Organizers of the St. John Fourth of July Festival have long stressed that their celebration centers on a double holiday. In spite of pronouncements about VI Emancipation Day, however, it’s usually the U.S. Independence Day which draws the most attention.
Things took a different turn this year when Dr. Gilbert Sprauve, Rosa Samuel and members of the St. John Drama Club staged an original play called “Set the Record Straight” in the road in front of Franklin Powell Park on July 3. Dramatic readings, monologues and musical presentations captured the attention of spectators and passers-by alike.
Sprauve, a retired professor from the University of the Virgin Islands, said the intent was to focus on a pivotal event in the history of the Danish West Indies. It was on July 3, 1848, that Governor Peter Von Sholten declared that all unfree people would henceforth be free.
For more than 30 years, with the help of the late UVI Professor Gene Emmanuel and members of the Pan African Support Group, Sprauve has organized the annual Fortsberg History Tour to commemorate the uprising of November 23, 1733. He has also addressed students celebrating Black History Month at Annaberg Plantation.
His mission this year, he said, was to raise awareness about the lives of those who struggled for freedom in the days when plantations relied on slave labor to prosper. More than two dozen community members formed a drama club and practiced for weeks to bring that vision to life.
The message Dr. Sprauve conveyed in “Set the Record Straight” had a contemporary tone. The point, he said, was that emancipation in the Virgin Islands was achieved non-violently, through persuasion and in the face of antagonists who were telling the Danish governor to send a militia to “put grapeshot in their backsides” of protesters marching to Basin Triangle on St. Croix.
“This ain’t just about jumping up and parade and fire works,” said Sprauve. “This is about Emancipation Day, July 3, 1848. That is why we’re here today.”
Performers included former Sprauve School Principal Yvonne Wells, singers Cindy Jurgens and Gilchest Sprauve, musicians Emmanuel Boyd and Eddie Bruce, Food Fair Honoree Delroy Anthony and members of the drumming group, the Echo People and former Senator-at-Large Craig Barshinger.
Barshinger, with the help of drama club actress Debbie Charles, performed a vignette as Von Scholten and his mixed-race mistress Anna Heegaard. Historians say it was Heegaard who ultimately influenced Von Scholten to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
Some historians also shifted Anna’s status for the record from mistress to advisor.
But there were others, as depicted in the play. Pastor Issac, playing emancipation advocate John Gottlieb and Bruce, playing Gottlieb’s associate, Martin King, dialogued about the march to Basin Triangle as demands for freedom grew.
All of the sentiments shared through the play were celebrated with music from the Flambo Combo band from the Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School. Accomplished music students played selections from Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights’ quelbay album, Reflections of Emancipation.
The album was produced in 1998 to commemorate Emancipation’s 150th anniversary.
Spectators taking in the July 3 event were also treated to performances by two troupes of Bamboula Dancers and an interpretative dance by Marcella Grace.
Ah We Band capped off the afternoon with some lively soca sounds.