Despite a rainy afternoon and a stormy evening sky, hundreds gathered in Frederiksted Friday celebrating the 132nd anniversary of the 1878 Fireburn labor revolt, an event which marked the beginning of the end of near serf-like legal status for black workers on St. Croix.
Ras Lumumba of St. Croix blew calls on the conch shell as the crowd slowly gathered after dusk inside and around the United Caribbean Association, adjacent to Buddhoe Park and Fort Frederik. UCA has been commemorating the day for the past 37 years. Once again, as he has for years now, radio host and historian Mario Moorhead retold some of the history leading up to the tragic but pivotal event in Virgin Islands’ history and there was a performance of a short play about the events. Moorhead, a founder of UCA, recounted how from Emancipation in 1848 until after the Fireburn three decades later, the date Oct. 1 marked the end of a plantation laborer’s contract, giving the laborer the ability to contract on a different plantation for the next year. The rest of the year, laborers were not allowed to leave their plantation without permission.
Many of those in the audience have been coming to the annual celebration for years, but there were plenty of first timers too.
"I’ve seen lots of new faces in the audience this year," said Elizabeth Pichardo, a psychology student at the University of the Virgin Islands. "There were ten or more Spanish speakers too, which is good to see. Everyone can use a bit more understanding of our history."
After Moorhead spoke, UCA members Wala, Asheba and others performed an original play by Richard Schrader Sr. entitled "1878: Queen Mary and Dem" that presents the events leading up to the Fireburn from the perspective of the several "queens" who are credited with instigating and organizing the uprising. The play is fast becoming a Fireburn tradition in Frederiksted. Dozens of young children and quite a few teenagers filled many of the chairs, listening raptly to the play, then to poetry and other original spoken performances recalling the struggles of their St. Croix forefathers. As many more children were running around outside, playing while their elders kept watch.
"The same problems we had back then are the ones we still face today," said Wala, after the play ended. "The injustices of the government continue and as a people we have to come together to change our situation."
Afterwards, the crowd marched to the beating of drums through the streets of Frederiksted with torches in hand in a peaceful reenactment of those fateful events of 1878.
Every year after 1848 employers promised better wages and working conditions but never delivered. Although technically no longer enslaved, workers’ movements were highly restricted and in some respects working conditions were actually worse than before. In slave times, slaves were regularly punished by the cutting off of a foot or slicing off of a tongue, and work days were often 12 to 16 hours. But even after Emancipation, the working populace was heavily controlled and restricted and workers could not even leave their neighborhoods and go to Christiansted without a pass. Black workers could only leave the plantation once a year, on Oct. 1 – referred to as Contract Day, to enter into a new contract at a new plantation. The only exceptions to the restrictive labor laws, the only places blacks could live if they were not working on a plantation were areas called Free Gut in both Frederiksted and Christiansted, where some tradesmen and others eked out a living and a handful owned small shops, Moorhead said.
Tensions and frustrations rose over the decades after Emancipation and on Contract Day in 1878 four women on St. Croix, traditionally called queens, organized a revolt to demand all plantations pay the same or better than the St. Croix Central Factory and to repeal the Labor Act of 1849 that kept workers in serf-like conditions. These Virgin Islands heroines were: Queen Mary Thomas, Queen Mathilde Macbean, Susanna "Bottom Belly" Abrahamson and Axeline "Queen Agnes" Salomon.
For five days, much of the west end of the island burned. More than 120 black workers and 20 or more planters were killed before soldiers came in and crushed the revolt. Hundreds were arrested and ultimately the queens who were regarded as the ringleaders were sent off to prison in Denmark. But the die was cast, the labor acts repealed and wages and conditions improved a little, setting the stage for later V.I. labor heroes like D. Hamilton Jackson a few decades later.