14 July 2015

1848 Emancipation in the Virgin Islands: Where do we go from here?

167th Anniversary of Emancipation
An Address by

Gerard M. Emanuel
July 3, 2015
Frederiksted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands

Image result for Gerard M. EmanuelGerard Emanuel is an adjunct professor in the St. Croix Campus of the University of the Virgin Islands. He was an elected member to the Virgin Islands Fifth Constitutional Convention, and was the Executive Director of the Virgin Islands Commission on Status and Federal Relations which conducted the only political status referendum in the history of the territory in 1993. July 3rd each year is commemorated by the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands, formerly the Danish West Indies, as the emancipation from physical slavery. The territory was subsequently transferred to the U.S. in 1917.

Peace and Greetings to all!  Today, July 3, 2015, marks the 167th anniversary of the emancipation of Virgin Islanders from physical slavery.  The attainment of freedom by our enslaved African ancestors on July the 3rd 1848 is certainly the most important accomplishment that affected all Africans in the VI.  Although it was a self-determined effort, it was not a complete attempt at self-determination.  This is the first main point of this presentation.  It is a departure from my earlier speeches and writings.  

For example, in the brochure prepared for the 150th anniversary celebration of emancipation in 1998, I wrote that “150 years ago, enslaved Africans on St. Croix fully exercised their inalienable right of self-determination.  They executed a socio-economic coup and liberated themselves from the chains of chattel slavery.” (See p. 2 of the brochure).  However, in the years since then, I have revisited the event and subjected it to closer and more objective scrutiny, mostly within the context of self-determination.  

Resultantly, my position has changed. Notwithstanding this change, I still hold that nothing that we have accomplished either before or since then has had such a major status changing impact on all African Virgin Islanders. 

Now some of you might be scratching your heads and whispering, has Mr. Emanuel forgotten the accomplishments of Queen Mary and the workers due to the “Fire Bun of 1878”?  

Has he forgotten Queen Coziah and the Coal Workers on St. Thomas?  

He certainly has not forgotten what David Hamilton Jackson, Rothschild Francis, Valdemar Hill, Cyril King, Mario Moorhead, Adelbert Bryan, Dr. Carlyle Corbin, his cousins Lezmore and Gene Emanuel, the Virgin Islands Action Group, the St. Croix Retirees Association, We Grow Food Inc. on St. Thomas, and others have done individually and collectively in the area of self-determination?  

No I have not.  

I am not quite ready for the Herbert Grigg Home for the Elderly yet.  Just follow my line of thinking closely.  First let me indicate how I am using the word “self-determination”.  In this presentation, self-determination means “the right of a people to decide upon its own form of government without coercion or outside influence.”  This is straight from Webster’s dictionary.  Therefore any attempt to put Virgin Islanders in a position to exercise greater autonomy, is what I mean by self-determination.  

The Emancipation of 1848 was a single event that was conceived, planned and carried out mostly by enslaved persons on St. Croix that did this to an extent that was remarkable for that time.  It significantly affected the status of every enslaved African in the entire Danish West Indies, in less than one day of self-determined actions.  As far as I can remember, no single event in 167 years even comes close to this. The persons and events mentioned previously, affected persons usually on one island, or their efforts took place over a period of time.

Now it is not because we have not tried that we have not accomplished any status change comparable to the July 3, 1848 Emancipation.  Yes we now elect our own governors and senators.  We choose our judges on the local and Supreme Court levels.  We have also had constitutional conventions and status commissions. Aren’t these achievements evidence of self-determination?  Yes they are, but even after all of these “advances”, we still are a colony as we were under Danish rule, except with a few embellishments.  

Moreover, none of them have produced any fundamental change in our status as the 1848 emancipation did. The US Congress can annul any law passed by the VI Government, or make any court decision either apply or not apply to us without our input, as in the case of the recent Supreme Court ruling on citizenship in American Samoa, or the very recent decision on Same-Sex Marriages.  Further, none of the “advances” we made, produced a fundamental change in our ability to be self-determined, as the Emancipation of 1848 did.  

