From their vantage point, attendees could see the entirety of Maroon Ridge stretching out below them all the way to Ham’s Bluff. Before emancipation, escaped slaves would take refuge in the caves along the coast. Some even constructed makeshift boats and departed from here on a perilous journey to Puerto Rico in search of freedom.
Claudette Young-Hinds, president of St. Croix Unified for Community, Culture, Environment and Economic Development, Inc, opened the ceremony by acknowledging the diversity of the crowd. She said regardless of whether you descended from the Maroons or were a new transplant to the island, their story resonates with everyone.
“This is a celebration of liberation. The liberation of the human spirit,” she said. “We are part of that humanity that celebrates that spirit to overcome incredible odds to be free.”
Over the next hour, a slate of local clergy led the group in prayer and reflection. Speaking were Gilbert Sprauve, Noemi Bermudez-Ortiz of the Vertud del Cielo church, George Cannon, Jr. of the Bahai faith, Rev. Rod Koopmans of the St. Croix Reformed Church, George Franklin of Unity, Tahirah AbuBakr of the Interfaith Coalition, and Chenzira Kahina and NesuNeb KaRa of Per Ankh Em Smai Tawi.
Most spoke of the equality of all people before the eyes of God and called on the crowd to reject hatred.
“God of all nations, as we recall the harrowing lives of those people we honor and commemorate this day, we pray that your spirit attends us that we may learn from our history and not repeat it,” said Koopmans. “We pray furthermore that we may recognize and condemn any injustice or intolerance which are found in their many and various forms.”
AbuBakr called on the crowd to absorb the spirit of the Maroons and use it to overcome the challenges facing the territory today.
“I ask you to join me in mind, body and spirit with an intention today. Can we agree on that?” she said. “That we have intention to walk forth in this day and so forth to bring healing to ourselves and to our community.”
From the Spanish word cimarrón for a fugitive or runaway, Maroon communities existed throughout the Caribbean. Their story has become better known in recent years as scholars have begun researching and writing about what some call the maritime Underground Railroad.
On St. Croix a movement has existed since 2003 to establish a territorial park on Maroon Ridge to preserve the sacredness of the site and prevent it from being overly developed.
According to Paul Chakroff, a founding member of SUCCEED, around $3 million dollars have been raised to purchase land in the area. Their hope is to combine it with other parcels held by the government of the Virgin Islands to make a patchwork park, interspersed by homes and private businesses.
He says there intention isn’t to buy up the entirety of the ridge. Rather, he hopes some small development will take place around the park, like farms, boutique shops and small hotels, so the community can fully benefit from the park’s existence.
The prayer meeting was followed by a short-film festival at the University of the Virgin Islands. The commemoration will continue on Saturday with a scholarly symposium on historic preservation taking place at the Carambola Beach Resort and Spa from 8:30-5:30 p.m. It is free and open to the public.