Historic Cruz Bay Free-Colored Cemetery Restoration Taking Place

One of the unmarked burials within the Cruz Bay free-colored cemetery in 2013. Photo by David W. Knight Sr.
One of the unmarked burials within the Cruz Bay free-colored cemetery in 2013. Photo by David W. Knight Sr.

By Andrea Milam, Special Contributor to News of St. John

Tucked away in a corner of Cruz Bay between establishments reflecting modern life in this little island town is the final resting place of six free-colored Danish West Indians who died in the 19th century. Although the cemetery is incredibly significant for myriad reasons, it had been all but forgotten until last month, when the Virgin Islands government joined forces with the St. John Historical Society to lead restoration efforts at this important site.

St. Thomas-St. John Historic Preservation Committee Commissioner David W. Knight Sr. is leading the initiative, which began March 19 with a clearing of the site, adjacent to Roger Harland’s commercial building and behind the Banana Deck restaurant.

“The site’s been totally desecrated,” said Knight. “The two markers that remain in the cemetery, which both date from the 1800s, are broken. Someone recently smashed one of the memorial plaques and attempted to access the burial.”

The HPC will bring together the State Historic Preservation Office, the SJHS, and any other concerned citizens or groups to help with the restoration, which will take an estimated three to six months and cost approximately $24,000.

In addition to the clearing that has already taken place, the restoration process will include the treatment of stumps and roots with approved herbicides and removal of stumps and roots from within the cemetery’s monuments; the collection of loose artifacts and architectural components and the re-association of these materials with their respective monuments; the stabilization and rebuilding of the six historic monuments and replacement of memorial plaques; the repair and stabilization of the historic perimeter wall; restoration of the cultural landscape; and installation of a historically appropriate security fence with gate and access steps.

The Cruz Bay free-colored cemetery holds the oldest marked burials within the town of Cruz Bay. It’s the site of the only marked burial of an individual born into slavery on St. John in the 18th century, and it’s the only cemetery on St. John dedicated exclusively to members of the island’s free-colored community. The cemetery is the resting place of Sarah Elizabeth Martin and at least five of her children. The individuals interred there were born between 1774 and 1817, and were buried from 1820 to 1879.

St. Thomas-St. John Historic Preservation Committee Chairperson Felipe Ayala II hopes the restoration of the site will facilitate a greater awareness of Cruz Bay’s historic past.

“It is unfortunate that so many people do not show proper respect for our historic burials,” said Ayala in response to the recent desecration. “It is my hope that out of this tragedy will come a heightened appreciation for the rich history of Cruz Bay, and that the restoration will bring the memory of those buried there, and the free-colored community as a whole, back into the public’s consciousness.”

Several businesses and organizations have already signed on to help with the restoration including the St. John Community Foundation, Roger Harland, V.I. National Park Archaeologist Ken Wild, Friends of VINP President Joe Kessler, former territorial archaeologist Emily Lundberg, naturalist Eleanor Gibney, and licensed St. John contractors Eric Couzobon and Brent Squires’s Stonemasonry Inc. To donate time, funds, or expertise to the restoration of the Cruz Bay free-colored cemetery, contact the St. John Historical Society at [email protected] or call project coordinator David Knight at 714-5872.

The Cruz Bay free-colored cemetery in March 2014 after its initial clearing. Photo by David W. Knight Sr.
The Cruz Bay free-colored cemetery in March 2014 after its initial clearing. Photo by David W. Knight Sr.

11 thoughts on “Historic Cruz Bay Free-Colored Cemetery Restoration Taking Place”

  1. I normally just read and don’t voice an opinion. Guess I have one on this project. Are these people out of their mind? You’re going to spend thousands of dollars, reclaiming a cemetery site? When you’re all done – who really cares? Whatever happened – happened more than 100 years ago. Who cares. But more importantly, who and at what expense is going to maintain this site after your done and gone? Who is going to visit and why?

    In my humble opinion, this project is an absolute waste of money! You want to do something worth while besides saving the animals, take a trip to the in town Senior Center and spend you $24,000 with them. God knows, they need it and have been forgotten totally by this island! And yes, their still ALIVE! Just forgotten by everyone! A dog has a better chance on this island than someone 65 or 75 that really needs help.

