The significance of Emancipation Day was not lost on the crowds that began to gather early on St. Thomas for a celebration that paid tribute to the struggles made by ancestors that many said gave up their lives for freedom.
The annual celebration on St. Thomas is held in Emancipation Garden and organized by the Pan African Day Support Group, whose Emancipation Day Coalition also includes the University of the Virgin Islands Summer Band Camp, the Environmental Rangers and local historian and storyteller Glen Kwabena Davis.
"We have been doing this for several years now, more than 10, and we think Emancipation Day should be commemorated because it is a significant day in Virgin Islands history," explained organizer Leba Ola-Niyi. "It is a day when our ancestors took their destiny into their hands to demand freedom from shackled slavery. And because of them shedding their blood, because of their spirit and their struggle, we are enjoying some of the freedoms they didn’t have today. So we should always remember this day, our history and culture as Virgin Islanders and Caribbean people."
Emancipation Day commemorates the date in 1848 when the enslaved population of the former Danish West Indies gained their freedom. Prompted by an uprising led by Moses "General Buddhoe" Gottlieb, the official proclamation was made on July 3, 1848, at Fort Frederik, on the northern edge of Frederiksted, St. Croix, by then Governor-General Peter von Sholten.
"This part of our history really carries great meaning for me," St. Thomas resident Wayne Smith said as the event began to get going Wednesday morning. "Our ancestors fought for something, for freedom for all of us, and it is important that we pay them some respect. This is the first time I have ever come to this event, but I wanted to listen to what is being presented. And I want to stay until it is finished."
The event started with the ringing of the Liberty Bell on the western end of the garden, and a tribute made by students to Virgin Islanders – from Ulla F. Muller to General Buddhoe – that have helped shape the history of the territory. The traditional blowing of the conch shell to rally the audience to the bandstand followed, along with a libation offering made by Sen. Myron D. Jackson.
"It is a tradition for us to come here," St. Thomas resident Gloria Colon, whose daughter is playing with the UVI band camp, said Wednesday. "I am proud to support our local community and it also means a lot to me as an African American. This day, for me, means freedom."
The event also gave organizers a forum for discussing current issues.
"By doing this event, we are hoping to teach more people about the history of the Virgin Islands, and it is definitely a day to reflect on what happened all those years ago," Ola-Niyi added. "But it is also a chance for us to reflect on where we are. We know where we were, but we need to also think about where we are now and what we can do to make a difference in our society, what we can do to make our community much better than what it is."