Echoing a moment from a century past, on Friday the Danish flag was lowered and the U.S. flag hoisted up at 4 p.m. – the same time as 100 years ago, marking the centennial anniversary of the Virgin Islands becoming part of the United States.
Throughout the day’s outdoor ceremony, speakers celebrated the unique, historical friendship the Virgin Islands has with the Kingdom of Denmark, but not without numerous acknowledgements of how the former colonial ruler benefited from the institution of slavery.
More than 400 people, including local and Danish government officials and military service members, Danish tourists, local schoolchildren, dancers, musicians and members of the community attended the event at the Legislature building on St. Thomas.
In a politically charged speech, Congresswomen Stacy E. Plaskett, the V.I. delegate to the House of Representatives, recounted the political history that has denied Virgin Islanders full voting rights as U.S. citizens and noted that U.S. territories don’t receive as much federal funding for education and infrastructure as the states do.
Plaskett said that last week she introduced a joint resolution that, if approved, would give Virgin Islanders and other residents of U.S. territories the right to vote for president.
Acknowledging the ills of slavery, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, told attendees that although the territory and his country share a common past that they haven’t always had the same understanding of that history.
Rasmussen said older history books in his country painted the Virgin Islands as an idyllic place under Danish rule despite the fact that slavery was present.
“Is there any justification for suppression?” Rasmussen asked the crowd before saying that slavery is unforgivable dark part of Danish history. He said the true heroes of the past are the men and women of the Virgin Islands who fought to take back their freedom.
Rasmussen continued, “What happened in the past has affected where the islands are today.”
For that reason, Rasmussen said he wants Denmark to help improve the Virgin Islands in the future and has already planned to start doing so with a college scholarship program for local students.
Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp thanked the prime minister for acknowledging the real history of slavery in the territory and said he supports the push for stronger relations between the two places.
Looking to the future, Mapp said these observations are made to recognize the amount of work that needs to be done over the next 100 years to promote prosperity for more Virgin Islanders. He said he wants there to be conversations about self-determination and political maturity.
A number of other dignitaries shared remarks about the historic occasion. Nicolao Pula, acting assistant secretary for insular areas for the U.S. Department of the Interior, introduced the newly appointed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.
Zinke read a signed letter from President Donald Trump that read: “Virgin Islanders have found great success as members of the American family, distinguishing themselves in the arts, literature and sports, and achieving great acclaim in the fields of education, medicine, science, engineering, agriculture, politics and law. Virgin Islands patriots have served honorably in all branches of the United States Armed Forces and continue to serve and sacrifice for our freedom and liberty.”
Speaking on behalf of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Congresswoman Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen from American Samoa read a statement congratulating Virgin Islanders on the historic anniversary.
Central to the issues raised by Plaskett, American Samoa is the only place in the U.S. where citizenship is not granted to people at birth if neither of their parents is already a citizen. In the other four unincorporated territories, including the Virgin Islands, people born in the territory automatically become a citizen.
A parade preceded the ceremony, stretching from Addelita Cancryn Junior High School to the Legislature building. For the first three-quarters of the parade route people were sparsely clustered, but the crowd grew thicker nearer Fort Christian.
Danish military personnel marched in the parade along with Virgin Islander military servicemen and women, students from the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), firefighters and local school marching bands.
While the parade mostly featured military personnel, the ceremony at the Legislature highlighted the islands’ culture and history. Written specifically for the Centennial, a choreographed dramatization featuring modern and Bamboula dances explored the reality of slavery and the accomplishments of prominent native Virgin Islanders.
For some, celebrating the historic transfer strengthens sentimental ties they have to their family’s past. St. Thomas resident Jeffrey Sewer said the celebration was special to him because his grandparents lived under the Danish flag. Cheryl Bougounea, a St. Thomas resident, said that growing up her father had a photo of the historic switching of the flags that he kept hung up in the home.
Not all people along the parade route were enthusiastic about the celebratory nature of the Transfer festivities. Savannah Loftus, Hadiya Sewer and T’Sean Brady held signs that said “End Colonialism,” and “Decolonize the U.S.V.I.”
Sewer, who is a doctoral candidate in Africana Studies at Brown University and is a member of the V.I. Youth Advocacy Coalition, said that she doesn’t think people should be celebrating the Transfer, since the Virgin Islands were sold to the U.S. without the consent of the native people living there.
According to the United Nations, the Virgin Islands are a non-self-governing territory, which is another way of saying “colony,” and people living in U.S. territories aren’t allowed to vote, Sewer explained.
Others don’t see the issues as so black and white. They appreciate celebrating the historical ties between the territory and Denmark, but they also think the former colonial ruler should apologize for slavery. And, they think full constitutional rights should be extended to all U.S. territories.
“We proudly celebrate our union with the United States and embrace all that America represents, including the ideal of equality, justice and opportunity for all, yet we also contemplate our status as a territory and reflect on what it means to be American in a jurisdiction where the United States Constitution does not automatically follow the flag,” said Honorable Rhys S. Hodge, chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Virgin Islands, when he addressed the crowd.
Lt. Gov. Osbert E. Potter said that there are different opinions about what should come out of the Transfer Centennial. He said some want reparations, an apology, or to vote for president.
Still, Potter said the day was a day for Virgin Islanders to be thankful that they live under the U.S. flag, where they are guaranteed safety, protection and freedom.
Throughout the three and a half hour ceremony, which left little time for people to prepare for the following reception, government officials and members of the Transfer Centennial Commission thanked everyone involved in planning the celebration.
Former V.I. Gov. Charles Wesley Turnbull recognized the territory’s elders and centenarians who were alive when the transfer took place. Daniel Orlando Smith OBE, premier of the British Virgin Islands, also spoke.
Holding up a sign crossing out the American flag is not the route you take if you want people in Washington to listen to you.
I agree 100% with you!
Not one U S Navy ship in our harbor for the Centennial activities. Not one U S Military Band was in the parade. No U S Military personnel were in the parade except for local National Guard personnel. I’m sure that if they were invited they would have been present. It seems that our present leaders are focused more on Denmark than on the U S of A.
A factor that could come back to haunt us very soon.
Clearly, the US was invited to participate. The Executive Branch sent the Secretary of the Interior with a letter; the Congress sent a representative from American Samoa (?). The US government decided the manner of its participation; the USVI cannot make those decisions. The US did not deign to send a ship or any other ceremonial representation. that speaks to the attitude of the US, not the USVI.
It appears that Denmark has more interest in us than does the US.
yes, but Denmark will not be the USVI’s financial benefactor in a few months when there is no more money left to skim by our corrupt politicians, starting with Mapp.
U.S. Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, was in attendance for the Centennial ceremonies.
The non n native daughter speaks like so many of the uninformed and ungrateful that lives among us. She needs to sit down with her calculator next to an informed person and make an estimate of how many billions of dollars that the U S of A has given to this Territory since 1917 and up to this very day. Something that Denmark never did in the 240 plus years that they had a stranglehold on these Islands.
Denmark is a simply seeking an opportunity to sell us more goods and service and our weak leaders are falling for their ploy.
The non native daughter should learn from the saying by the U S writer Mark Twain.
“It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.”