Last week the Afrikan Studies Klub once again held a wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate Africans who died in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The well-conceived event — which is held each year at the start of Black History Month — is precisely the sort of observance that the territory needs as it works to reclaim the largely unwritten history of its African forebears.

Some have found it odd to observe Black History Month in the Virgin Islands, where the great majority of the population is made up of descendants of Africans. But given the territory’s past, we see no reason why it shouldn’t be done.

Slavery and colonialism have meant that the brutal history of the territory’s African descendants has been subordinated to the history of its white inhabitants for hundreds of years. The ramifications of this injustice are with us today, and it is a tragedy that much of the population would be hard pressed to find written records of their ancestors beyond a generation or two.

In order to remedy such wrongs, a renewed focus on the history of the territory’s African roots is urgently needed.

Thanks largely to the work of a handful of diligent academics and other thinkers, such ideas have begun to catch on. The annual wreath laying is a case in point, and the organisers — a few dedicated residents who have hosted the small ceremony for more than a decade — should be commended.

Besides libations and traditional music, the Sunday event included presentations by members of the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College’s Virgin Islands Studies Institute, which also has emerged as a leader in reclaiming the territory’s history.

Among the performances was a dramatisation of the life of Pereen Georges, a free black woman whose brave testimony helped secure a ground-breaking conviction against plantation owner Arthur Hodge, who was subsequently hanged for the murder of a slave named Prosper.

It is bittersweet today that the dramatisation of Ms. Georges’ life seems so new and exciting. There are thousands of such heroes throughout the territory’s rich history who should be household names. Sadly, most schoolchildren would recognise very few.

Commemorations like the wreath-laying ceremony, then, should be much bigger than a small gathering: They should be institutionalised at the territory’s highest levels.

A good place to start is in the schools, many of which still don’t adequately teach local and regional history and culture.

National holidays are another consideration. Instead of Commonwealth Day, St. Ursula’s Day, and other Euro-centric observances, the territory could officially commemorate heroes such as Ms. Georges and events such as slave rebellions and the 1949 march that led to the restoration of the legislature.

It is high time to accelerate the process of reclaiming the territory’s history. And during the ongoing election campaigns, candidates should explain how exactly they plan to work toward this important goal.


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