May 6, 2009 — A bill to make Oct. 1 a holiday celebrating the Fireburn labor action of 1878 turned Senate chambers into a history seminar Wednesday, though the bill was held in committee.
Creating an official holiday had strong support, but the senators differed on the details.
The bill calls for a holiday to be called "Contract Day or Fireburn 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.
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.
While the concept of the holiday was popular, the devil was in the details, as senators pondered whether to make the day a government holiday, whether to remove another holiday to make up the cost of the lost work day, and what sort of requirements would be placed upon the Education Department for commemorating the day.
Sen. Usie Richards repeated his past proposal to eliminate Transfer Day as a legal holiday, arguing that Fireburn is more significant to more Virgin Islanders.
"Holidays have a cost, a bottom line of dollars and cents," Richards said, arguing that eliminating Transfer Day would short circuit a financial rationale for a hypothetical gubernatorial veto.
The bill was held in committee for rewriting. Voting yea on the motion to send the bill out were Nelson and O'Reilly. Sens. Louis Hill and Wayne James voted no and Sen. Neville James abstained. Sens. Craig Barshinger and Michael Thurland were absent.
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