Senators Challenge Historic Preservation Nominees on Interpretation

V.I. Historic Preservation Commission nominees Enrique Rodriguez and Pamela Montegut testify during Thursday’s Rules and Judiciary hearing. (Photo by Chaunte Herbert)
Senators challenged Historic Preservation Commission nominees for too much focus on the islands’ Danish colonial legacy, during the Rules and Judiciary hearing Thursday.

Both Historic Preservation Commission nominees Enrique Rodriguez and Pamela Montegut were ultimately approved, but not unanimously.

“What portion of history are we endeavoring to preserve? All I am hearing is about the colonial and European interests that colonized the island,” said Sen. Alicia Barnes.

The nominees both responded to the question, “All of it.”

Sen. Janelle Sarauw said when we speak of colonialism it is always a “touchy” topic. She said because there is a history of enslavement and oppression in the territory and can bring out emotions.

“The references to Denmark were seeking money from them because they should be held responsible for the fact they were part of this community years in the past,” Rodriguez said.

But Barnes wanted to know what efforts have been made on behalf of the commission to preserve portions of Virgin Islands culture that date back to pre-colonial times, making specific reference to the indigenous peoples as well as the enslaved Africans who were brought to the territory.

“I understand both the cultural and historic relevance of historic preservation, however it has to be comprehensive and inclusive,” she said. “It has to include the contributions that the enslaved Africans made to this territory and those Africans that were not enslaved that migrated to this territory prior to Columbus. Until we begin to celebrate all aspects of our history, I am concerned with this glorifying of colonialism.”

Millions of Africans were brought to the Caribbean during the colonial era. No peer-reviewed, scientific studies support the assertion of pre-Columbian African presence in the region, although it is espoused in some popular speculative works.

Sarauw said she thought what Barnes was referencing was “how washed” the island’s history has become, which she blamed on things well outside the purview of the preservation commission: Partly on the education system, but also marketers of the island. She said when tourists step off an airplane and find a magazine in the airport, she finds it disturbing that they will see only two black people and no traces of Virgin Islands history within the magazine.

Montegut invited senators to visit the St. Thomas Historical Trust Museum, where, she said, “We celebrate the people who made furniture. I don’t know if the people who created it were slaves or not but the pieces that are there are magnificent.”

Sarauw expressed hesitation about the inclusiveness of the Historical Trust, which is separate from the commission. She said the organization’s most recent fundraiser lacked diversity in the room. Montegut said she was aware and “was very uncomfortable with that.”

The commission differs from the Historic Trust in that it is a government body charged with carrying out the historic preservation program dictated in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. According to the commission’s website the entity is primarily responsible for three architectural historic control districts. On St. Thomas the district is Charlotte Amalie and on St. Croix the districts are Frederiksted and Christiansted. In 2017 a Cruz Bay historic district was added for St. John.

The commission’s mandate of architectural preservation is likely why the nominees spoke about Danish colonial buildings in their testimony. Many of the Virgin Islands’ historic buildings were built in the era of European colonialism, if not all by Europeans.

Sens. Sarauw, Kenneth Gittens, Steven Payne Sr. and Javan James all voted to move the nominations forward to the Committee of the Whole. Sen. Barnes voted against the nominees, and Sens. Novelle Francis Jr. and Myron Jackson were absent.

VIHA Nominee

Separately, the renomination of Noreen Michael for the Virgin Islands Housing Authority Board of Commissioners STT/STJ District was moved forward to the Committee of the Whole.

Michael said things she would like to continue to tackle if renominated are the maintenance of old Housing Authority buildings, affordable senior living and the desirability of VIHA housing.

“One of the things I tell board members is that anyone in leadership or even working at the Housing Authority should be comfortable living in any of our residences. And until we’re at that place, we still have work to do,” Michael said.

She said the Housing Authority has prioritized and been looking at different strategies to address safety, health and deferred maintenance.

Michael also said the Housing Authority has taken into consideration the territory’s aging community and aims for one-third of all affordable housing to eventually be marked for seniors.

Sens. Sarauw, Francis, Gittens, Payne and James were all present for the unanimous vote. Sen. Barnes and Jackson were absent from the vote.

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