank, Benita Martin-Samuel, teacher, farmer and mother, dressed in a flowing traditional white gown, paused.
"I can’t go in there," she said. "The feelings, the energy, are just too strong for me." Co-founder Cooper explained there is something sometimes referred to as a form of "somnambulism," which represents strong feelings about a particular place.
Chenzira Kahina, Ph.D, of the Africa-centered cultural and spiritual group Per Ankh in Frederiksted, explained a bit about the feeling as she followed the group out of the alley and on to Market Square.
"It’s a spiritual energy we feel from our people," she said. "It can be felt not only by Africans, but by Danish, any ethnic group with roots tied to a particular site."
Kahina said Per Ankh strives to help youngsters today to understand the meaning of a spiritual connection. "Not religious," she stressed, "but it’s so important for young people to learn what is sacred, sacredness you can share."
An energy, positive and joyous, embraced the celebration at Market Square. There, Kahina and the Per Ankh dancers joined the St. Thomas Caribbean Ritual Dancers in a highly spirited dance, flowing this way and that as though led by an invisible choreographer, and backed by the rhythms of bamboula drummers.
"Kwabena" Davis gazed down at the dancing, his eyes wide with pleasure. "I think this is the first time they have danced together," he said in wonder. He saluted some of the moves. "What they are saying in dance is telling the masters to ‘go to hell, they have had it.’ You see it in the body language."
The steps of the square were filled with Cub Scouts, Pack 20, who seemed less engaged by the aesthetics of the event than by some free hot dogs. Ardrina Scott-Elliott, University of the Virgin Islands director of Advancement Services and Pack 20 den mother, said with a laugh, "Today’s their first big activity, and they’re enjoying it."
Several school groups joined the procession including a UVI social science class, Lockhart Elementary, and Addelita Cancryn Junior High School students.
The only element missing Saturday was the presence of Felipe Ayala, chair of the St. Thomas-St. John Historic Preservation Commission, who leads the tours with Jackson, and was unable to attend.
The event is funded in part by the V. I. Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Tourism, and the V.I. Cultural Heritage Institute.