Former Sen. Myron Jackson was on hand Monday as the large copper bust of King Christian IX was removed from Emancipation Garden to make way for the Conch Shell Blower – a statue that better reflects the name and history of the square yet has been relegated to the periphery of the park since it was erected in 1998.
A ceremony to mark that evolution will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Emancipation Garden in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.
Jackson championed the move as a senator in the 33rd Legislature, which voted in December to appropriate $20,000 from the St. Thomas Capital Improvement Fund to refurbish and relocate the Danish monarch’s bust to Fort Christian and replace it with the more culturally appropriate Conch Shell Blower.
“It doesn’t stop there,” Jackson said on Monday as he watched sculptor Tom Elicker clean the bust in preparation for a coat of protective wax before it is placed in the fort. “With the [Veterans Drive] waterfront project, the park is to be expanded and it is supposed to become a national park for Virgin Islands heroes and sheroes,” Jackson said.
“This is a cultural space, and it will be expanded,” Jackson said as he surveyed the tree-lined square dotted with benches and a view of the St. Thomas Harbor. “The history of emancipation will most likely take place in the circle” in the center of the park.
The square evolved from a bustling slave market in the 1600s to the site where the Emancipation Proclamation was read after thousands of enslaved ancestors in what was then the Danish West Indies converged on Fort Frederik on St. Croix to demand their freedom on July 3, 1848, Jackson said.
King Christian IX did not ascend the throne until 1863 – well after the Emancipation Proclamation – but the oppression of people of color in the Danish West Indies continued during his reign.
“He was the king during the Fireburn of 1878, and that was another act of self-determination to really end slavery,” said Jackson, referring to the riots on St. Croix to end repressive labor and voting rights laws the colonial rulers instituted in the years after Emancipation.
The bust was placed in the park in 1908, not because of anything to do with Emancipation, but to grace what was then King’s Wharf landing, said Jackson, who actually saved the statue when it was toppled after being blown over during Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. “Somehow I got it in the back of my car,” he said, and it was eventually remounted by Public Works and a group of citizens.
Now the bust will be properly contextualized within the fort’s walls.
“There are two sides to this conversation, about taking him down and taking down the history, but today’s generation is saying the contradictions are too harsh, and when they come here for Emancipation Day, that the king overshadows the whole concept. Then on the periphery is the Conch Shell Blower for freedom. Emancipation should be the focal point, not the king’s reign,” said Jackson.
“And I have to say, 1998, even then the Conch Shell Blower for freedom was an afterthought. It wasn’t, ‘This is a statue that really deserves to be a focal point of the park,’ back in 1998. And I can tell you because I worked with the sculptor on it,” said Jackson, speaking of Bright Bimpong of Ghana.
“I really think the greater story here is how our democracy works. Unlike other communities, where monuments have been defaced and sprayed and destroyed, the community here was very proactive in petitioning the branches of government for its removal,” said Jackson. That included Michael Vante, who originated the petition that garnered 1,300 signatures and helped convince the V.I. Legislature to act.
“It wasn’t a discussion that was prompted by Black Lives Matter, because the fight for a day of recognition was also a struggle – that we didn’t have an Emancipation Day observance. The Danes never enacted one. The early American period did not enact one. It was an afterthought. We celebrated July 4 as Americans, but there was no official ceremony for July 3,” Jackson said.
Even today, while government money is appropriated for Emancipation Day celebrations, it is local groups that organize the events, Jackson said.
“That really shows you the contradiction that, on the periphery, Emancipation is still considered not an important and significant holiday that heads of state, heads of government and the community gather in these sacred spaces to observe and recognize such a chapter in history,” said Jackson.
“The government really does not put a lot of emphasis on this observance. I think that that is the discussion to be had. Why is Emancipation such a periphery to the significance of this square where the proclamation was read?”