Now those of you, who know VI history might still be saying, wait a minute.  What about the African revolutions before the Emancipation of 1848 - especially the November 23rd 1733 revolution on St. John?  For those of you who do not remember this event, on this date the island and government on St. John were taken over for half of a year from the Danish authorities by a brilliant and well-planned strategy that was executed by our enslaved African ancestors living on that island. Dr. Gilbert Sprauve, Professor Sele Adeyami, Educator Leba Olaniyi and others, discuss this event in detail when they lead pilgrimages to Fortberg, the site of the takeover, every November 23rd. 

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Incidentally, November 23rd is also the birthdate of Professor Gene Emanuel, who was one of the main presenters on these pilgrimages, before his untimely passing a few years ago.  In any event, the Danes were not able to retake control of the island from the Africans until they enlisted assistance from several other European countries.

Other than this revolution, there were two documented attempts by our African ancestors to take over the island and government of St. Croix in 1746 and 1759.  In the latter attempt, the Africans had even gone so far as to choose who would be the governor and his assistants.  Both of these plots failed because of the loose tongue of one of the planners.

Notwithstanding the fact that none of these self-determination attempts succeeded in effectuating a permanent change, I consider each of them to be a fundamental and complete self-determination effort, because they  included not only the physical liberation of the enslaved Africans, but also the governing of the island by them.  Contrastingly, the Emancipation of July 3rd, 1848, did not include the takeover of the government by the Africans.  That is why I consider it an incomplete self-determination attempt. Be that as it may though, none of the attempts before July the 3rd, 1848, produced a permanent change in the status of all enslaved persons in the then Danish West Indies. 

This is why even though the Enslaved African Emancipation of July 1848 was an incomplete self-determination attempt, it stands above all other complete or incomplete self-determination attempts either before or after it on any of the Virgin Islands because it was permanently successful in achieving its limited aims. 

Nevertheless though, what I am leading up to and will say next might seem like a contradiction and shock some of you who have listened to our beloved historian, Mario Moorhead, praise two of the leaders of the Emancipation of 1848 - namely General Buddoe and Admiral Martin King, for many years from this very same bandstand.

As discussed above, because the slave emancipation attempt on St. John and the two on St. Croix in the 1700’s included in addition to physical emancipation, specific plans to govern the respective islands by the Africans, this singular feature makes them greater and more complete attempts at self-determination than the Emancipation of July 3rd, 1848.  
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Now please listen carefully.  Yes!  I said it! The attempts on St. John and the two on St Croix in the 1700’s constituted greater and more complete attempts at self-determination than the Emancipation of July 3, 1848 on St. Croix.  This is a key point that we tend to overlook, but Neville Hall in his groundbreaking work, “Slave Society in the Danish West Indies”, did not.  On pages 210 & 211, he indicated that the Emancipation of 1848 was one “approved” by the Danish Governor.  Every institution of government and law remained the same other than the fact that slavery was no longer legal. 

He further wrote that this type of emancipation prevented the type sought by the Akans, and he might have been referring to the one I mentioned previously on St. John, as well as the Haitian Revolution, where the Africans did not ask or demand their freedom, but they took full control of the government on those islands.  Hall also named the last chapter in his book, which discussed in detail the July 3, 1848 Emancipation events and the court cases, etc., “THE VICTOR VANQUISHED”.  

What does this mean?  Hall’s view is that yes, the enslaved Africans on St. Croix in 1848 achieved their ultimate goal - physical freedom.  But because they did not dare to “turn the wheel full circle”, they “were made to suffer the fate of the vanquished.”  In other words, since it seems as though the Africans on St. Croix in 1848 were satisfied to be only physically free, because their emancipation plans did not include taking control of the government from the Danes, they suffered the consequences of their incomplete revolution.  They ended up as though they were the defeated party. Buddoe, their chief leader, was deported, never to be seen or heard from again. Nothing else changed fundamentally in their condition. The Labor Law of 1849 made sure of this.  

In fact, things got worse.  Even though they now were all able to earn money for their labor, it was barely sufficient to pay for everything that had been provided by the plantation owners before. This left them virtually penniless.  So even though they were physically free, they were still economically and politically in bondage.   However, were they really physically free?  

