Organizers of Saturday’s 12th annual Dollar fo’ Dollar Culture and History Tour used the territory’s post-storm mood to highlight the history of another devastating hurricane, one that directly preceded a coal carrier strike in 1916.
Coal carriers figure heavily into the labor history of St. Thomas, a fueling port for steam ships in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thousands of Virgin Islanders during that period, many of them women, worked to fuel the ships that came and went from Charlotte Amalie. Hours were long. Each basket of coal weighed between 80 and 100 pounds, and pay was as little as one cent per basket.
The 1916 strike of St. Thomas’s coal carriers is less well-known than an 1892 strike, lead by the iconic Queen Coziah, that the Dollar fo’ Dollar tour typically memorializes and reenacts.
Ayesha Morris, who founded Dollar fo’ Dollar along with Jahweh David and Dara Cooper, called the 2017 iteration of the tour the “hurricane survivor edition.”
Dollar fo’ Dollar takes participants on an interactive tramp through Charlotte Amalie focusing on the history of St. Thomas’s coal carriers. It is usually held on Sept. 12, the date of the 1892 strike. But after the tour was postponed by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Morris said the organizers decided to include a focus on the 1916 strike, which occurred in November in a familiar storm-ravaged landscape.
On Saturday, overcast skies and light rain kept the start of the Dollar fo’ Dollar tour inside St. Thomas’s Legislature building. There, participants were treated to a performance by dancers and drummers from Ulla Muller Elementary School before hitting the road towards Market Square.
Dance is prominently featured in the Dollar fo’ Dollar tour; many of the coal carriers of a century ago used the Afro-Caribbean bamboula as a form of protest and expression. Mary Ann Christopher, who for years embodied Queen Coziah during the Dollar fo’ Dollar tour, was a dance teacher and founder of the Macislyn Bamboula Company, work that her daughter Allegra continues.
Dollar fo’ Dollar tour guides Nadine Marchena Kean and Ruby Simmonds Esannason, both scholars of V.I. history and the coal carrier strikes, prefaced Saturday’s tour by setting the scene in Charlotte Amalie circa 1916.
Esannason said first-hand accounts of a hurricane in October of that year, just months before the Danish West Indies were transferred to the United States, referred to the storm as the most violent and destructive in the islands’ history.
The “1916 Gale”, Esannason explained, caught residents off-guard. The islands had not seen a serious hurricane in approximately 50 years. For Essanason, the history of that storm is a personal one; her great-aunt was among the casualties.
In something close to prophecy, Essanason said, one of the schooners reported to have washed ashore on St. Thomas in the 1916 hurricane was named Irma, the same as the storm that would pummel St. Thomas almost exactly a century later. But in 1916, she added, there was “no FEMA, no SBA, no VITEMA.”
The storm devastated the island’s working people, among them the coal carriers, who used the aftermath to successfully strike for higher wages.
“For those of us who experienced Irma, and Maria, and some of the others, we know that this is a part of the history of the Virgin Islands,” Essanason said. “1916 and 2017 are years we will never forget, but we are a strong people.”
Kean said George Moorehead, a man from St. Croix who worked with famed V.I. labor leader David Hamilton Jackson, helped workers on St. Thomas organize in the years around transfer.
“You hear about David Jackson a lot,” Kean said. “but you may never have heard of George Moorehead, who created the St. Thomas labor union.”
Among the workers Moorehead helped organize were the coal carriers. The 1916 strike was successful in getting them a 100 percent increase in pay.
Kean reminded participants in Saturday’s tour that labor unions in most industrialized nations in 1916 only included men, unlike in St. Thomas.
“Our labor union included women laborers,” Kean said, before reading out a list of names of coal carriers, many of them women, and many with surnames common in the Virgin Islands today: Smith, Fahie, Callwood, Vanterpool, Benjamin.
Kean and Essanason gave participants bits of historical information at locations along the tour’s traditional route Saturday, while actors and dancers entertained marchers and onlookers with reenactments and performances.
As participants strolled through Charlotte Amalie, most dressed in white, many with umbrellas to protect them from the rain, they sang call and response protest songs including “What we Want” and “Roll, Isabella, Roll.”
Funding for the Dollar fo’ Dollar tour is provided in part by a grant from the V.I. Council for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Virgin Islands Academic and Cultural Awards Endowment.
Other partners include the Office of Senate President Myron D. Jackson, the Department of Agriculture, Fort Christian and the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the V.I. Police Department, the V.I. Transfer Centennial Commission, the Division of Virgin Islands Cultural Education, Benita Martin, Chinwe Osaze, the Caribbean Genealogy Library, WUVI, and WSTA 1340.