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Charlotte Amalie
Thursday, July 18, 2024


April 1, 2002 – Danish Heritage Day was celebrated Monday on St. Croix at the Lawaetz Family Museum — significantly one day after the annual Transfer Day observances took place on St. Thomas.
It was on March 31, 1917, that sovereignty for the territory was tranferred from Denmark to the United States, which under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson purchased the Virgin Islands for $25 million in gold.
An architect's appreciation
In his keynote address Tuesday, Gerville Larsen, an architect, artist and fifth-generation Virgin Islander of Danish descent, focused on the community's need to treasure and celebrate its West African heritage.
Celebrations such as Transfer Day "are formulated around the Danish rule, but leave out the Afro-Danish, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-European aspects of our culture," Larsen said. He feels there is a need for an Afrocentric organization similar to the Friends of Denmark, perhaps the Friends of Ghana or the Friends of West Africa.
Larsen, a graduate of St. Dunstan's Class of 1983, channeled his love of the arts into a career as an architect. He said his profession fueled a desire to research the craftsmanship of his African ancestors, and that in turn led him to become a member of the Historical Preservation Society more than five years ago. "'Transfer' is to pass the past from one person to another and create a link from our cultural past to the present," he said.
His artwork can be found at Taller Larjas, a Christiansted art gallery at 20 Queen Street, just a block from Sunday Market Square, also known as the "freed slave" area of town where vendors showed their wares and conducted commerce.
"I've always been cognizant of the beauty of our architecture," Larsen said, sharing childhood memories growing up in the town of Christiansted and attending school at St. Mary's, a few doors away from the art gallery.
A designer's delivery
On March 6 at the Fort Frederik Museum, another "transfer" event took place, when Wayne James, president of the Homeward Bound Foundation, initiated the transfer of documents from the Lachmann family of Denmark, the last private owners of the Bethlehem Sugar Factory, which is now undergoing restoration by the Farmers in Action agricultural cooperative.
The family once owned 27 estates on St. Croix — two-thirds of the island. "The documents were housed in a private archive for over a hundred years," James said. "The slave trade has fragmented us, but those of us who have access to historical treasures need to do what we can to get those items for all to discover and enjoy."
Documents presented to the people of the Virgin Islands in last month's transfer included the original deed from the Carsons, who sold to Lachmann; the purchase agreement that led to the deed; two books on government statistics, dated 1860-1890 and 1890-1902; the Danish colonial laws; handwritten accounting logs and photographs.
The foundation has presented copies of the documents to the St. Croix Landmarks Society, to the Planning and Natural Resources Department's Historic Preservation Office, to its Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums for distribution to the libraries; to Farmers in Action and, just last week, to Hovensa, which back when it was known as Hess Oil V.I. Corp. replaced the Bethlehem Sugar Factory as the largest employer on St. Croix.
James said the articles will be displayed in a mahogany framed glass case at the Florence A. Williams Library in Christiansted.
Wayne James feels Virgin Islanders should seek ways to incorporate historical preservation into the process of acquiring the American Dream. He feels disheartened when he sees old buildings being bulldozed and replaced by concrete structures bearing no resemblance to the islands' architectural heritage. An artist and fashion designer, he grew up in a home where the arts and craftsmanship were a part of daily life.
"I once heard an intelligent person say that we need to just push down all the old buildings," he commented. "It comes from self-hate. The V.I.'s Danish-era furniture is different from what is found in Denmark. Here, there was an African influence in the design."
West Indian furniture is widely recognized for its fine craftsmanship. Just recently the Landmarks Society held its annual antiques auction at the Estate Whim Plantation Museum, where crowds gathered to view and perhaps acquire pieces for their personal collections.
James said a majestic old castle in Denmark occupied by a family named Hagemann has a "West Indies room" that displays furniture designed by the ancestors of today's Virgin Islanders. And, he said, those treasures rank next to the family's paintings by Van Gogh.
"We are just going through a healing process," James said. "In the '70s we celebrated our blackness. You know, 'Black is Beautiful.' I think people are starting to change their perspective on slavery. We no longer are shameful about it — because it was imposed upon us."
An author's impressions
Richard Schrader, the author of 13 books on V.I. history, culture and folklore, said the Danish colonial era was very painful for those of African descent. He recalled hearing stories in his village about the brutal treatment of people by the gendarmes, the Danish military police.
He said a woman named Maude told him that she cried during a Transfer Day ceremony in Frederiksted, back in the days when the event was commemorated in both towns. She could not raise or wave her flag, he said, because she remembered the severe beating her father had endured as a suspect of a crime while he was being held in the Fort Frederik jail. He later was found innocent and released.
"The scars are deep for some of us," Schrader said. He said many Virgin Islanders, like Rothschild Francis, were exiled to the U.S. mainland and died away from the homeland they loved. "The U.S Navy was very brutal, too," he said. Pointing to the architecture of the Lawaetz Museum and ruins on the property, he said, "These things are ours. We inspired them. This is a part of our heritage. We can't stay away. We must stay involved."
The museum's meaning
The Lawaetz Family Museum is tucked in the lush green rainforest on the north side of the town of Frederiksted in Estate Little La Grange. Begun by Carl and Marie Lawaetz on property owned by this Danish-American family since 1896, the estate was once a sugar plantation and cattle farm.
It is a fitting setting in which to study the rich heritage of the Danes, Africans and other ethic groups that operated and worked the grounds of the historic property. Stately remains of long-ago structures tell of an era "when sugar was king" in the Virgin Islands. Walking through the estate, one encounters an extensive collection of flora and more than 60 kinds of trees, all tagged to show their origin and species.
Some visitors on Tuesday braved the hillside trail which offers a majestic view of the botanical gardens below wherein more than 50 varieties of hibiscus grow. Kai Lawaetz is an avid collector and propagator of several species.
The 19th century greathouse holds the family's collection of locally crafted furniture and memorabilia. On the veranda where a bell rang to signify the transfer, two books by family members were on display: a biography of Peter Von Scholten by Herman C.J. Lawaetz and "Emancipation — The Virgin Islands of the United States Celebrates its 150 Year Anniversary 1848 July 3 1998," by Erik J. Lawaetz.
The Danish Heritage Day program was sponsored by the Friends of Denmark and the Landmarks Society. Nancy Fisk, Landmarks Society education director at the Whim Plantation Museum, said events such as the Transfer Day celebration are part of the society's outreach to foster cultural appreciation in the Virgin Islands. The society's e
ducational program also includes Christmas and summer "Explore St. Croix" camps for children. "Kids are fascinated by this site," Fisk said of their two-day experience at the Lawaetz Museum.

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