The importance of a deep, shared cultural heritage was clearly illustrated Saturday at the Transfer Day Celebration when the sound system went out.
Students from Pearl B. Larsen Elementary School were dancing the quadrille when the recorded music hiccupped, sputtered and cut out. The kids stutter-stepped for just a second, unsure of what to do. And that’s when the audience took over.
They all knew the song. Clapping in rhythm, they sang, "Dah da dah-dah-dah." They kept it up and the kids danced until the music came back, exactly in time with where the audience was with the song.
When it went out again, the audience took over again, and kept it going.
And it’s that spirit that the U.S. Virgin Island needs if it’s going to weather the economic storm blowing across the territory, according to former Sen. Basil Ottley, the keynote speaker for Saturday’s Transfer Day celebration held at the Whim Plantation Museum.
Ottley, now the field representative for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs, talked about the issues that divide us as a community, and how reflecting back to the transfer of the islands should help point the way for the future.
Ottley said, "1917 was all about the U.S. and Denmark. Everything since then has been about the islanders."
Most of the attention on Transfer Day is on the negotiations between the two nations, the arrival of the U.S. Navy and the lowering of the Danish flag and raising of the Stars and Stripes. Ottley chose to focus on the islanders, who watched it all wondering, "How is this going to change my life?"
The years after transfer of possession of the island from Denmark to the U.S. were not smooth. The U.S. had no history as a colonial power and put the Navy in charge. But islanders never settled for being second class, and vocally and persistently demanded greater autonomy, self-rule and status as citizens of the United States, he said.
The same principles of freedom and self-determination can be relied on again now that times are hard, Ottley said. "We have to have the courage to say, ‘This is the way forward, there’s no backstepping.’"
Issues such as who was born a Crucian, who lives on the east end or the west, who goes to a particular church or lives on a particular island: these can all be used as excuses to argue and fight among ourselves, Ottley said. Everyone needs to work together.
"It is up to Virgin islanders to set the tone and set the pace," he said.
Ottley was one of a handful of speakers who addressed a crowd of more than 100 seated under an awning on the museum lawn.
The oratory was broken up by performances by both the Quadrille and Masquerade dancers from Pearl B. Larsen Elementary. There was also music by the Santa Cruz Brass Band.
The museum was open for tours and walks around the ground. Also on hand were licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants recently dismissed from Juan F. Luis Memorial Hospital.
The nurses and CNAs provided free blood pressure and blood sugar tests, keeping their jobless situation in the public eye while providing a service at the same time.