Descendants of illustrious Virgin Islanders bore witness from the House of Assembly gallery as the first ten “national heroes” were officially honoured on Oct. 13 as part of the territory’s observance of Heroes and Foreparents Day.
The ten honourees included trail-blazing legislators, ancestors who fought for emancipation, and visionaries who championed new educational opportunities in the territory. In addition to the heroes recognised in the Oct. 13 ceremony, 38 teachers were honoured on the Oct. 16 holiday itself.
Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said on Oct. 16 that Heroes and Foreparents Day — which replaced St. Ursula’s Day in 2021 — is about “creating awareness about the contributions of Virgin Islanders to our development and advancement, whose works have oftentimes been undervalued and underappreciated.”
The new heroes
On Oct. 13, HOA members held a special sitting to pass a resolution adding the first set of honourees to a register of national heroes (see sidebar).
While introducing the resolution, Dr. Wheatley detailed the achievements of some of the heroes, including Perreen Georges, the only female honouree. Ms. Georges, a free black woman, testified against slaveholder Arthur Hodge, leading to his hanging in 1811 for murdering an enslaved man named Prosper.
Some of the other new national heroes are known for fighting for freedom.
Shelly Martin, for instance, made history for his work leading an attempted rebellion in 1831. Augustus McCleverty, who bought his freedom from enslavement and was later appointed to the Legislative Council, became the “voice of the labourers” against a levy that taxed the poorest people in the community.
Obadiah Dawson and Henry Garnett both fought back against the exploitative “cattle tax” in the 1850s.
More recent times
Other honourees lived more recently.
Carlton de Castro, Theodolph Faulkner and Isaac Glanville Fonseca all helped lead the 1949 march that led to the restoration of the Legislative Council. Mr. Fonseca is also noted as one of the longest serving legislators in the territory’s history.
Other well-known honourees included Noel Lloyd, leader of the Positive Action Movement and champion for Virgin Islanders’ land rights, and H. Lavity Stoutt, the VI’s first chief minister and namesake of the territory’s community college.
The Public Holidays Oversight Committee chose the heroes from among people “whose actions demonstrated courage in the face of adversity, dedication and self-sacrifice, resulting in a fundamental change in the course of the growth and development of the Virgin Islands,” according to the resolution.
Praised in HOA
During the HOA meeting on Oct. 13, the premier and other leaders praised the honourees.
“As a result of their efforts, we have been winning for ourselves a greater measure of freedom,” Dr. Wheatley said. “To those persons, we all should be grateful.”
He added that government plans to consider nominations for new heroes regularly — likely every five years.
Opposition member Mitch Turnbull said revisiting some of the heroes’ stories may be difficult at times, but he advised current generations not to distance themselves from their history.
Junior Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Dr. Karl Dawson commended Mr. Stoutt’s contributions to education, and he said he looks forward to seeing heroes recognised in other categories including education, health care and sports.
Dr. Dawson also encouraged district representatives to give credit to leaders in their communities. At the Carrot Bay cultural day on Oct. 19, he added, five district leaders will receive special recognition. Several other HOA members also voiced support for the resolution, which was seconded by Deputy Premier Lorna Smith and passed unanimously.
Celebrations continued on Oct. 16, when the government recognised former secondary school educators who are at least 80 years old.
The celebrants attended a luncheon at Loose Mongoose in Trellis Bay, after which they received awards for their years of service.
“It is our educators over the past decades who have instilled knowledge and skills in our people, enabling us to develop our competencies in all the fields — academic, professional and vocational — to power our economy and our development, and to take charge of our destiny,” the premier said during the ceremony.
He added, “They have done this often in less-than-ideal conditions, with less than the best resources, and for compensation that [was] far insufficient compared to the value and importance of their work.”
He also paid his respects to Alfred Christopher and Jennie Wheatley, who died on Sept. 26 and Oct. 5, respectively, and were honoured posthumously.
Ms. Wheatley was a long-time educator and a founder of the VI Studies Institute at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, and Mr. Christopher wore many hats, including acting chief education officer, BVI Teachers Union president, and BVI High School assistant principal.
‘Teachers of yesteryear’
Guest speaker Medita Wheatley, an editor and senior lecturer from HLSCC, spoke about the importance of recording the territory’s history in literature and developing Caribbean-specific learning materials.
“It’s easier for a Virgin Islands child to read ‘Wash your face in a sardine pan’ than to read ‘On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond,’” she said. “In this regard, the teachers of yesteryear succeeded.”