An air of eager curiosity suffused the University of the Virgin Islands Administration and Conference Center Saturday morning as the Third Caribbean Symposium on Genealogy and History explored "The Role of Religious Institutions in Caribbean Genealogy."
The symposium explored the vital role of local religious institutions, "whether in the role of persecutor or the persecuted, whether as a place of refuge or the oppressor."
The day marked the third symposium of the Virgin Islands Genealogical Society, Inc., based on St. Thomas. The society was founded in 1985 by group of local people with a common passion to explore their roots. The organization has had its ups and downs; after a flurry of activity, it lay dormant for several years until in 1993 it found firm footing, becoming incorporated and registered as a non-profit.
In 2010, through Susan Lugo, then president of the Caribbean Genealogical Library, members of the Sociead Puertorriquena de Genealogia expressed interest in a visit to the Dominican Republic to explore common ancestral ties, which resulted in the V.I. Genealogical Society’s first Caribbean Symposium on Genealogy and History, held in the Dominican Republic, followed the next year by a gathering in Old San Juan.
Puerto Rico played a big role in Saturday’s presentation, with Norma Feliberti, president of the SPG, detailing the difficulties of obtaining information from the Catholic Church on records of baptism, marriage, death and burial, while discussing the shared heritage of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands – especially on St. Croix, which has a large Puerto Rican community.
She said the researchers have persevered; they wanted to "build a fruitful tree, not saplings, to create a legal forest," She concluded: "One truth that comes out of all the research is we are all family."
Historian and society president Senator Myron Jackson said in a 2008 Source interview what he knows to be true: "A child who doesn’t know his own background is a child who will fail."
Jackson is passionate about passing V.I. culture from one generation to the next.
He did so Saturday with an illustrated slide show depicting the enormous difficulties and mechanics of researching ethnic slave history from 1493, through the church records of the Moravian Missionaries who came to the Danish West Indies in 1737 to minister to the enslaved African population, and beyond.
Indigenous cultures were forced, with the backing of colonial governments, to abandon their spiritual belief systems and embrace customs that were totally unfamiliar to them when they arrived in the so-called "New World," he said.
Sometimes the slaves would be forced to assume the name of their owners. As a result of that and much else, tracing ancestral records is a challenging process. Much of it is an oral history, undocumented, with traditions handed down from one generation to the next.
But a vast reservoir of documentation exists. Aside from the church records, Jackson said, immigration records and church information on baptisms, deaths and marriages are useful in their own way.
He spoke of the formerly little-known but hugely influential Rebecca Protten, a Caribbean slave who helped inspire the rise of black Christianity in the Caribbean. She married a white pastor on St. Thomas, Jackson said, and at one time they were both imprisoned in Fort Christian for the crime of inter-marrying.
Her life has been documented in a book by Jon F. Sensbach. (See link below.)
Conference chair Ruby Simmonds Esannason led a panel discussion on "Resources of Religious and State Institutions in Virgin Island Genealogical Research." The panel was made up of local historians who shared knowledge on local institutions: Sonia Jacobs Dow, of the St. Croix Landmark Society, who detailed the society’s remarkable research archives; former Gov. Charles Wesley Turnbull, who gave a history of the local Methodist Church; Glen "Kwabena" Davis, who traced the Moravian Church’s history; Betty King, who detailed the history of the St. Thomas Reformed Church; and Garcita and Isborne Fredricks, who spoke on the Frederik Evangelical Church.
Participating delegates in the symposium, which continues though Monday, are the Anguilla Genealogical Society, the British Virgin Islands representatives, the St. Croix Landmarks Society, the St. John Historical Society and the Sociedad Puertorriquena de Genaologia.