Each year the United States of America and her territories celebrate Independence Day with fireworks, patriotic displays, barbecues, picnics and parties. Here in the U.S. Virgin Islands, we get to commemorate not one, but two historical acts of freedom back to back: Emancipation Day and Independence Day. Both Emancipation Day and Independence Day are significant for the freedoms they provided, but took place almost three-quarters of a century apart, and provided different kinds of emancipation to people in different circumstances. Here on St. Croix, we like to take these two days to celebrate the cultural heritage of the island, spend time with family and friends, and enjoy some fireworks of our own.
Most of you reading this know that Independence Day is a federal holiday celebrated by citizens of the USA on the fourth of July. Independence Day commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, in which the Second Continental Congress declared that the thirteen American colonies were now a new nation of their own, the United States of America, and no longer part of the British Empire. The Declaration also established the rights of mankind and the grievances the colonists had against British rule. As a result, Independence Day marks not only the formation of the United States of America, but all of the freedoms it has come to represent for its citizens.
On the other hand, many of you may not yet be familiar with Emancipation Day. Here in the US Virgin Islands, Emancipation Day is a public holiday celebrated on the third of July to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the Danish West Indies (now the US Virgin Islands). The Danish West India Company settled on what is now known as the US Virgin Islands in the 17th century, and brought the trans-Atlantic slave trade to these islands in 1673. Slaves, mainly working on the sugarcane plantations, were forced to work in harsh conditions and treated inhumanely, which lead to several large slave revolts.
Peter von Scholten became governor of the islands in 1835 and attempted to ease the burden of the slaves. On September 18th, 1847, Governor General Peter Von Scholten made a public announcement regarding the gradual end to slavery and had a Royal Decree was read at all churches on the islands. However, many refused to wait 12 years for freedom so freed slave and skilled craftsman Moses Gottlieb, (known as ‘General Buddhoe’) led a non-violent slave revolt on the island of St. Croix in 1848 and demanded immediate Emancipation. The revolt led Von Scholten to emancipate all slaves immediately, 10 months before the ‘scheduled emancipation’.
Slavery on the Danish West Indian Islands was officially abolished on July 3, 1848, seventeen years before slavery would be abolished in the USA. Now, the US Virgin Islands is honored as the ‘birthplace of emancipation in the USA.’ The anniversary of this event was declared a territorial public holiday in the US Virgin Islands, and it’s commemoration is immediately followed by the celebration of Independence Day on July 4th.
These two holidays give us many wonderful freedoms to celebrate here in the USVI. The largest celebration on St. Croix takes place out in Frederiksted, known locally as ‘Freedom City’, the site of the 1848 slave revolt that finally brought about the end of slavery in the USVI. Typically held on July 4th, the day’s activities include old-fashioned games for children, cultural entertainment, orators and historians, musical entertainment, quadrille dancers, and food, drink and craft vendors. Once the sun has set, fireworks light up the night sky from the Frederiksted Pier and can be seen for miles around.
Join in and help us commemorate Emancipation Day and celebrate Independence Day with family, friends, food and fun! And while you are enjoying all of the activities and entertainment the day brings, remember that we are celebrating the freedoms fought for by our ancestors, whether here on St. Croix or back in the thirteen colonies of America. Here’s to freedom, fun, and fireworks!
– Jennie Ogden, Editor