It’s very easy to feel as Virgin Islanders that we aren’t connected to the United States or its history outside of our transfer on March 31, 1917.
It’s been 103 years — and three months at the time of this writing — and our colonization doesn’t feel quite complete. Our cultural practices, our racial demographics, our very way of living can make this place feel like another country and in some ways, perhaps it is. I imagine some people in Vieques, Puerto Rico, Guam, and other non-contiguous parts of our nation have the same “not quite American” feeling we do, and one of them is an actual state where President Barack Obama was born. There is also the popular idea that our relationship with the United States is only as old as our transfer when, truthfully, our relationship is as old as the country itself. St. Thomas has been a popular international trading post for as long as it’s been anyone’s colony, and as early as the 1700’s, the then colonial Americans traded on the island.
Emancipation Day (July 3) in the U.S. Virgin Islands has become a precursor to the U.S. Independence Day (July 4), celebrated and blended, almost seamlessly like Cruzan rum and coke. This time of the year is both solemn and festive for the territory as we honor our ancestors with Freedom Week and celebrate our culture with the St. John festival season. However, given our status of unincorporated territory, it’s fair to say that Independence Day is part of our story as it’s been celebrated here in some form since our transfer by the American settlers, and we adopted the traditions as well as the federal holiday in 1941 with the rest of the nation.
Juneteenth (June 19) is on its face, from a Virgin Islander’s perspective, the Black American version of Emancipation Day, and it hasn’t been widely or prominently celebrated until recent years.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation proclamation, freeing Black American enslaved people with an executive order in September of 1862. In June of 1865, news reached Galveston, Texas, despite the attempts to suppress it, and the newly freed Black Americans were stunned and overjoyed by the news.
With the renewed interest in this holiday, one is brought to contemplate how long the road since the first Black American Juneteenth has been to any semblance of equality for black people in the United States of America. How long will that road be for us as Virgin Islanders, even with our own proud history of resistance? It’s fair to say that these struggles have always been connected, even thousands of miles apart.
After our own emancipation (July 3, 1848), cotton was grown here on St. Croix and exported to the Americans in order to make up for the losses sustained by the loss of the black American enslaved people’s labor during the American Civil War (1861-1868); it’s where the area on St. Croix, Cotton Valley gets its name.
Cotton, like tobacco and sugarcane, is a plant that is laborious to cultivate, and depleting to the soil. Agricultural practices that were created and sustained by slave labor across countries all have monoculture in common. The practice of planting hundreds and even thousands of the same plant in order to turn a profit has changed landscapes in not just St. Croix or the Virgin Islands, but in places across the United States and the world. The environmental impacts of industrial farming can be startling, but the practice of it, the sheer devastation of it on land, rivers and sea, pre-date the Industrial Age. What role does emancipation play in agriculture and sustainable development?
From what we have found, sustainability was never considered by the planters in the Danish West Indies and United States, profit was king — not sugar in the now Virgin Islands or cotton in the American South. Black American farmers and our local farmers in the Virgin Islands face many of the same economic and environmental struggles today. Although just a fraction of the population (1.4%), they cultivate the land, often using techniques that are sustainable and handed down from previous generations. They struggle to be seen and given the same resources provided to other economic ventures based in industry or tourism.
Agriculture has been deeply rooted in the history of the Virgin Islands and our connection to the United States — before and after our transfer — from sugar cane cultivation, much of which ended up exported to the United States until tariffs made it unprofitable, to the canned tomato industry that was sent to New York.
There is a feeling of separateness that one can come away with when comparing Virgin Islands’ history to Black American history, and this line of thinking is to our own detriment. No incident is isolated and nothing happens in a vacuum. This is true of history in general, but in particular, black history should begin to be viewed less as a timeline and more as a web in which everything is linked — composed of a single strand.
Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition, Inc. is a non-profit working toward bridging the gap between different sectors of the Virgin Islands food system through education, advocacy and support services. We envision a healthy, culturally relevant food system that provides security, sovereignty and sustainability for all Virgin Islanders.
— Sommer Sibilly-Brown, president of V.I. Good Food Coalition, lives on St. Croix.