Several hundred people celebrated Emancipation Day with their feet Wednesday, trekking from Christiansted to Frederiksted to honor the march on Fort Frederik that resulted in the abolishment of slavery in the Danish West Indies in 1848.
A crowd of more than 200 people, some dressed in white, others in jogging gear, met at Fort Christiansvaern at 5 a.m. before setting out on their journey.
Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson, who organizes the annual event, said it may have been the largest gathering ever, and the crowd was getting so large it had become impossible to keep them all together. Nelson said he was happy to see the energy and participation.
The event does seem to be taking on a life of its own. Renholdt Jackson, coordinator of the Police Athletic League center in Whim, organized his own activity for his students to coincide with the march.
He led the children on a bike ride from Estate Whim to Buddhoe Park, where the students then gave a short presentation on the history of Emancipation Day.
Jackson said he was compelled to plan the event because he was afraid children weren’t learning about one of the seminal events in St. Croix history.
“We had a little discussion about emancipation, and 60 or 70 kids were there but only about 30 had any idea what I was speaking about,” he said.
Jackson said afterward, he planned to take the children to the beach where they would wade into the ocean in their clothes before returning home.
“It’s going to be very uncomfortable,” he said. “But I’m trying to show them that not everything in life is as easy as you think and to try to tolerate things that are uncomfortable and make a positive out of a negative.”
Marchers arrived at Buddhoe Park in ones and twos throughout the morning and cooled themselves on the benches as they waited for the rest of the procession to arrive.
Around 10:15 a.m., Nelson and a large number of walkers marched triumphantly down King Street accompanied by a speaker truck. Nelson rallied the crowd over the microphone shouting “We have arrived!” and intermittently blowing a conch shell.
As the procession reached Buddhoe Park, Nelson began dancing with the marchers and then led them to the entrance of the fort. He encouraged them to symbolically rattle the chain on the gate.
“Release the shackles of oppression. Release the shackles of injustice. Release the shackles of poverty,” he shouted. “Release the shackles of anger, violence and hate. Come on ya’ll. Release the shackles. It’s emancipation day; let your light shine!”
Nelson then led the crowd in a prayer and reminded them to apply the lessons of emancipation to their lives today.
“Whatever is oppressing you in today’s world. Whether it’s finances. Whether it’s a domestic relationship. Whether it’s a career. Whatever it is, ask for freedom from you vice right here,” he said.
Afterwards, the crowd broke up. Some went home to change and shower while others stuck around for a food fair organized by the St. Patrick’s School alumni.
After the march, Monique Cruz said she had participated in the event for several years and said she wished more locals would turn out. Cruz said she knew the early start time and the length of the walk were daunting, but she thought people should still try.
“At least you can do half way. Do what you can” she said. “It doesn’t have to be fort to fort. We were lucky enough to have the strength to do it – it’s not easy – but at least go out and support. It’s a big deal.”