by Carol M. Bareuther
Emancipation Day is celebrated on July 3 in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This day, and the days leading up to this 163rd annual holiday, will be marketed by a number of celebrations and commemorations that visitors and locals alike are invited to enjoy.
It was on July 3, 1848, that St. Croix's African population revolted against the Danes who owned the islands at the time and successfully broke the bonds of slavery. This significant event set the stage for the freeing of slaves on St. Croix's neighboring islands of St. Thomas and St. John. What's notable is that emancipation came to then Danish West Indies some 19 years before Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in the Unites States. Yet, what set the island's most momentous historical event in action was an 1847 mandate from King Christian VIII of Denmark that all babies born from that time forward would be declared free, but that slavery wouldn't be abolished in the Danish colonies for another twelve years. This didn't set well with the African population and it was Moses 'General Buddhoe' Gottlieb, an enslaved African with great leadership and diplomacy skills, who led the near bloodless rebellion that ended with Governor General Peter Von Scholten proclaiming 'from this day forward the unfree of the Danish West Indies are henceforth free'.
Donkeys have long been an integral part of island life, dating back to when the Danes brought these beasts of burden to work hauling sugar cane. Donkey races kick off the Emancipation Day celebrations as a link to cultural traditions.
"I can remember we had donkey races on special holidays as far back as in the 1950's when I was a kid," says Roy Rogers, a member of the service group, Gentlemen of Jones, who sponsors the annual event.
Races take place starting at 1 p.m. at Paul E. Joseph Stadium in Frederiksted traditionally on the last weekend of June. There's a large sun-shaded section where spectators can sit and watch the fun. Wannabe riders are also encouraged to join in.
"There's a sign-up sheet that's open pretty much until a race begins and events for adults and children alike," says Jim Weber, another of the Gentleman of Jones organizers. "You can ride bareback, in the carriage races, in the relay races, whatever you'd like. The real fun is trying to get these ornery animals to do what you want. There's also music, food and drink so it's a full day of activity."
The Emancipation Tea Meeting will be held at Fort Frederik on July 2 and commemorates the annual feasts held at the end of the cane harvest.
"Orators, many of whom are our elders, will tell stories and recite poetry," explains Mary Moorhead, president of the History, Culture and Tradition Foundation and member of the group's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow Emancipation Committee.
Midway through the meeting there will be a break for cultural food and drink such as 'bush' or local herb tea and raisin buns.
Festivities commemorating Emancipation Day start at 4 p.m. in Buddhoe Park in Frederiksted, immediately following the horse races at Randall 'Doc' James Race Track. In the past, this celebration has included dance, music, historical re-enactments and keynote speakers who address the sacrifices of and pay homage to the island's ancestors. Local drinks and foods such as kallaloo and roast pork will be available for sale.
"This is a commemoration," says Moorhead, "that is informational, educational and entertaining."
For more information, call 340-772-0067.