by Nina York
Coincidentally, two major holidays in the Virgin Islands calendar come back to back – Emancipation Day July 3, marking the date in 1848 when the enslaved population of the then Danish West Indies gained their freedom, and the American July 4 Independence Day, celebrating the birth of the United States as a nation in 1776.
While both holidays celebrate freedom, Emancipation here became more symbolic than actual, as the large number of enslaved field workers gained little by now being responsible for their own sustenance on very low wages, in part because of failing sugar cane harvests and lower prices for cane sugar, which now competed with beet sugar grown in temperate climate zones.
Anticipating this unfortunate outcome, the Danish Governor, Peter von Scholten, took early remedial steps by instituting an education system for the children of the enslaved throughout the three islands. Starting in 1841, eight handsome schools designed by architect Albert Løvmand were built on St. Croix, all of the same design, as well as five on St. Thomas and two on St. John. You can see several of these buildings today – at Estate Diamond on the Queen Mary Highway, at Peter’s Rest near the Coca-Cola plant, and especially at La Grande Princess (Route # 75), where the Theodora Dunbavin School continues as a learning institution.
In von Scholten’s time, young children of the enslaved, from the age of 6 to 12, had to attend school five days a week for three hours, whereas the older children only attended on Saturdays. Still, this was a bold and unique experiment, with the objective of teaching the children the skills that would enable them to gain a livelihood later as free persons. This move revealed that emancipation was his ultimate intention for that suppressed large segment of the population of the islands. In this effort, he was no doubt encouraged by his consort Anna Heegaard, a local free woman of mixed blood.
So far as the Danish connection to the July 4 Independence Day, Denmark is probably the only foreign country to officially celebrate that date, sponsored by an organization known as the Rebild Society that has members in Denmark and the U.S. Founded in 1912 by Danish-Americans, this non-profit friendship society celebrates the reciprocal cultural and educational achievements it has enabled at an annual outdoor festival in a scenic location in Jutland known as the Rebild Hills and features a keynote speaker of renown, musical entertainment, and fellowship and fun during the informal lunch served, always with a member or two of the royal family attending.
St. Croix has once hosted, in 1992, the annual spring meeting of the Rebild Society and will be doing so again in 2017, our Centennial year. After all, what better site could be found to demonstrate friendship between Denmark and the United States than this island?
by Nina York