    • As a visitor/tourist of St. John I find this story and response truly sad. The reply raises valid concerns that warrant conversation but unfortunately were said in such a fashion that no one would engage the topic with them. Did you consider volunteering to help either of the venues you have such a passionate opinion about? The world is full of people that can tell you about everything that’s wrong but very short on people who work to resolve them. Channel your energy into positive action and you can help someone or something that truly needs it.

    • I am curious as to why you are saying “who cares?” I don’t mean to come off as antagonistic — I am simply trying to understand the perspective and where you are coming from. I myself volunteered some time at this site. Historic preservation is an important issue in the Virgin Islands (with its own commissioners and government funding) and this site is an important one for Cruz Bay. Are you against all historic preservation projects? If not which ones would you support? Just things within the National Park? Just Sugar Mills? What in your opinion is important to preserve in the Virgin Islands? Honestly would love a response so I can get a better sense of why this upset you.

  2. Ok? There’s a few things we need to get here. 1. If we have 24,000 to spend on St. John, fix the damned road to Coral Bay. 2. I have to agree with the gentlemen’s argument on the elderly but, like Ed put it….Mulley are you volunteering at the center? If you don’t have the time I understand. I work a 60 hour work week and take care other projects on the side. God knows I would like to help out more. There are so many issues we have on St. John to take care of. 3. Restoring the free/colored cemetery is actually a good idea. Just because it happened 100 years ago, is not a reason to forget it. Jesus man, I guess we should get rid of all of the ruins here while we are at it. Just my opinion, take it the way you like. Love city

  3. Each of you made excellent comments and made me think. When I said “Who Cares?” I look at things from possibly a different prospective – that of a businessman.

    In this case, let’s say there is a pot of $24,000 available. What project,endeavor can I spend the money on and achieve the greatest, highest return on my investment? I just happen to believe there are other things that will yield a higher benefit than a cemetery restoration project.

    • Right. So if the money is allocated by the government as part of a budget set aside for historic preservation, what projects would have been more appropriate? Traditionally in the USVI projects such as this have been neglected in favor of restoring European colonial buildings. The individuals buried here, on the other hand, are Afro-Caribbean people with many descendants still here in the VI. A much better use of funds than restoring sugar factory ruins and the like. My opinion. Cheers.

      • We’ll Dr. Who said “The VI” government is right in the allocation? If these is a number if descendants here on the island and they cared at all about those dead before them, why didn’t they undertake this project without the VI.

        See, you never answered my question. Which simply put – what is the highest and best use of the money? It certainly is not graves, where I doubt descendants are actively involved.

        • First of all, the money allocated for this is federal money set aside for preservation projects, not local government funds. Much to be discussed about that fact, but a fact it is. Secondly who do you think is behind the push to get the Free Coloured community recognized as an important component of VI history if not the descendants? Many of the people behind projects of this nature are descendants — why do you assume otherwise? I did not answer your question because it was unanswerable. What is the highest and best use of the money?? According to who and by what criteria? I on the other hand asked a more straightforward question which was what historic preservation projects you consider worth investing in. None would be a perfectly acceptable answer as your opinion but I would disagree.

  4. This is an exciting project. Though one has to agree that there are various projects in the Virgin Islands that require money, DK JR raises a pertinent point when he asks if the funds are for preservation then we have to ask critical questions about what we deem important in said category.
    With that being said, it is important and many people care. As an Afro Caribbean Virgin Islander of free-colored descent, I visit the burial grounds of my ancestors often (and there are many of them in Cruz Bay). Knowing the island’s history and legacy is vital. A part of the issue with thinking like a businessman in these issues is that the island’s development has been catered towards a socio-economic praxis of development that actually fails to take the best interest of locals to heart.
    So, kudos to those who those who decided to work on a restoration project that didn’t automatically seek to privilege tourism as an industry.

  5. A little late chiming in here, but I think this is a great and worthwhile project. Financial profit (tourism) does not have to be the only goal for projects in the VI. It is sad that so many people come here and look at everything as a business venture.

    • This project is completely worthwhile. Preserving history is an investment, an important investment with its own returns. On the tourism side; believe it or not, a number of tourists are attracted by a destination’s preserved history. History is a draw for many reasons. Bravo to those who are preserving this island’s distinctive history!

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