In Mario Moorhead’s book “SHE AND ME”, this issue was raised in his discussion of the relationship between Mary Thomas, popularly known as “Queen Mary” and her lover Joe Parris, both of whom were prominent leaders in the Laborers’ uprising of 1878, which we call the “Fire Bun”.  They lived and worked on different estates. Due to the restrictions of the Labor Act, but particularly because of restrictions from his employer, Mr. Parris could not freely move to marry and live with his fiancée, Queen Mary, without giving up his job.

Now this leads me straight to the second main point of this presentation.  After you hear it, you will be able to see and better understand why some of us get technical and call the accomplishment of July 3rd 1848, only “Physical Emancipation”.  This is not done just to be critical of what our ancestors accomplished, but to be honest and accurate about precisely what they did achieve.  

The second main point is this. Although Emancipation Day is a major highlight in our history, it not only was an incomplete emancipation attempt, but it also only represented the most elementary or lowest form of freedom – physical freedom.  Let me repeat this.  If we are honest, although the freedom declaration on July 3rd, 1848, which we commemorate and celebrate today, was a seminal occurrence, what was achieved 167 years ago, only represents the most elementary or lowest form of freedom.  

As we all know, our Crucian ancestors executed a well-planned and organized protest in Frederiksted, beginning on the evening of July 2nd, 1848, which forced Governor General Peter von Scholten to grant them their freedom from physical slavery the next day.  This was a revolution in their status and way of life.  From the evening of July 3, 1848, in theory or by law, they could choose where they wanted to work and get paid.  However, as we learned 30 years after in 1878, and as I discussed previously in the case of Queen Mary and Joe Parris, were they really physically free? Whatever physical freedom they achieved, was squashed by the Labor Act of January 1849, which stipulated a set of working regulations that were almost as harsh as physical slavery, as well as by restrictions of their employers.  This is also why the workers needed to protest again in what we call the “Fire Bun” of October 1, 1878.

Later on in this presentation, I will expand some more on my controversial and probably unpopular main points, which are that while Physical Emancipation was a great accomplishment, it really was an incomplete act of self-determination, as well as the lowest form of freedom that our ancestors could have achieved.  Some of you may disagree with this point, but I have to be honest, and not give you a romantic or one-sided view of our history. 

Thus almost every time I write an essay or make a speech, I manage to include something controversial, because we must continually review and reassess our history.  Being controversial is not only my personal nature, but it seems to be the nature of the outspoken Emanuels in the Virgin Islands for at least a century.  Although I have not received much severe criticism for my statements, my grandfather, Charles H. Emanuel was not as fortunate.  He was one of four persons to criticize the US Naval Governor in a letter that was printed in the New York News in 1918 or 1919, because of the racist and inhumane treatment of several African Virgin Islanders on St. Thomas, 70 years after the emancipation.  

According to William Boyer in his well-documented history of the VI, Governor Oliver attacked “the character and reputation” of my grandfather and the other three signers of the letter by reporting to the US Director of Naval Intelligence, some legal and other character allegations that reportedly had been made against them.   My grandfather had also written a poem in the West End News of April 1915, strongly supporting David Hamilton Jackson, after he was criticized by the planters for having the audacity as a Black man to go to petition the King of Denmark.  

In 1972, Dr. Lezmore Emanuel was fired from CVI (then College of the Virgin Islands) for organizing and raising the consciousness of students as an African history Professor.  Of course the administration at the time stated other reasons as the basis for their decision. 

From the 1980’s until his departure from his physical body, Professor Gene Emanuel was harassed and not treated as the eminent scholar that he was due to his African-centered views, and because he raised the consciousness of, taught and organized African males and females in Washington D.C., on St. Thomas and throughout the Caribbean Diaspora.  

Even my brilliant adopted St. Lucian Cousin, Cletus Emanuel, was relieved of his duties as a key official in the Department of Education’s Human Resources Office, after his testimony on many topics of public concern before the Legislature, but especially because of his irrefutable statements on the fatally flawed Diageo contract.  Of course as is the typical modus operandi, other reasons were touted for the decision to terminate him.  

It seems as though whenever we Emanuel’s speak publicly, the ancestors take over, and we are not allowed to lie or hide the truth.  However, we pay the price.

So while my presentation last year focused on the important role played by women in the Emancipation, this year we concentrate on the importance of going beyond physical emancipation.  Yes we must continue to commemorate and celebrate what our ancestors have done, but we must also continue to build where they left off today. 

