Impassioned speeches and traditional song and dance marked the Emancipation Day 2016 celebration in downtown Charlotte Amalie on Sunday.
Each year the Emancipation Day Coalition and other St. Thomas community organizations and members organize the commemoration honoring the men and women who rose up to end slavery in the territory 168 years ago.
This year’s event was titled “Freedom Fighters Never Rest.”
Several dozen community members gathered in Emancipation Gardens for a lineup that showcased local traditions and presentations that highlighted the historical and cultural connections between Africa and the Virgin Islands.
Akinyemi Blake, a longtime member of the Pan African Day Support Group, acted as master of ceremony. Between performances, he explained that the gathering present traditional dances such as Bamboula, as well as chanting and conch shell blowing, since that’s how the newly freed slaves celebrated when they were first liberated.
“It’s important to remember where we came from and to acknowledge this history, so we can make improvements in the future,” Blake said.
In 1848, Moses Gottlieb – known as “General Buddhoe” – of St. Croix led a successful uprising to end slavery in the territory almost 20 years before slavery ended in the U.S. mainland. After the rebellion, the then-governor freed all slaves in the Danish West Indies even though St. Croix was one of the largest sugar cane producers in the world at the time.
The Voices of Love, a group of three female singers and one male guitar player, performed traditional songs to teach the crowd about how slaves used them to secretly communicate. According to the group, the song “Brother Hopeful” is a song about marooning, meaning fleeing the plantation. Full of symbolism and metaphors, the line “Bless my soul and gone,” refers to being freed by a maroon.
Poet Jahweh David Chinnery delivered a powerful reading, as evidenced by the many cheers she incited from the crowd during her performance. Her poems honored ancestors from the Virgin Islands and asked for their guidance. “Yes, freedom fighters never rest,” Chinnery said. “They stand the test of time.”
In addition to cheering and clapping, members of the crowd also joined in during some of the performances. The Wachanga drummers encouraged everyone to sing along to the song “Rivers of Babylon” and many obliged the request.
Tanama Colibri, a self-described “conscious musician,” played guitar and sang a song that visibly moved the crowd. Her lyrics carried a sense of urgency: “The children need to know the truth about their past, for tomorrow it’ll be too late,” she sang.
Many members of We Grow Food Inc., the community of farmers from Bordeaux, attended Sunday’s event. Community leader Eldridge “Sparks” Thomas addressed the crowd to emphasize the importance of strengthening agriculture in the territory. He said his organization’s mission is to “promote, preserve encourage and defend agriculture in the territory.”
“We have to defend agriculture because it’s still in a deprived situation,” Thomas said. “It’s dying because we lack infrastructure and support from leadership,” adding that agriculture is key to keeping local traditions alive and freeing the territory’s residents from imported, less fresh food from the mainland.
Kashawn Rabsatt said he attended the event this year to show his appreciation for the Emancipation Day Coalition’s efforts. He said his favorite part was when the bell rang out to signify the start of the ceremony.
Blake said he was pleased with the turnout, especially since there was good balance of young and old attendees. Throughout the ceremony, both elders and youths presented thoughts on the meaning of Emancipation Day and in some cases how they feel about the current state of the Virgin Islands and its people.
“I’m happy we had a lot of youth here today,” he said. “They’re coming forward to keep the culture alive.”