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Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, March 21, 2023


March 31, 2004 – Talking about Denmark has been painful for some Virgin Islanders over the years, but the Friends of Denmark Society has long been a catalyst for fostering good relations.
That dynamic was evident on Wednesday as the annual Transfer Day holiday also known as Danish Heritage Day was celebrated throughout the Virgin Islands, particularly on St. Croix.
"It is time for us to keep a common head," Olaf Hendricks, Crucian psychiatrist and master of ceremonies, said at the observance on his island. He urged Virgin Islanders to take a situation that neither group had control of and use it as medicine for healing. "There's got to be something I can extract from this," he said, referring to his first name of Danish origin.
At the beginning of World War I, the United States sought strategic avenues in the Caribbean. In March 1916, the United States sent a draft treaty to the Danish government offering $25 million for the Danish West Indies. With the approval of a revised treaty by both parties, the official transfer of sovereignty took place on March 31, 1917.
"They gave us 10 days to decide if we wanted to be citizens," one unidentified senior at Wednesday's ceremony said sternly as she reminisced.
Mauren Roebuck said her family traces the Danish part of its ethnicity to a family in Denmark named Taylor. Two years ago, cousins from Denmark came to St. Croix for a family reunion, she said.
Organizations foster cultural exchange
Since the 1960s, hundreds of Virgin Islanders have been joined by Danes in exchanging the customs and cultures of both countries through travel exchanges fostered by the St. Croix and St. Thomas Friends of Denmark groups and the Danish West Indian Society.
Sweeney Toussaint, president of the St. Croix Friends, invited non-members to join the group. The organization's mission is to reaffirm the cultural and emotional bonds between Denmark and the former Danish West Indies. The society, which has had as many as 500 members in years past, currently has about 150.
On April 4, Dansk Vest Indien Tours is to bring the first in a series of charter flights of Danish visitors to St. Croix. Nina York, tour facilitator and hostess on St. Croix, said she is excited about the arrival — and the fact that the charter's return flight will carry three local YouthBuild students chosen for a six-week apprenticeship in Denmark in bricklaying and structural restoration.
George Tyson, local historian, said the V.I. Social History Association has received a grant from Denmark's Carlsberg Foundation to create a database of residents in the islands during Danish rule. The project, which will cover some 111,000 persons and will include 2.2 million individual records, is half done, he said, with completion targeted for two to three years from now.
Tyson said the database will be used for the systematic study of the St. Croix population. "We feel it will have relevance to people in the V.I. and Denmark to track ancestry from slavery," he said. "Many will learn for the first time these connections." The research is being conducted by volunteers working in archives in Washington, D.C., as well as Denmark and St. Croix.
Tyson thanked the governor for extending the transfer celebration from one day to a month-long observance of Danish heritage.
"I know the difference between the States and our culture," said one Frederiksted resident who says she has traveled over the years to the continental United States but enjoys her "home."
Celeste Knight-Lang, a junior high school assistant principal, said she came out for Wednesday's ceremony because "it's different and cultural." She said her mother was born after the transfer but "she can pass on the history to me and my children."
Cultural appreciation: pride and preservation
Wayne James represented Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards, who attended the Transfer Day activities on St. Thomas. James, an avid collector of Danish West Indian antiques, urged Danes and Virgin Islanders to remove the dust from treasures around their homes that are artifacts of a shared ancestry.
Saying he has found objects being offered for auction throughout Europe, James urged the government and other agencies to form alliances to secure and preserve "our heritage." Recently he shared his own collection in a display at the Whim Museum. (See St. Croix Source report "Wayne James unveils one of his 'greatest finds'".)
Alice Henry, executive director of Our Town Frederiksted, said observances such as Transfer Day support her organization's mission of revitalizing the infrastructure and preserving heritage and culture in historic districts such as the town of Frederiksted. Alliances among like-minded organizations foster "a sense of pride in our heritage and brings us together as a people," she said.
Last June, Our Town Frederiksted embarked on Operation Clean Sweep, a project which has cleared about 50 vacant lots of debris and overgrowth. Its success has now led the organization to the town of Christiansted. Its efforts are funded by the Law Enforcement Planning Commission and the St. Croix Administrator's Office. Our Town Frederiksted also has a Scrape and Paint program for buildings in need of a fresh coat of paint.
A new organization working to bring the culture of the Virgin Islands to the world is CHANT — Cultural Heritage and Nature Tourism. Its executive director, Oceana James, said the legislation making quelbe the official traditional music of the territory "shows the public that not only the private agencies are embracing the culture, but the government has caught on that they need to take the steps to ensure that generations will have pride in their heritage."
At the end of the two-hour program which began at 10 a.m., those present were entertained by the live quelbe music of Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights. The group will be touring Denmark in August and September.
George Rawlins, 83, recalled his days working on the Lawaetz estate. "I started with machete, pickax and hoe," the Grove Place resident said. He said he cleared the cattle pastures by stumping out the roots of the Acacia tree, known as "kasha" to Virgin Islanders.
With his 5 foot body, coarse gray beard and a white ceramic pipe in his mouth, he said he was "going to dance up a little" despite the aches and pains of arthritis. He lay down his gray umbrella, worn by age and rays of sun, and danced with his arms raised upward.
A lady with a plate of hors d'oeuvres in hand danced on by. "I don't know how to do the quelbe," she blurted out to a friend, "but I am dancing anyway."
The St. Croix Transfer Day observance was presented by the St. Croix Friends of Denmark, St. Croix Landmark Society and Our Town Frederiksted, with sponsorship from the Tourism Department, The West Indian Co., Farmers in Action, Cruzan Environmental Services and Hotel Caravelle.
On St. Thomas, Transfer Day was observed with a flag-raising ceremony on the grounds of the Legislature Building. The ceremony commemorated the lowering of the Danish flag and the raising of the U.S. flag in 1917 to signify the transfer.

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