So what type of leadership is needed to take the next step in our continual struggle for full emancipation?  Who has the characteristics that Buddoe and D. Hamilton Jackson had in common, and which person or organization in the VI today with these attributes can take us beyond physical emancipation to fully achieve the higher levels and types of emancipation?

Don’t get me wrong!  Yes!  July 3rd 1848 still is probably the most important event in Virgin Islands history thus far, and it will remain the most important victory until we fully achieve a change in our status through attainment of the other forms of liberation and self-determination that we are missing as a people.  

Some of you already know what I am referring to, but others may be asking, what is he talking about?  Aren’t we free to go wherever we want, and do whatever we choose already?  Don’t we elect our own governor and senators? Where is he going with this?  I am really confused.  

To these persons, I ask them to be patient.  Yes, you are correct.  As was indicated earlier in this presentation, we have moved further up the road towards political and economic self-determination. But we have not achieved a fundamental change in our political or economic status that is as seminal as what physical emancipation was to the enslaved Africans in 1848.  

In other words, we have not completely achieved any of the higher forms of emancipation beyond physical emancipation. I do not have the time to go into great detail in this presentation, but I will attempt to concisely shed some light on this.

The higher forms of emancipation to which I am referring are spiritual emancipation, mental emancipation, political emancipation and economic emancipation.  Although we can work on all four at the same time, spiritual and mental emancipation need to be prioritized to provide the foundation and confidence to pursue political and economic emancipation.  

Believe it or not, our enslaved African ancestors were spiritually and mentally emancipated to some extent. Without this, they could not have accomplished what they did against the odds that confronted them.  However, we seem to have regressed as a people in these two critical areas.

This type of discussion scares some persons.  However, isn’t a principal goal of parents the desire to see their children get a good education to either get a good job, or create a job for themselves?  In other words, parents want to see their children eventually become fully emancipated at least physically and economically from them.  

Therefore, why don’t we all have the same expectation for our territory?  Are we too dumb or too incompetent to become independent?  Or are we too afraid?  We attend the same schools and universities as our brothers and sisters in the rest of the Caribbean, and those in other countries throughout the world.  Yet we become spiritually and mentally paralyzed when it comes to confidently taking the steps beyond physical emancipation to change our status politically, and economically.  We are supposed to be a leading territory in the Caribbean, but most other islands have caught up and surpassed us in these two areas.

To get beyond this, we must become fully, spiritually and mentally emancipated.  Spiritual Emancipation includes knowing and believing in who we truly are, and directly experiencing the presence of a higher power within us, that gives us the confidence that whatever we conceive and truly believe in our hearts, we have already achieved.  It also gives us the strength to be guided by moral principles and virtues which build our character and integrity, and serve as the basis for our decision making.

Mental emancipation includes having total self-confidence in our education, training and thinking abilities, which will motivate us to make decisions and act victoriously from a position of strength, in our own self-interest as a people, to continue to build a solid foundation in our communities that will put us on the road to achieving complete political and economic emancipation and independence.

Many of the persons, who have been at the forefront of this battle, are now senior citizens.  We must mentor, encourage and support the brilliant young minds, who are graduating from our high schools to go forth and pursue their academic and career ambitions, but implore them not forget where they came from, and always be willing to return and take their rightful place as leaders in their homeland.  

I am really happy that the valedictorian of St. Croix Central High School’s Class of 2015, Miss Bria James, agreed to make a presentation in today’s program.  She is a shining example of what our youth can accomplish when they raise their consciousness.  If we succeed in doing this with other youth, we will be well on the road to achieving the three other forms of emancipation, which will complete our goal of complete self-determination.

Thank you for listening. I know that I did not adequately discuss what all we need to do to transcend physical emancipation; however, this is not a classroom, and you are not my students.  My aim was not to provide a plan of action.  It was just to point out that we should not be comfortable with what our ancestors have accomplished. 

We are all leaders and followers together, and as such we simply need as much information, enlightenment and motivation as possible to organize ourselves and do what we know we must if this territory and its people are not only to survive, but thrive as we move forward in the 21st century and beyond.  

Enjoy the rest of the program and this weekend of self-determination.