In 2006, a proclamation was signed by Former President George W. Bush that designates the month of June as National Caribbean American Heritage Month. A month to celebrate the accomplishments of acclaimed Caribbean sons and daughters Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Cicely Tyson, W.E.B Dubois, James Weldon Johnson, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier to name a few.
It is a month designated in recognition of the contributions to community and the well-being and growth of American society by those born in the Caribbean islands. And now, as we exit this month of celebration of Caribbean culture and accomplishment, we find ourselves in the midst of Virgin Islands Freedom Week.
The week leading up to the Fourth of July has always been St. John’s Carnival that concludes on July 3 with a late night/early morning parade on the dawn of J’ouvert and spans into the late night hours of July 4. The J’ouvert celebration is believed to have it’s foundation in Trinidad & Tobago’s Carnival history with roots steeped in the French Afro-Creole traditions such as Camboulay. The French word translates to “break day” and the celebration itself occurs at different times of the year, depending on which island you are on. But the tradition for all is to march from late night into the dawn, with revelers covered in paints, mud or pitch oil as an expression of liberation and breaking free of the constraints of the past. A celebration of their ancestors and the hardships they overcame for the freedoms of their sons and daughters.
“July 3, Emancipation Day in the Territory, celebrates the day in 1848 that slaves on St. Croix followed Moses General Buddhoe Gottlieb and Admiral Martin King and marched on Frederiksted, demanding the freedom of enslaved Africans. They pulled up the whipping post and tossed it into the sea and marched on Fort Frederik and threatened to burn down the town and the entire island unless Governor General Peter Von Scholten freed them.
Minutes before the deadline, Governor Von Scholten arrived from St. Thomas and declared: “All unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today free,” freeing all enslaved persons in the Danish West Indies from the bonds of chattel.” – VI.GOV
In honor of this upcoming celebration and in recognition of Virgin Islanders who have fought and overcome hardships to become great successes and the culture and heritage of these incredible people, this week is proclaimed Virgin Islands Freedom Week.
“I urge all people of the Virgin Islands to take a moment and reflect that had it not been for the brave efforts of our ancestors that came before us, we would have never been able to enjoy and experience the freedoms that we have today, and to also remember our heritage; it is who we are as a people and a culture,” Governor Bryan said in a proclamation of the holiday week last year.
Sans COVID, we would all be in the midst of our carnival celebration this week. But, due to constraints still presented by this worldwide pandemic, our festivities will look a little different this year. There were no flags strung throughout Cruz Bay earlier this month as there were in years past. No princess pageant in the park. No food fair to kick off the week of events last week. There will be no fireworks on the Fourth.
BUT, we will get the pleasure of attending a modified version of the beloved Food Fair on Saturday! We will get one night to play in the modified carnival village. The VI Department of Health has been on island for the past week as they are every year during carnival, monitoring mask wearing, health code standards and other COVID restrictions. There is an under current in the air of celebration and jubilation that sways across the island during this beautifully anticipated week each year. And, as we go about these modified festivities, it is important to remember what we are rejoicing about. It is important to take note of the sacrifices and successes of the people of the Virgin Islands and the simplistic beauty and integrity of their culture.
If you are on island this week, and you are vaccinated, stop by the Food Fair in the gravel lot near the Cruz Bay tennis courts on Saturday, July 3, Emancipation Day. The Love City Food Fair will take place from 11AM-4PM and will be hosted by noted Virgin Islander and St. John resident Pamela Richards, and Chef Guy Mitchell, former White House chef and creator of “White House Chef Tours”. It will be a day filled with delicious offerings from more than 30 vendors, all representing the culinary culture of the Virgin Islands. In order to further celebrate the VI heritage, music will be provided by the Love City Pan Dragons and Vercytle Band with additional entertainment provided moko jumbies and dancers in full traditional costume.
Celebrate Virgin Islands heritage and culture this weekend! This place is so much more than beaches and happy hours. Don’t be afraid to explore beyond the surface. For more information on the food fair and carnival festivities, please visit the US Virgin Islands Festivals website. In celebration of Virgin Islands Freedom Week, you might be interested in reading more about the history and culture of the islands. I urge you to please visit the St. John Historical Society or The Danish-West Indies Historical Database and give yourself a little history lesson in celebration of freedom!