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Contract Day

Floor Speech

Date: Oct. 1, 2020
Location: Washington, DC


Ms. PLASKETT. Mr. Speaker, today we have been asked to wear white to honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She represents the tremendous struggle and fight for women's equality.

In the Virgin Islands, today, October 1, is formally known as Contract Day. It honors and celebrates four women, our four queens, that led the St. Croix Labor Rebellion of 1878, also known to us as Fireburn.

After slaves in the Danish West Indies organized, fought, and took their freedom from chattel slavery in 1848, a new type of slavery was formed in a labor bill in the following year to regulate the conditions of the now free workers.

The law stipulated a day wage, and confined workers to one plantation each year that could only change on Contract Day, October 1.

Former slaves worked on the same plantations as before, with little to no improvement in their living conditions, healthcare, education, income, and their movement was restricted. I am sure many of my African-American brothers and sisters recall this happening in the United States after the Civil War.

The newly freed workers found that the low wages and new restrictions made living impossible. It was freedom in name only.

These conditions, along with the inability to vote, to participate in any aspect of the Danish Government at the time, created an incredibly untenable life.

Before October 1 of 1878, rumors circulated that the law was going to improve. When the workers realized on October 1 that those rumors were false, the frustration and anger from the past 30 years of unfair treatment and harsh labor practices after obtaining freedom ignited a protest that led to a rebellion in Frederiksted on the Island of St. Croix.

That rebellion, that uprising, was led by four women, our Virgin Island Queens: Mary Thomas, Mathilda Macbean, Susanna ``Bottom Belly'' Abrahamson, and Axeline ``Queen Agnes'' Salomon demanded all plantations improve workers' wages and repeal the Labor Act of 1849 that kept workers in serf-like conditions. More than half of the city of Frederiksted burned, along with the estates, the plantations across the western and northern part of the island.

The Danish Crown jailed about 400 and executed more than 100 people. Women were burned at the stake after molasses was poured on them, but their heroic and sacrificial acts, like those who earned our freedom 30 years prior, inspired change.

My ancestors, men and women, were willing not only to fight, but to die for the cause of equality and the dignity of a living wage and fair working conditions.

That fight, of course, continues today, not just for Virgin Islanders, but for indigenous people throughout our Nation and territories.

October is part of Indigenous Peoples Day, honoring the centuries- long struggle of people against the horrors of genocide, colonialism, imperialism, and the present conditions of unfair labor laws, discrimination, and unequal voting rights.

From Carib Indians fighting off Columbus on the island of Ay Ay--what is now the island of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, the first place of armed resistance to Columbus in the New World--to the four queens, as I mentioned, of Fireburn; D. Hamilton Jackson, honored in November, fighting the Danish Crown for freedom of speech, people on my island and all over the world continue to demand and fight for freedom, equality, and fairness.

Much like the atmosphere of the Danish West Indies, our Nation is in a tumultuous but necessary time of change.

Let us heed that change. Let us do it peacefully, organized, with leaders.

The attention drawn to practices of systemic racism and police brutality against people of color has sparked a collective worldwide cry for justice, not just in this country, but governments around the world.

Protests, removal of statues of oppressors of people of color are taking place in this Nation and throughout the world.

What will this body do? What will this Congress do? How long will this Congress, this body, be part of the inequality of 4 million people living in the territories? Telling us, as I hear often from my colleagues, ``It is so unfair. I wish it were different.'' But not doing anything to change those laws, the systemic laws that were written over 100 years ago that makes it so continually without end for us.

I pray that the spirit of those queens charge me with renewed conviction to keep pushing.

I pray that there is no Fireburn here, but what comes must come.