02 April 2013

U.S. Virgin Islands Legislator Addresses past, future of territory

Senator Myron Jackson’s Transfer Day Speech 

to the St. Croix Landmarks Society, St. Croix 

on March 23, 2013 

Theme: “Recalling Our Past, Forging Our Future to 2017”

Good morning fellow Virgin Islanders, visitors.

I would like to thank The Transfer Day Planning Committee comprised of the St. Croix Friends of Denmark and the St. Croix Landmarks Society with the support of the Office of the Governor and the Department of Tourism, for the invitation to address this gathering this morning.  This year March 31st coincides with the Christian observance of Easter Sunday.  Today, this event will most likely be recorded as the official observance in the Territory that marks the 96th anniversary of the sale, purchase and transfer of a former Danish colony and people to the United States of America. 

My family connection as well as many of yours are linked to ancestors who were born, lived, contributed, died and were buried in this sacred soil.  My grandmother Maude Clendenin Peterson was born in the Danish West Indies in 1905.  She provided us with the insights of her life and those of countless others who lived during this period of great turmoil and uncertainty.  She witnessed the official Transfer Day ceremony on March 31, 1917 at 4:00 pm, with a conscious mother, who understood the importance of that day and the transition that they, however marginalized, were going to face from the political, social, economic and cultural changes that America would bring.  

As they and other West Indian working class subjects throughout the colony took their vantage points behind the barriers around the Forts in the towns, Danish families and government officials took the best vistas and official positions. There was stillness in the air as if time had stopped.  As the anthems played, flags were exchanged, and cannons and gun salutes boomed, there was a great sense of sadness as elders shed tears and children buzzed with excitement over the day. Oral history tells us that on that day the elders throughout the land said, “We know what we had but we do not know what we going to get.”  “And this the Danish West Indies passed into history and the Virgin Islands of the United States were born.”

This chapter of our history, over the last nine decades, continues to be an interesting saga. Descendants of Danes and Afro-Danes, Virgin Islanders, sociologists, historians, politicians, Congress, the Department of Interior, the United Nations, and others locally, regionally and internationally have questioned and debated our past, our present political status, and our quality of life under American rule.   Have we been better off under the American flag? What is and should be the future political status of the Virgin Islands of the United States?  Will we be able to achieve a constitution for the advancement of self governance and exercise our fundamental democratic right for self determination?

One question that is pivotal to a collective consensus is should we make the needed investments required for the Centennial observance of a history spanning over 500 years?  I would suggest, yes we should.  We should use this period prior to the Centennial to have an open and meaningful discourse with our communities and celebrate our history through debates and forums on topics such as our common colonial past, reparations, our political status and our identity. Workshops, exhibitions, art programs, genealogy research and DNA exploration, cultural exchange, science, energy and technology innovations, business opportunities, sports, tourism, music festivals, dance, theater, literature and any other facet of our human and intellectual expressions should be essential components of engagements between Denmark, West Africa, the Virgin Islands, United States and the Caribbean.  These initiatives will afford opportunities that will allow us to heal from past wounds and build bridges of mutual respect and cooperation.

We have an opportunity to have an ongoing education initiative that will provide a framework from which we can collectively work from. Should we ignore our early native ancestors who dwelled and defended these islands from 15th and 16th century European colonization? Their remains and footsteps can still be found in the sands. However, we continue to desecrate their sacred sites and lack the creativity and foresight to celebrate this rich cultural legacy.  Their blood still runs in our veins and we should honor them.

1917 marked 250 years of Danish colonization.  This chapter brokered a capitalistic mercantile and plantation enterprise that enslaved and sold our ancestors from West African Slave Castles and depots to enterprising European companies and sea captains who forcibly transported our African ancestors to build the Americas. This saga as well as other accounts of our struggles and accomplishments are well documented in our shared history of irreplaceable historic archives and records, housed in Denmark, United States, the Virgin Islands and other depositories around the world that hold the key to many of our questions in our search and rediscovery for our identity. Our ancestors contributions can be seen on this landscape and in the inherited surviving architectural heritage of our three towns, villages, vernacular cottages, churches, plantation sites, Forts, sites of memory and graveyards, and landmarks. African and Creole expression and retentions are also found in our language, foodways, spiritual beliefs, dance music and decorative arts such as mahogany furniture, which has been auctioned, sold and transported to the four corners of the world.

Transfer Day is a significant observation in Virgin Islands History.  To many it may be merely a property transaction between two countries, a treaty signed and the contents unknown or understood by most Virgin Islanders.   Others mark it as the end of one way of life and the beginning of another.  Then there are those whose vision of Transfer Day are deep rooted, introspective and reflect a cohesive account of the past and how it ties into the future of these islands.  Linking the relevant factors of our past in a manner that charts a direction for the future is never an easy task.  However, if we are to embrace this day from a new perspective, we should explore what it signifies to us as a people.

The fact remains that culture and history are essential to our spiritual well being.  The age old saying remains, “if you don’t know your past, you won’t know your future.”  You do not have an identity.

As the world recovers from the global economic meltdown that began in 2007, tourist destinations must find ways to distinguish themselves from each other.  After the landscape, beaches and rum libations, what is left to be explored?  The culture of a place will be an overriding factor and history becomes a magnet and an enticement.  As we approach the centennial observance, we have a unique opportunity to showcase the Virgin Islands and its people to the world.  This celebration should be used to express where we have come from, who we are today, and our hopes and aspirations for the future.