Virgin Islanders inspired by Mandela in person and afar


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ST. THOMAS - Nelson Mandela inspired many people in the Virgin Islands to be leaders in their communities, fight against injustices and help those in need.

The fortunate few who met him said it changed their lives forever.

Virgin Islanders have always felt a kinship with Mandela and the struggles against racial injustice in South Africa.

Former Gov. Charles Turnbull said in the 1980s, when Mandela was imprisoned, Virgin Islanders of all ages would wear "Free Mandela" buttons and T-shirts.

"We knew of the struggle and many people joined the struggle," Turnbull said.

He said Virgin Islanders marched against apartheid at rallies in the states, and some were even arrested for civil disobedience. That pressure, from around the globe, was what led to his release in 1990, Turnbull said.

In 1988, two years before he was freed from a South African prison, the V.I. Legislature passed a bill creating Mandela Circle at the intersection that merges Long Bay, Frenchman's Bay and Centerline roads.

The intersection has a large sign with a photograph of the South African leader and the words, "Let Freedom Reign."

Turnbull remembered the territory's response in February 1990 when Mandela was released after 27 years in prison.

"That was a marvelous day," he said. "We here in the Virgin Islands were recovering from Hurricane Hugo, and we were suffering and we could feel empathetic that, yes, there is suffering, but there is always hope," he said. "That was very inspiring."

Roshini Cope, who now lives in St. Louis, Mo., was one of the lucky Virgin Islanders who actually met Mandela.

Cope, who was Miss U.S. Virgin Islands in 1995, had traveled to South Africa for the Miss World competition that year in Sun City, at the Sun City Entertainment Center.

"All of the contestants met him," Cope remembers.

She was nervous, as were many of the contestants, many of them in tears after meeting him - and some of them in tears before even meeting him. Most of them already knew of his influence, and if they did not, they were told more and more as their trip in South Africa went on. Cope recalls wondering what she would say to such a man, one whom she knew was highly revered in her own community back in St. Thomas.

"You're like, 'Oh my God. What do I say to Mandela?' " she said.

She also said that she was one of the darkest women in the competition, which made her feel a kinship with Mandela and a connection to many of the places where he made history in South Africa. Meeting him only made the connection to what he had accomplished more real, she said.

"He represents unity, and someone whose convictions led to something greater," she said.

Once she met him, Cope said, the great man was surprisingly easy to talk to.

"He was so regular," she said. "I'm 6-foot, 1. He said, 'Hi. How are you? Wow, you're so tall. You must have just shot up.' "

Cope will never forget the moment, which she has frozen in time in a photograph, in which she is shaking his hand while both she and him smile.

"The entire time I was just in awe," she said.

Jason Henry not only met Mandela, but got to have a discussion with him. That meeting changed Henry's life and put him on a career path he never expected.

In 1997, Henry was 20 years old. He traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, as a youth ambassador for Antigua to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

Henry went to the meeting to discuss issues affecting youth in the Caribbean, and he was selected to meet with Mandela to discuss youth issues and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The group brainstormed ideas, and when Henry returned to Antigua, he began to volunteer with HIV/AIDS organizations.

He later moved to the Virgin Islands and continued his work, working for the American Red Cross, the V.I. Health Department and now the Frederiksted Health Center.

"I went there with a mission of youth, and came away with something more," Henry said. "It is as a result of meeting Nelson Mandela that is why I do what I do, working with HIV/AIDS patients.

"Meeting him was exciting, and I wished I had an opportunity to meet with him again," he said.

University of the Virgin Islands President David Hall said Mandela had a profound impact on his development. Mandela demonstrated courage and determination in leadership during the apartheid era and as president of South Africa, Hall said.

The transition of the South African government under Mandela's leadership was one of the most magnificent transformations of a society in history, he said.

"I think he still stands as an example of transformative leadership here and in other places where we are still trying to make society free of any shackles or oppression," Hall said.

Chenzira Davis Kahina, director of the V.I. Caribbean Culture Center at UVI, shook Mandela's hand once after he gave a speech in New York City.

"Here in the Virgin Islands, he represents a powerful leader, a true keeper of humanitarian values," Kahina said. "Many people in the territory respect Mandela as an example of how you do not hate your enemies and do not do to your enemies what they have done to you."

She said the fight for self-determination and civil rights that Mandela led in South Africa resonates with Virgin Islanders who struggle with similar issues.

"He was an inspiration, and he showed what an elder, what a spiritual father does. They lead, they keep integrity and they share love, even at the times when it seems most difficult," she said.

Daily News reporter Jenny Kane contributed to this report.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi. The territory's leaders issued prepared statements about the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela after learning about his death Thursday.

Nelson Mandela's life is a lesson to all of us - on how to live a life of selfless service to others, to stand firm for what is right and just and how to face and overcome adversity without bitterness or hate.

May his iconic image and triumph of hope endure in all of us and serve as a comfort to his family and loved ones, the people of South Africa and the countless who mourn the passing of this incredible man and indelible leader across the world.

- Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen

Nelson Mandela was an inspiration to Virgin Islanders and to aspiring democracies and free nations around the world.

The world is tonight mourning, as it has truly lost one of the greatest men of the last 100 years. At this very sad time, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotations from Mr. Mandela. He said, 'For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.' Let us all try to follow the example of this extraordinary man.

- Gov. John deJongh Jr.

Although his passing saddens us, we celebrate a life devoted to ending injustice, advancing domestic and international peace and furthering civil rights. He was truly one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.

As we mourn him, we renew our determination to live in harmony and peace throughout the Virgin Islands and abroad by fighting to end the vestiges of bigotry, discrimination, hatred and injustice while seeking a world at peace and fighting against ignorance and hunger. May God bless President Nelson Mandela for the example he set, the millions he inspired and for the sacrifices he made to reach and achieve a better and more just world.

- V.I. Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone

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