Hundreds of students, residents and visitors gathered near the National Park Service Visitors Center to celebrate Black History Month at the NPS’s 28th annual Folklife Festival held Thursday and Friday.
They joined in with masters to learn drumming techniques, quadrille dancing, broom making, and healing with herbs. They swayed to quelbe, calypso, and Caribbean classics performed by school bands and seasoned musicians.
They gazed at artifacts from past decades – like a clunky, old-fashioned desk telephone – with nostalgia or disbelief, depending on their age.
They listened to traditional stories, sampled sugar cane juice, viewed the sun through a solar scope, and ate fried fish.
Twins Luciah Polius and Loreli Hedrington were dishing up plates of food at a booth in honor of their grandmother, Ivy Mercer, and her sister, Ina Forbes, who cooked together at previous Folklife Festivals for 20 years.
“The sisters passed in 2008, but we’re here to celebrate their legacy,” said Polius. She took a moment to step away from a pot of kallaloo to point to a photo montage of the two elders. “Our grandmother wanted us to be productive, and to learn how to cook, of course!” she said.
Polius went back to the food booth and pulled out a collage made of paint, seeds and shells portraying a traditional West Indian cottage. Educator Eddie Bruce took one look at the collage and grinned.
“She made that when she was 11 years old,” said Bruce. “Do you remember Denise Georges? The NPS ranger who started the Folklife Festival? Denise had a friend from Nigeria named Olabayo Olaniya. He came one year and taught the children bead art.”
As he spoke of the value of artisans who pass down their skills, the Burning Blazers steel pan band from Bertha C. Boschulte Jr. High were just finishing a set. Delroy “Ital” Anthony approached Liston Alexander “Matey” Sewer, the band’s director for the past 22 years, and complimented him on his role as a mentor.
The Folklife Festival, which seeks to keep the past alive – at least for a couple of days – had been held at Annaberg Sugar Plantation until Hurricane Irma ripped through the islands in September 2017.
In 2018, the festival was held on the field adjacent to the Julius E. Sprauve School, but this year that open space is covered by the modular classrooms that have replaced the storm-damaged school buildings.
Golda Hermon, the NPS park guide who organizes the event, said the badly-damaged Annaberg ruins were still under repair.
“With the amount of students we have, we felt Annaberg would be unsafe. Hopefully, if we live, we shall have it there next year.”
But the easy-access location in Cruz Bay proved to be popular with teachers, who brought their students from virtually every school on St. Thomas and St. John, as well as visitors and locals who stopped by to soak up some island culture on their way to the beach or back to work.
The organizers of this year’s festival chose two people to honor – retired park ranger Elmo Rabsatt, who was on the scene throughout the event, and Ervin “Brownie” Brown, who had served as an emcee at cultural events throughout the island until he died last month.
Nigel Fields, the superintendent of the Virgin Islands National Park, said the 2019 festival’s theme “A Time to Heal” was meant to showcase the talents of local crafters as well as the healing practices of the ancestors.
“Today, tomorrow, and in years to come, let’s bring our talents, our love of this landscape, and our mutual respect for all humanity to the process of healing the land and healing one another,” he said.