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The US Virgin Islands Emancipation Day, in context

by | Jul 4, 2023 | History, United States Virgin Islands | 0 comments

With every American’s mindset on July 4, the US Virgin Islands Emancipation Day, a day earlier on July 3, may go unnoticed. However, it is important to understand the history and significance of this day as USVI celebrates its 175th year of independence from slavery. 

July 3 marks the release of enslaved people from Danish rule in the West Indies. It is a day of note, as more than 9,000 enslaved black people, spearheaded by Moses Gottlieb, showed their courage to revolt against the Danish colonizers on July 3, 1848. As opposed to most of the slaves, Gottlieb (General Buddhoe), a skilled sugar boiler, learned to read and write.

The Danish ruled the Virgin Islands since the mid-eighteenth century. The lands were used for sugar plantations, with the labor falling on the backs of enslaved black people. A seizable uprising came on St. John Island in 1733, as the slaves outnumbered the Danish settlers. The slaves made inroads, but the French support proved too great.

The slave emancipation movement in France came in early 1848. Only a few months later, the Virgin Islands followed as the slaves launched a non-violent uprising on St. Croix. It was only a question of time before the slaves of the Virgin Islands got their independence as well.

Governor-General of the Danish West Indies, Peter von Scholten, declared all enslaved people free, stating that “all unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today emancipated.” The governor’s orders overrode the Danish Crown, which had said that the last slaves would be emancipated in 1859. Over 5,000 slaves became free, but many plantation owners refused to comply, and about 17,000 people remained enslaved.

Slaves in the Virgin Islands were now free. Though, it would be another 17 years before slaves were set free in the United States with the passage of the 13th Amendment.

The US Virgin Islands have now proclaimed the anniversary of this day a public holiday, which is followed by America’s Independence Day a day later. In May, USVI Delegate Stacey E. Plaskett introduced legislation to recognize the 175th Emancipation Day (HRes 368) in the House of Representatives, stating that “the 175th Emancipation Day, July 3, 2023, provides an opportunity to acknowledge the enormous strength and resilience of enslaved peoples in the Virgin Islands, as well as the cultural, economic, and social contributions of Virgin Islanders to the United States.”

Freedom City, the sacred lands where the slave insurrection of 1848 took place, is home to the most festive celebration in St. Croix. The day is a demonstration of joy and pride, much like mainland America’s independence day 24 hours later. Festivities include cultural entertainment, from concerts to dance performances on full display. This celebration of the Virgin Islands’ deep-rooted history honors their basic right to freedom. VI Emancipation Day symbolizes this for all.



Jesse Dimich-Louvet

Jesse Dimich-Louvet

Jesse W. Dimich-Louvet is a senior journalism major and political science minor at the Lew Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University. He grew up between Billings, Montana, and Paris, France, and covers politics and sports for Temple. At Pasquines, Jesse is a former US Virgin Islands Affairs Intern Editor.


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