Dr. Claybon Lea delivers a sermon about the struggles black people have faced in the Virgin Islands and elsewhere in the world, and about what needs to be done going forward. (Photo: Joey Waldinger)

  • Minister for Natural Resources, Labor and Immigration Vincent O. Wheatley joins the freedom march just as it sets off for the Sunday Morning Well.
Led by Dr. Melvin Turnbull, senior pastor at Cane Garden Bay Baptist Church, a procession followed a truck blasting upbeat religious songs from the Government House to the Sunday Morning Well, singing and dancing all the way.

The Aug. 4 event was part of the Freedom March and Emancipation Service organised by the Virgin Islands Heritage Month Committee. The event commemorated the official end of slavery in the territory, celebrated all that Virgin Islanders have since achieved, and emphasised the importance of honouring this history.

“If you don’t know where you came from, it’s very unlikely you’re getting to get where you want to go,” said Dr. Turnbull, who is also the chairman of the VIHMC. “We’re trying to preserve that history as well as propel into the future.”

Once settled at the well, attendees listened to performances by three 2019 Gen Y Competition finalists and a prayer reading from Pastor Frankie Rathanam of the Tower of Faith Church. Then several guest speakers and performers took turns remarking on the importance of the day.

Greatness and oppression

Dr. Claybon Lea Jr., pastor of the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Fairfield, California, urged attendees to thank God for leading enslaved people to freedom.

“Just because we have slavery in our history does not mean we should have a slave mentality,” he said, adding that he sees African lineage as a point of pride. “We were civilised before the rest of the world knew what civilisation was.”

Though all of the speakers praised the territory’s advancements since the end of slavery, several noted that black people in the VI and elsewhere still face obstacles to true freedom.

In Dr. Lea’s view, modern economics make it difficult for black people to achieve wealth and power.

Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture Minister Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said he sees certain changes in the territory’s culture as remnants of spiritual slavery. VI society, he explained, has become more individualistic.

“I encourage persons to be ever mindful of the struggles our ancestors fought for … and let it reflect in our behaviours,” Dr. Wheatley said. “I would like to see more collective responsibility for our community, more concern for others.”


Dr. Turnbull said he is happy that the community has shown an interest in honouring and preserving its history, and pointed to events like the march as a sign of good things to come.

Bernadine Smith agreed, saying that she always looks forward to the emancipation service. This year, Ms. Smith was especially moved by Dr. Lea’s sermon, and agreed that it is vital for the territory to keep its history alive

“If we don’t remember, we will forget,” Ms. Smith said.