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State of the Territory | Black History Month: Commemorating Excellence and Endurance, Echoes of the Harlem Renaissance and the Virgin Islands

In her bi-weekly column, “State of the Territory,” former Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw delves deeper into issues of concern for V.I. residents.

Black History Month stands as a testament to the rich tapestry of African American heritage, resilience, and accomplishments, weaving together narratives of struggle and triumph. Established as an annual celebration in the United States, it is a time to honor the indelible mark African Americans have left on the nation’s history and culture. Originally conceived as “Negro History Week” by noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other influential figures, this observance has since evolved into a month-long recognition, officially designated by every U.S. president since 1976.

Why February was chosen as Black History Month

The selection of February for Black History Month holds symbolic significance, aligning with the birthdays of two towering figures in African American history: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Lincoln’s pivotal role in emancipation and Douglass’s relentless advocacy for abolition resonate deeply within the African American community. Both men’s legacies serve as pillars of freedom and justice, making February a fitting tribute to their contributions.

 The Legacy of the Harlem Renaissance:

Central to the narrative of Black History Month is the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural and intellectual movement that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, primarily in the vibrant neighborhood of Harlem, New York City. Amidst the backdrop of segregation and racial oppression, the Harlem Renaissance emerged as a beacon of creativity, empowerment, and cultural pride for African Americans across the country. During this period, Harlem became a bustling hub of artistic innovation, attracting a diverse array of writers, musicians, poets, and activists.

The Great Migration and the Virgin Islands:

The Harlem Renaissance was not only a cultural renaissance but also a product of the Great Migration, a mass exodus of African Americans from the rural South to urban centers in the North. Among those who journeyed northward were thousands of natives of the Virgin Islands, seeking economic opportunities and freedom from oppression.

Driven by factors such as economic decline and political unrest in the Virgin Islands, many islanders sought refuge and opportunity in Harlem and other northern cities. The decline of industries such as rum production, exacerbated by Prohibition and natural disasters, spurred further migration, reshaping the demographic landscape of both the Virgin Islands and Harlem.

Prominent Virgin Islanders of the Harlem Renaissance:

Casper Holstein, a gambler, philanthropist, and activist born on St. Croix, played a pivotal role in shaping the cultural and political landscape of Harlem. Despite his controversial origins in organized gambling, Holstein leveraged his wealth to support various charitable causes and advocate for political rights for Virgin Islanders.

Hubert H. Harrison, a Socialist orator and writer, emerged as a leading voice for racial equality and social justice during the Harlem Renaissance. Born on St. Croix, Harrison’s radical ideas and impassioned speeches galvanized audiences, earning him the nickname “the Black Socrates” and cementing his legacy as a trailblazer in the fight for civil rights.

Ashley L. Totten and Frank Crosswaith, both natives of the Virgin Islands, specifically St. Croix, were instrumental in organizing labor movements and advocating for workers’ rights in Harlem and beyond. Totten’s leadership in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Crosswaith’s efforts to organize black workers underscored the pivotal role of Virgin Islanders in shaping labor activism during the Harlem Renaissance.

African American Museum: Honoring Legacies, Celebrating Heritage

Among the captivating exhibits housed within the African American Museum are two prominent Virgin Islanders whose legacies continue to inspire generations: Alton Augustus Adams and Peter Bentzon. Adams, recognized as the first African American bandmaster in the U.S. Navy and one of the earliest African American Navy chief petty officers, hailed from the picturesque island of St. Thomas. His remarkable achievements not only broke barriers but also showcased the immense talent and potential within the African American community.

Adams’s profound impact on music and military history is vividly portrayed through artifacts displayed at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Visitors are greeted by the sight of a flute and piccolo, both meticulously preserved and played by Adams during the formal Transfer Ceremony of the Virgin Islands to the United States nearly a century ago. These instruments, imbued with historical significance, serve as tangible reminders of Adams’s pioneering spirit and unwavering dedication to his craft.

Similarly, the museum pays homage to Peter Bentzon, a trailblazing silversmith whose remarkable story illuminates the resilience and ingenuity of African Americans during tumultuous times. Born a free black man in St. Croix in 1783, Bentzon defied societal norms and pursued his passion for craftsmanship amidst the backdrop of slavery and oppression. His exquisite creations, including a pair of teaspoons meticulously crafted from American coin silver, offer a glimpse into the artistic prowess and cultural heritage of African Americans.

As visitors explore the African American Museum, they are invited to delve deeper into the lives and legacies of individuals like Adams and Bentzon, whose remarkable journeys exemplify the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Their stories echo throughout the halls of the museum, serving as beacons of hope and inspiration for all who seek to honor the enduring legacy of African American heritage.

Final Thoughts

As we commemorate Black History Month and reflect on the enduring legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, we are reminded of the resilience, creativity, and perseverance of African Americans throughout history. From the vibrant streets of Harlem to the shores of the Virgin Islands, the echoes of this transformative era continue to inspire and uplift generations, ensuring that the contributions of African Americans are celebrated and honored for years to come.

Moreover, the stories of individuals like Adams, Bentzon, Holstein, Harrison, Totten, and Crosswaith serve as powerful reminders of the diverse talents and profound impact of African American Virgin Islanders on American society. As we pay homage to their legacies and the countless others who have shaped our collective history, let us recommit ourselves to the ongoing struggle for equality, justice, and the realization of the American dream for all. In embracing the richness of Black history, we pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable future where every voice is heard and every contribution is valued.

 

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