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HomeNewsArchivesBill Marking Fireburn as Holiday Stuck in Committee

Bill Marking Fireburn as Holiday Stuck in Committee

April 18, 2008 — Debate on a bill to make Oct. 31 a holiday celebrating the Fireburn labor uprising of 1878 turned Senate chambers into something of a history seminar Friday, but the bill remained held in committee.
Creating an official holiday had strong support, but senators differed on the details.
The bill as presented calls for a holiday called Contract Day. From Emancipation in 1848 until after the Fireburn, Oct. 1 marked the end of a plantation laborer's contract, giving the laborer the ability to contract on a different plantation for the next year. The rest of the year, laborers were not allowed to leave their plantation without permission.
"My grandmother tells me there used to be a saying: 'persevere until October,'" said Sen. Ronald Russell. "It meant hold on, there is light at the end of the tunnel."
The bill says every year after 1848 employers promised better wages and working conditions but never delivered. On Contract Day in 1878 four women on St. Croix, traditionally called queens, organized a revolt to demand all plantations pay the same or better than the St. Croix Central Factory and to repeal the Labor Act of 1849 that kept workers in serf-like conditions. These Virgin Islands heroines were Queen Mary Thomas, Queen Mathilde Macbean, Susanna "Bottom Belly" Abrahamson and Axeline "Queen Agnes" Salomon.
When their demands were not met, workers erupted in frustration, burning down parts of towns and sugarcane plantations over the span of a week. By the end of the "Fireburn," as it came to be known, 879 acres from Estate Prosperity to Peters Rest on St. Croix were burned, including 43 plantations.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said he had been advised by legislative legal counsel to call it Contract Day because Fireburn might be construed as celebrating violence. Nelson said he wants to change it to Fireburn Day.
He noted the United Caribbean Association sponsors an annual Fireburn celebration in Frederiksted, which has a large and enthusiastic turnout every year. But there should also be some official notice of the day, he said.
Sen. Usie R. Richards said the new holiday should be paired with the elimination of Transfer Day commemoration of the U.S. purchase of the Virgin Islands from Denmark, in part because the vast majority of Virgin Islanders were not consulted and were not even considered U.S. citizens until years later.
Several senators disagreed with Richards on removing Transfer Day.
"We have to recognize that March 31 was a very significant date," Russell said. "My grandmother was alive then and she wanted that transfer to happen because she thought great changes would happen afterwards." Russell's grandmother, Eulalie Rivera, is one of a small handful of native Virgin Islanders still around who remember the original Transfer Day.
Gerard Emanuel, a historian at the University of the Virgin Islands, testified in support of the bill, but wanted more names added to the roster of heroes of Fireburn and wanted all reference to Fireburn as a "riot" removed from law and textbooks. Constitutional Convention Delegate Michael Thurland also testified in support.
Sen. Liston Davis of St. Thomas said he would like to see a 1733 slave insurrection on St. John and the St. Thomas Mexican Silver Riot of 1892 included in the commemoration.
The bill was held in committee to allow time for amendments to be crafted.
Voting to hold the bill were: Malone, Richards, Sens. Alvin Williams and Carlton "Ital" Dowe. Sen. James Weber III voted Nay. Sens. Carmen Wesselhoft and Celestino White were absent. Other senators mentioned are not committee members.
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