Gray skies withheld their rain for a few hours Friday at the annual Liberty Day rally honoring early 20th century V.I. newspaper publisher, labor leader, civil rights and civic reformer D. Hamilton Jackson in Grove Place.
The scent of grilled meat filled the air and people were selling rotis, pates, johnny cakes, chicken, Vienna cake and other pastries, local drinks and more, while soca played over the loudspeaker and the St. Croix Central High School JROTC Color Guard practiced as the Grove Place Action Committee prepared for the day’s speeches in the D. Hamilton Jackson Park’s bandstand.
The commemoration of the V.I. political figure’s life is always a day for politicking and speeches, and Friday was no different, with several unannounced potential candidates for governor rallying with supporters clad in matching shirts.
Former Lt. Gov. Gerard "Luz" James was there with a small throng of 20 or 30 wearing "Luz James for Governor" T-shirts.
State Command Sgt. Maj. Mona Barnes, who holds the highest enlisted rank in the territory, manned a tent emblazoned with a "Mona Barnes for Governor 2014" banner.
Delegate Donna M. Christensen’s supporters wore shirts saying "Time4U" Christensen 2014.
Once opening ceremonies were completed, Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone gave some remarks about the importance of the day and told the audience the Legislature’s cable television channel is running a documentary about Jackson where people can get an in-depth look at the man’s life and contributions to V.I. society.
Sheronice Perez of Grove Place Weed and Seed Peer Mediation Group read an original poem expressing her feelings about the troubles that face young Virgin Islanders, with sentiments like "I wanted to scream ‘stop now,’ all the drugs and violence," and "you are not broken, you are a beautiful book filled with stories of what is yet to come."
Christensen took to the podium next and reflected that she had been coming out to Grove Place "Bull and Bread," as the holiday is also known, "as far back” as she can remember. Christensen recalled Jackson’s labor history and the rallies he held under the old Grove Place Baobab, a massive tree planted centuries ago, presumably from seeds brought with slaves from Africa.
"We are here today in the shadow of the great baobab tree to reflect on liberty and the cost of liberty, because it is not static," Christensen said. “It is something we must work toward every day. The work of liberty demands we put the petty differences and arguments aside, that we forget the real and perceived slights and work together for liberty … and come together to forge a consensus and a vision for our future," she said.
Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis said Jackson worked for the benefit of those who needed help and said "we need to think in terms of what the great D. Hamilton Jackson stood for: Uniting the people, and for the betterment of all Virgin Islanders."
Raymond Williams, Francis’ chief of staff and a member of the Grove Place Action Committee, told stories about how the neighborhood has changed over the years and anecdotes about the many people who have come and gone. He and GPAC Vice President Denies Lewis also exhorted Grove Place residents and anyone on St. Croix who cares about Jackson’s legacy to join the GPAC and help make sure the celebration continues in years to come.
Eulalie R. Rivera Elementary School student Summer White took to the podium and told the gathered throng of a few hundred souls about Jackson’s life and how Jackson traveled to Denmark and successfully petitioned King Christian X to allow independent newspapers in the territory, and then how he started publishing The Herald with its first paid issue printed Nov. 1, 1915.
As the story goes, the first edition of The Herald was posted upon the Grove Place baobab, and the spontaneous celebration that took place there as a result led to the slaughter of a bull and the distribution of roast beef and bread to the excited crowd. Since that day, Nov. 1 has come to be known as Liberty Day, D. Hamilton Jackson Day, or Bull and Bread Day. It is a government and banking holiday in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The newspaper was a major milestone and one which attracted worldwide attention. But Jackson had been organizing labor for some time before then, and earlier the same year, in January of 1915, Jackson successfully initiated a general strike.
At the time, most of the people on St. Croix labored on sugar cane plantations under severe work conditions and a standard pay rate of 20 cents a day. The six-week strike crippled a dozen different estates and brought the massive Bethlehem Sugar Factory to a halt at the peak of the harvest. The major landowners and owners of the factory capitulated and, overnight, wages went up to 35 cents a day – a 75 percent raise.
After the U.S. purchase of the Danish colonies in 1917, Jackson was an influential voice pushing for full citizenship for Virgin Islanders, protesting naval rule and insisting upon civil government, contributing to the passage of the first Organic Act in 1936.
The Grove Place Action Committee organizes the park ceremony every year, putting together a series of speakers, arranging for music and special presentations, and cooking up a giant feast of beef and bread. Every first of November since 1915 there has been a celebration near the Grove Place Baobab – across the street from Grove Place’s D. Hamilton Jackson Park – commemorating the organized labor movement on St. Croix, and would also come to commemorate Jackson as founder of the movement on the island.
Once the speeches and benediction were complete, the deejay struck up quelbe music on the sound system and everyone lined up for the traditional meal of beef and bread, which was served by volunteers from the Grove Place Action Committee.