Aug. 1, 1834 was a Friday. It was a good Friday. A very different Friday. Early before the dawn of that long-awaited Friday morning, the people made a pilgrimage. Many, many more than had travelled the last Sunday, July 27, or any other Sunday before, trod the rough paths across the land, hailing up and picking up more of their people along the way. Their ranks swelled as they made their way up the hills, down the ghuts, and around the bays. Even when it rained they pressed forward by faith towards the gathering place.
The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Road Town was perhaps the largest of the gathering places that unforgettable Friday morning. Many of the people who poured into the churchyard to the welcoming peals of the chapel bell had come a long, long way. They came from Sage Mountain, Turnbull Mountain, Mount Healthy and Joes Hill. Others had travelled from Cane Garden Bay and Cooten Bay. There were folks coming from North Side and folks coming from South Side. Still more had come from Belle Vue and from Pleasant Valley, from Lower Estate and from Road Town itself. They came from everywhere. Like tributaries from every side of the island, they all flowed into the chapel. Elder Africans came bearing the memory of their ancestors and the promise of their Creole descendents. They came: men, women, youth, children and babies in arms. This was better than Sunday. Even better that Christmas morning. It was Freedom Friday.
‘Moment in history’
As was likely the case throughout the Virgin Islands, the people came to fellowship with one another, unable to keep this moment in history to themselves. They came to bear witness to this new day and to demonstrate their resolve for a better future for their children and their generations yet unborn. Their presence in the chapel was an official presence. More so, it was a sacred presence. They gathered there to solemnise and seal their emancipation and bind the authorities to their word. They brought their children to behold this new beginning. They came forward in grace to reclaim their stolen inheritance, to recollect their scattered seeds, to restore their battered humanity. There would be baptism in the chapel that Friday morning.
On Aug. 1, 1834, to mark the beginning of a new day, the people brought 17 children to be baptised at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Road Town. One hundred and seventy eight years later, as we celebrate that first Emancipation holiday, let us remember how on that first Friday in August 1834, our ancestors came from far and near supported by their extended families, villagers and congregations to present the hope of the new future. They were not nameless. They were real people. Our people.
There was Cecelia, daughter of Michael Anderson and Sophia Georges of Mount Healthy. Perhaps out of habit, The Reverend E. Frazer had already registered 3-month-old Cecelia as a slave when it might have dawned on him that such an official status no longer existed. The column titled “Civil State” had become null and void.
Never again in history would he have to enter in the church register the words “white,” “free,” “slave” or “African apprentice.” In that fresh awareness, he broke free from the confines of the old convention. Writing outside the lines of the register, he recorded this note for posterity: “N.B. Slavery being abolished this 1st day of August the distinction of Civil State ceases as those who were yesterday slaves have been baptized this day as free. Glory to God.”
Baptised as ‘free’
Would that the Reverend Frazer had crossed off the word “slave” next to Cecelia’s name! The first open space under “Civil State,” however, would be given in the register to the child named Duke, son of Thomas and Nell Hethrington of Cooten Bay. The names given to the other children baptised “as free” that first Emancipation Day were Elizabeth Turner, Rebecca Nibbs, Eliza Raymur, Keriah Georges, Clarissa Martin, Edward Martin, William James Thomason, Hannah Hodge, Eve Raymur, Ann Robertson, Mial Georges, Thomas Crabbe, William Hodge, Lydia Farrington and Cuffy Georges. Do we recognise these names? Do we remember these children? Do the ancestors walk within us?
The history books say that Emancipation Day in the VI passed without event. They say it was a quiet day. There might have been no reports of rebellious demands for immediate emancipation or protests against impending apprenticeship, but this could not have been an uneventful day.
Greater hardships lay ahead for the families of Cecilia and the 16 other children baptised in the Road Town Wesleyan Chapel on that Friday in 1834. But as we have lived to witness, our ancestors came forward against all odds to present their children, their best hope for a future that we now celebrate. This August Emancipation Festival 2012, let us remember them well by name and thank them for their sacrifice in spirit and in truth. A happy and memorable holiday to all.