The bust of King Christian IX that looms over Emancipation Garden may be removed after the Rules and Judiciary Committee advanced legislation to replace the bust with a statue of the Conch Shell Blower.
Shortly after an online petition was circulated calling for the bust’s removal, Sens. Myron Jackson and Marvin Blyden sponsored the legislation seeking an appropriation of $20,000 from the St. Thomas Capital Improvement Fund to remove and replace it.
Among the testifiers called for Thursday’s hearing was the originator of the petition, Michael Vante.
“We know that the grounds of Emancipation Garden once housed some of the largest slave auctions in the world; it’s a fact and yet little if any recognition is given to this. We know it was enslaved Virgin Islanders who took their freedom and yet, the park dedicated to their actions in our capital speaks little to this triumph,” Vante said. “The bust of King Christian IX in Emancipation Garden is simply disrespectful to the memory of our enslaved ancestors who were sold on that land, and who built and toiled for the fruits we enjoy today.”
Sen. Jackson agreed. “The king’s bust was placed there not to grace the park and the context of the park, but to grace the King’s Wharf landing … But emancipation is quite absent outside of the bust of the conch shell blower which was placed there in 1998 for the 150th anniversary – this is truly the context to which the park is named. And that history is virtually absent from it.”
Along with Vante, there were 1,297 petition signers who agreed that the bust should be removed from the grounds and be properly contextualized inside of Fort Christian.
“It is not about rejecting our history or relationship with Denmark. It is about accepting the fullness of that relationship in all of its complexity. It is about honoring space for our ancestors and the untold story within that physical space dedicated to honoring them on those sacred ground,” Vante said.
The King Christian IX bust has been in the park since 1909, but Vante said it is not about rewriting history, “But correcting a historical narrative that centers a Danish king, and instead refocusing on and celebrating the narrative of our people’s role in the liberation and expansion of our Virgin Islands story.”
Jackson affirmed Vante’s sentiments and said, “This king should not be the overwhelming image in a square named to celebrate that historic occasion.”
But not every testifier was in support of the removal and replacement of the bust. The St. Thomas Historical Trust opposed the legislation.
Historical Trust board member Felipe Ayala Jr. said the organization implores senators to consider the history of the bust and feels that the statue has been “incorrectly promulgated as an insult to the people of this territory.”
Ayala said the Virgin Islanders who chose to memorialize the king did so by choosing to place the bust in that location and remembered him as a king who “ruled by the will of the people.”
“He was not a participant of the island slave trade era, nor did he descend from the Danish kings of that slavery era. He was not responsible for the colonization of these islands and this statue does not celebrate colonialism or slavery. Rather it honors a king who worked to better the lives of all the people of the territory, including descendants of slaves,” Ayala said. “Slavery and the colonial past cannot be erased by removing a sculpture.”
While both sides of the argument were heard, senators ultimately sided in favor of removing the bust and replacing it. The legislation is now headed to the full body for final consideration before potentially being signed into law.
Additionally, two nominees to serve on government boards were advanced, along with nine bills. Bill 33-0374, which proposes changes to the arrangement of the Magens Bay Authority was removed from the agenda and will be heard on Nov. 19.
Sens. Jackson, Kenneth Gittens, Janelle Sarauw, Novelle Francis Jr., Steven Payne Sr. and Javan James Sr. were present for the hearing. Sen. Alicia Barnes was absent.