St. Johnians Celebrate Emancipation Day

Special for St. John Tradewinds and St. John Source.
Pictured above: Singers join together for the play’s finale.
All photos by Amy Roberts.

“Clear de road, let the slave-dem pass
We’re going for our freedom!”

Chanting these words, the cast of the play “Set the Record Straight,” accompanied by two troupes of traditional bamboula dancers, strutted into Carnival Village in Cruz Bay Monday afternoon, demanding the attention of the audience.

They were part of a program to celebrate Emancipation Day – July 3 – that day 169 years ago when Governor Peter von Scholten declared, “All Unfree in the danish Westindia Islands are from today emancipated.”

Although St. John’s annual carnival culminates on July 4, the nation’s Independence Day, Emancipation Day is arguably the more significant day for Virgin Islanders.

“We celebrate independence, yes,” said Dr. Gilbert Sprauve, one of the authors of the play that was at the heart of the celebration, “but we’ve got to drag July 3 from under July 4. Emancipation first, then independence.”

“In my opinion, it is the most important holiday in the Virgin Islands,” said mistress-of-ceremonies Pamela Richards Samuel. She invited the audience “to imagine the night of July 2, 1848, when our ancestors gathered in Frederiksted and demanded that by 4 p.m. the next day the governor grant their freedom … or else.”

Play narrators Yvonne Wells and co-author Rosa Samuel.

Written by Sprauve and Rosa Samuel, the play “Set the Record Straight” depicts the events that led to the emancipation of the slaves in the Danish West Indies from the point of view of the slaves rather than the ruling Danish colonialists.

Myrna George delivered a dramatic monologue portraying an enslaved field worker who was up at 4 a.m. to feed the animals before she herself could eat, and worked “with only two hours rest from the hot sun” until 6 pm. “I ready! I ready for freedom,” she thundered.

Marcia George portrayed a house slave, declaring “All my babies are here because of my master’s rapes.”

Each of the monologues led to a song, giving home-grown singers, including Ruth Frett, Lucinda Jurgen, Sandra Thomas, and Laverne Hill, a chance to display their impressive talents.

The audience chimed in as the singers delivered powerful renditions of spirituals including “Let My People Go,” “Oh, Freedom,” “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child,” and “Steal Away.”

Delita O’Connor, who preferred to sit in the audience rather than on stage, stunned the crowd with her version of “Where Will You Be a Million Years from Now.”

Delia O’Connor sings a solo song.

Unlike some versions of history, the play describes the events leading up to the declaration of emancipation as well-organized and deliberately non-violent. According to the lyrics of the song “Clear de Road” by Marie Richards, which were printed in the program:

“We want no bloodshed, not a drop of bloodshed
What we want is freedom….leh we meet the Gen’ral
Gen’ral name is Buddhoe, he go’ gi’ we freedom”

The organizers of this year’s program made a conscious effort to include younger members of the community in the program. Seala Matthias, a student at the Gifft Hill School, described the life of Rothchild Francis, the renowned journalist and political leader. DeJanique Wesselhoft, a student at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, gave an overview of the life Edward Wilmot Blyden, considered to be the father of Pan-Africanism.

A group of St. Johnian millennials, including Cooper Penn, Hadiya Sewer, and Kurt Marsh, portrayed characters in the play.

Music was featured throughout the program which began with traditional songs by Mahlon “Koko” Pickering and continued with drumming by the Echo People.

“We must grant respect to our ancestors; we echo the sound of the diaspora,” said drummer Delroy “Ital” Anthony.

Delroy “Ital” Anthony and the Echo People.

The drummers were called to do their best as they accompanied two troupes of bamboula dancers. The first to dance were the Diane Brown Ensemble, who “wined” and whirled in long white dresses. At the conclusion of their performance, Pamela Richards Samuel asked, “Did you ever think that someone could look so provocative under five yards of material?”

Their performance was matched by the Macislyn Bamboula Dancers, whose choreography blended the niceties of quadrille dance with the earthiness of traditional African dance.

Macislyn Bamboula dancers.

The St. John Festival continues July 4 with a parade starting at 11 a.m., fireworks at 9 p.m., and music throughout the evening at O’Connorville-Carnival Village. Scheduled to perform are Ah We Band, Cool Sessions Brass, MX Prime, Destra, Farmer Nappy and Orlando Octave.