Published: July 5, 2010
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Enslavement. Oppression. Deprivation. Rebellion.
And finally, emancipation.
Those were the themes Saturday as historian and community activist Mario Moorhead told the story of Emancipation Day to hundreds gathered at Frederiksted’s Buddhoe Park, on the spot where thousands of slaves from the island’s West End rallied to demand their freedom 162 years earlier.
People of all ages — sitting in camp chairs and on park benches or standing along the fringes — listened in rapt attention as Moorhead described the political and economic climate surrounding the events that occurred on July 3, 1848, a pivotal day in Virgin Islands history.
Moorhead’s talk was only one of the activities on a full slate of events — starting at 5 a.m. and continuing well into the night — to celebrate the day that enslaved Africans in the territory won their freedom in 1848.
The Emancipation Day celebration on St. Croix began with the ninth annual Fort to Fort Walk to Freedom, starting early in the morning at Fort Christiansvaern in Christiansted and continuing along Queen Mary Highway to Emancipation Drive and Fort Frederik in Frederiksted.
“It was an empowering walk, as usual,” said Sen. Terrence Nelson, who sponsors the event annually. The walk began with more than 100 participants and, 15 miles later, ended with more than 500, he said.
A cultural food village in Buddhoe Park, a cultural parade, a Constitutional Convention panel discussion, as well as Moorhead’s speech and a street quadrille rounded out the activities in Frederiksted, while on St. Thomas, the Pan-African Support Group and Emancipation Day Coalition hosted its 23rd celebration of Emancipation Day in Emancipation Garden.
Dozens of people watched or took part in the event on St. Thomas, which featured the tolling of the replica Liberty Bell for one hour in the park, a wreath laying ceremony, poetry, music and discussions of self-determination and history.
“When I hear the word Emancipation, I feel the strength of my ancestors,” said Jahweh David during the event. “The word brings up deep feelings.”
Leba Ola-Niyi spoke to the crowd about the theme of Emancipation Day on St. Thomas, “the road to self determination.”
He also spoke of a sense of pride in ancestors that brought an end to slavery in the territory.
On St. Croix, the Superior Court Rising Stars steel orchestra led off the Emancipation Day Cultural Parade — a revived tradition from the 150th commemoration of Emancipation Day 12 years ago — starting in front of Claude O. Markoe Elementary School in Frederiksted.
Mocko jumbies, masqueraders, quadrille dancers and the quelbe band from St. Croix Educational Complex participated in the parade, along with the Rising Stars, making their way slowly from the school down Fisher and King streets to Buddhoe Park, while people watched, cheered and took pictures.
“Today being Emancipation Day, we wanted to bring back what used to happen in the past and encourage our youth to learn their culture and participate in their culture,” said Educational Complex band director Valrica Bryson, who, with Kendall Henry, organized this year’s parade.
The Constitutional Convention panel brought many out, and led to a lively discussion.
Then, as afternoon turned to evening and the light softened, keynote speaker Moorhead began telling the story of Emancipation Day, taking those at the park back 200 years, to when the British controlled the island.
He spoke about the political situation, the conflicts among European countries and the rise of beet sugar production in Europe, which diminished the continent’s reliance on sugar cane produced by slave labor in the Caribbean.
In the years after the island returned to Danish control, the British abolished slavery in 1834 in their colonies, finding the use of indentured servants more cost-effective, Moorhead said.
He talked about the economic downturn that Denmark and its colonies were experiencing at the time, as well as a significant drop in the price of sugar, followed by a drop in the production of sugar on St. Croix, with the enslaved laborers experiencing even more hardship in the fallout from the downturn, through no fault of their own.
In the summer of 1847, Gov. Gen. Peter von Scholten announced that slaves would be gradually freed in the territory, with the children of slaves being freed, but adults having to wait 12 years.
“This is what lit the fuse,” Moorhead said.
At that point, Moses Gottlieb, a freed slave and master sugar boiler who was commonly referred to as “General Buddhoe,” and his comrade Martin King began organizing slaves on the island’s West End. Buddhoe’s services were in demand, and because of that, he traveled freely from plantation to plantation.
“He used the opportunity to pass word that this cannot stand,” Moorhead said.
Word circulated and gradually, a plan was devised.
Once everything was in place, word went out. Many who lived from Kingshill to the West End of the island were involved in the rebellion, Moorhead said. They were rallied by drums beating, conch shells blowing and bells ringing.
By the early morning on July 3, thousands of slaves had marched into Frederiksted to demand their freedom. Buddhoe, in a “splendid” red uniform, rode a white stallion into town, Moorhead said.
They gathered at Fort Frederik and Buddhoe delivered an ultimatum — demanding their freedom by noon or they would burn the town down.
The military sent word of the situation to von Scholten, who was in Christiansted.
Von Scholten missed the deadline. The crowd in Frederiksted ransacked the judges’ and police offices and tore down the whipping post — which was located in the area that is now Buddhoe Park — and threw it out to sea.
Buddhoe extended the deadline and von Scholten arrived in Frederiksted later that afternoon.
He asked his troops why they had not fired on the crowd, Moorhead said.
But part of the planning involved disarming the fort, replacing the gunpowder that fueled both cannons and firearms with sand.
“Without gunpowder, not a cannon, not a musket, not one weapon could fire,” Moorhead said.
Seeing the thousands gathered around the fort, von Scholten then declared all in the Danish West Indies free, Moorhead said, as the crowd in the park on Saturday erupted into applause.
The Emancipation Day festivities continued into the night, with a street quadrille in Custom House Square.