The moment I stepped out of the plane in St. Croix I knew that I was in for the experience of a lifetime. The warm sun beating down on my skin and the beautiful palm trees that surrounded me created an atmosphere of pure bliss. The beauty of the island is truly magical, but it was the people and the history of St. Croix that made me fall in love.

My very first night on the island, I attended a town meeting regarding a project to try and recover artifacts from several sunken ships used in the transportation of enslaved Africans believed to be near the island. Although I attended this meeting to learn about the project, I left learning far more about racial stratification. Most people seem to tiptoe around the topic of race, but the people at this meeting spoke from the heart and directly addressed their feelings of frustration about how only white people were standing up there trying to research their history, and their culture. They advocated for wanting to be able to involve their younger generation in this project, as well as the strong desire to keep their history alive on the island. I walked out of the discussion with so many internal questions on, “How would I feel if someone came to try and research my heritage and life being the complete opposite of me?” This question is a very valid one, and also one that has no simple answer. Being able to listen to the islanders, so passionate about their heritage, both recovering from the past and pursuing positions and information for their newer generation, was stunning. This meeting provided the perfect introduction to the culture of the island.

I had the opportunity to visit the St. George Botanical Garden and the Estate Whim Plantation. On these tours I was able visually see the history I was learning about. It’s one thing to read about the slavery on the island, but standing next to the giant sugar mill and witnessing the vastness of the plantations was emotional. Learning about the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and specifically its effect on the island of St. Croix, shaped a large aspect of my travel study.

mill joelle

I also got to go on a walking tour of one of St. Croix’s major towns Christiansted. In 1735, Christiansted was officially founded by Danish West India on behalf of the Danish Monarchy. Race and class were clearly explained and shown in physical location during the walk around Christiansted. For example, the free blacks were only able to live in the part of town called ‘free gut’, which was in the lower and undesirable area of town. In comparison, the white people who had higher rank and class were able live in the elaborate, and elevated American Hill. We can often analyze how race and class affect our daily lives, but witnessing the clear distinction in elevation and quality of housing that divided the races was very eye opening and thought provoking. The walk around the town provided me with an abundance of knowledge and appreciation for the town of Christiansted.

free gut joelle

Another huge aspect of the trip was exploring the environmental causes that are at play in St. Croix and learning the importance of conservation on the island. We had the opportunity to go down to the beach at night and watch a leatherback sea turtle lay her eggs. The leatherbacks are an endangered species currently, and being able to spend the night learning more about them from the people who are working tirelessly to provide a perfect safe haven for them to lay their eggs was moving.

boab tree plaque joelle

“This specimen originated in West Africa, noted as one of the oldest life forms on the planet. These trees provide food, medicine, shelter, and places of worship. This tree is over 250 years old. Under this tree, some of the women who joined Queen Mary Thomas, in the rebellion of 1878 were burned alive.” (St. Croix Historical Preservation Committee).

 

We also had the opportunity to go on a walk to explore and learn about the Baobab tree. If it had not been for this tour and the articles we read prior to the tour, I would have passed by the tree without a clue of the significant role that they play here in St. Croix. The rebellion of 1878, known as Fireburn, was an uprising for better wages and rights for the laborers of sugar plantations. They sought these rights by protesting and burning down multiple plantations along St. Croix. . If it weren’t for all of the influential women and men who fought and suffered to earn their freedom, and their rights for equal pay, there would have been no change or progress. It is very important to pay respect to those who were instrumental in these acts of resistance, and make sure that we continue to educate and empower people to continue acts of resistance when it is needed. During this walk Olasee Davis, an ecologist and professor at the University of the Virgin Islands, shared that he still engages in acts of resistance today when fighting to preserve the natural habitat of St. Croix, particularly the Baobab tree, so that generations to come can also gather by the tree and know the significance.

boab tree joelle

A huge Baobab tree we saw on our tour.

My time spend in St. Croix has forever changed my life. I had the opportunity to dig right in and experience all the amazing history of the island. I analyzed the privileges that I carry, while also doing deep reflection to interpret discrepancies between other races, classes, and genders and how that affects life on the island. They say that after traveling you will never be completely home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere.

 –Joelle Beyer

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