The Echo People brought the nearly 50 people who gathered in the Frank Powell Sr. Park on Sunday, October 1, back in time, as they pounded on African drums in honor of the second annual V.I. Unity Day.
Along with the music, the day’s activities included poetry readings, presentations on Contract Day — which commemorates the October 1, 1878, Fireburn on St. Croix — and a panel discussion on the upcoming Constitutional Convention.
“This celebration is very important because everything that’s happened in our past represents where we are going in our future,” said Ronnie Jones, president of the Unity Day Group, which organized the event.
Life for former slaves was difficult even after the Fireburn, according to local historian Gilbert Sprauve.
Fireburn “Genesis” of Activities
“Imagine a man being told he is emancipated, then being arrested for vagrancy because he couldn’t find a job,” said the local historian. “The Fireburn on St. Croix is the genesis of today’s activity.”
Pan African Support Group representative Leba Olaniyi spoke on the status of former slaves in the 1800s.
“Our ancestors never ceased to struggle against racial oppression,” he said. “Our ancestors had no voice or representation in our government. They were poor and powerless.”
Virgin Islanders today can learn many lessons from the Fireburn event, said Olaniyi.
“We must promote unity among our people,” he said. “Never cease the struggle for self-determination. We must write a Constitution of our own that empowers us to do things for ourselves.”
Convention Discussed By Panel
Virgin Islands residents will have the opportunity to do just that with the upcoming Constitutional Convention, which was discussed at length by a panel of experts at the Unity Day celebration.
Panel participants were former Senator and local activist Stephanie Scott Williams; Tregenza Roach of the University of the Virgin Islands, which is heading a public education campaign on the convention; Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen and Senatorial candidate Basil Ottley Jr.
Although the Virgin Islands has already held four Constitutional Conventions — the last one in 1980 — this one is different, according to Roach.
UVI’s Public Education Campaign
“UVI has been charged with creating a public education campaign for the fifth Constitutional Convention,” he said. “There is one difference in this Constitutional Convention, and that is the educational campaign.”
The public’s involvement in the process is important, according to Christensen.
“This evening, we are continuing the process so we can finish what we started,” she said. “It is so critically important for people to buy into this process.”
Christensen has been asked numerous times to amend the Organic Act, which governs the Virgin Islands, she said.
“I have been asked to amend the Organic Act, but that is not the way to decide how we govern ourselves,” she said. “That is a piecemeal approach, which allows us to continue to operate in crisis mode.”
The Constitutional Convention will give Virgin Islanders the opportunity to decide how local resources are distributed, according to Ottley.
“The Constitution is a blueprint of how power and the resources of a society are distributed, and we have the opportunity to decide who sits at the table and decides how the power and resources are distributed,” he said.
Registered voters in the Virgin Islands will choose the delegates to the Convention.
There will be 13 delegates from the district of St. Croix; 13 from the St. Thomas-St. John District, with no fewer than two from St. John; and four delegates elected at large, with two from the St. Croix District and two from the St. Thomas-St. John District.
Williams urged residents to get as excited about the convention as they do about Carnival.
“It’s our right to have a governing document, and we have to take responsibility,” said the community activist. “We have to fight for it like we fight for Carnival, and fund it like we fund Carnival. It’s our turn now, and we must be involved.”
Who Should Vote?
Although those who have lived in the territory for just 90 days can register to vote, no one but native Virgin Islanders should be allowed to vote on the Constitutional Convention, said Williams.
This would eliminate her from voting, since she was born in the states, but would allow her children, who were born in the Virgin Islands, to vote in the Convention, she said.
Stephen “Smokey” Frett, who is running for St. Thomas-St. John District senator, asked what efforts would be made to include native Virgin Islanders who now live stateside in the process.
“If you’re elected, you should propose getting stateside Virgin Islanders involved, because it will take legislation to make that happen,” said Williams.
“If I am elected, I will work on something like that, but I can’t imagine being a part of the process that does not include those people,” said Frett.
Constitutional Convention’s Process
Delegates elected to the Constitutional Convention will convene on July 23, 2007. A Constitution must be adopted by July 27, 2008, when two-thirds of the delegates must approve the document.
The Constitution will then be submitted to the V.I. Governor, who will transmit the document to the President of the United States. Within 60 days, the Constitution will be submitted to Congress, and following Congressional review, the document will be approved or denied by Virgin Islands voters.