Friday, July 26, 2013

Interview: Gerard Emanuel, retired history teacher, former resident of Free Gut

I have known Gerard Emanuel for over twenty years when I first met him in 1990 when I worked with him on the US Census. I was 16 and worked as an enumerator. It was my first job ever! I had to beg my parents to do it as they thought that having a job and earning money would have made me think I was "grown". It was an amazing experience to have at that age, to walk into people's homes and ask them such personal questions about family, work and ethnicity. I remember that experience fondly and as I write this, I realize that I am doing that same job again, just in a different way, on a different scale, using a different medium.

Gerard Emanuel on Market and East St. Christiansted, reminiscing about his boyhood in town.

Gerard is a retired history teacher and a social sciences professor who has long ties to St. Croix, but especially Christiansted. Like many of the people I interviewed he talks about walking the town and in his case carrying messages for his mother. Reminding us once again of a time without cell phones, without landlines, a time where face-to-face interactions were the basis of communication. A time where like today, when you passed someone on the street you greeted them, "Good morning" or "Good Afternoon", and stopped briefly to exchange pleasantries and inquire about the well-being of mothers, grandmothers or children.
Gerard's family member's house on East St.
We also talked about the "untidiness" of slavery and its legacy, how race dynamics were not as neat and clear-cut as some might want to envision. Freed Blacks might have owned slaves. Whites masters might have fallen in love with their slaves. Freed Colored women might have used their sexuality to advance their position in society. And White Danes might have also exploited them. There were so many unanswered questions: What was the relationship between the Free Black community and the still enslaved community? Did the Free community see themselves as advocates for the enslaved or did they only seek out to create a way for themselves to have more rights and be more equal to Whites. Who is this figure of the "Housekeeper"? Was this simply a legal term to try to legitimize a romantic relationship with Black and Colored women? Were these women exploited or did they actively seek out these relationships with Danish men?  How did the enslaved see the Freed Blacks? Did they aspire to be like them? Or did they see marroonage as a more desirable option considering the restrictions that Freed Blacks were also placed under? Many parts of this interview were less "interview" and more conversation, wonderings, as even my cameraman Tristan Jones jumped in with his own ideas.

Gerard also relayed some fascinating interpretations of how he felt culture operated as a form of social control. He commented on how jumbie stories worked as ways to keep children off of the streets, how discipline was often accompanied with proverbs that were not explained, but that you had to figure out the meaning to and how even the architecture of the buildings, like the jalousie windows, allowed one to observe the street and its "goingon" without the person on the street knowing they were being watched.
Jalousie window on home on East St, Christiansted

We also talked about the tension between celebrating and preserving a historic town, but still allowing for each generation to make its mark. He questioned the validity in wanting our town to only look the way it did in the 1800's especially considering that it represents a time where so many of the people were living under duress. He yearns for this generation to be also given the opportunity to use their imagination in fashioning our town. I hope that this work can open or inspire a path to making this happen, even if what this generation imagines is preservation.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Interview: Dianne Canegata O'Reilly

At the turn of the twentieth century my house was owned by James C. Canegata, a shrewd  businessman that over the next decade would own over twenty properties in town, have over 200 tenants, own a dry goods store and even a soda factory. I was able to interview his great-granddaughter, Dianne Canegata O'Reilly, an enterprising woman in her own right as she is the owner of Shay's Boutique on the corner of Company and Church St. The fact that her great-grandfather's store was on the same street as her own is only one of the many ways that this family has left an interconnected legacy in the town of Christiansted.
Dianne Canegata O'Reilly, great granddaughter of one of the previous owners of my house, James C. Canegata
In the Virgin Islands perhaps the most famous of the clan is the beloved Dr. David C. Canegata whom the Christiansted ball park is named after. Dr. Canegata was the first Crucian to become a physician, was a member of all three branches of government and was an active humanitarian. Although coming from a rather privileged background of going to exclusive boarding schools in Antigua and being educated in Montreal, when he became a physician he is often described as taking a chicken for payment of medical services or not accepting payment at all.
Dr. David C. Canegata, son of one of the previous owners of my house

However, there is perhaps an even more famous Canegata that many Virgin Islanders know nothing about. Lionel C. Canegata, better known as Canada Lee, was the son of the first born son of James C. Canegata. It appears from baptismal documents and Census records that James C. Canegata had a son before David with a woman by the name of Fanny Levy. At 17 James C. Jr. left for NYC and became a part of the Harlem Renassaince movement with other notable Virgin Islanders like Hubert Harrison and Casper Holstein. His son, Lionel, born and raised in NYC became a famous jockey, boxer and then later an actor in both theater and film. Nicknamed Lee from childhood, it was during a fight as a boxer where the announcer mispronounced his name and Canegata became "Canada" and stuck.
Lionel C. Canegata aka Canada Lee, famous boxer and actor

And what is even more amazing about this process of researching the Canegatas is that we believe to have uncovered a younger brother to Dr. David C. Canegata, James Albert Canegata, apparently born in 1895 according to the St. John's church records! It was exciting and incredible that as we searched for better clarification on Canada Lee and who his mother was, we discovered indeed another brother. This was an unexpected surprise to the surviving Canegatas on St. Croix.

However, separate from the family discoveries, Dianne relayed a fascinating image of a strong and united family. One with beautiful traditions and a strong sense of place. She recounted memories of family gatherings at "The Hill" as her grandparents house was affectionately referred to, where all the Canegatas gathered for dinner on Sunday, Easter or Christmas.  Unfortunately the beautiful historic home she describes was destroyed in 1989 in Hurricane Hugo. What remains on this large property are the steps she remembers using to enter her grandparents home.

Steps to Dr. David C. Canegata's home on Fisher St. Christiansted, the remains of Hurricane Hugo in 1989
View of Canegata property on the corner of Church St. and Fisher St.

One of the other reflections she shared that stood out to me was a comment about what it felt like to recognize a particular brick on a street that you have canvassed your entire life. Having walked these streets as a child and now as an adult, she said it gives her a tremendous comfort and sense of self to be able to do that. It was a small but profound description of a true sense of place and belonging. It is that same sense of place and ownership that I hope my documentary can inspire.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Interview: Sonia Jacobs Dow, Executive Director of the St. Croix Landmarks Society

Sonia Jacobs Dow, Executive Director of the St. Croix Landmarks Society

This week I had the opportunity to interview Sonia Dow, executive director of the St. Croix Landmarks Society. It's an amazing organization dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage. They run two museums, a library and have great programs, exhibits, concerts and tours. Ms. Dow also has connections to Free Gut and the larger Christiansted, so she was a natural choice for an interview subject that deals with the town, the buildings and the story of its former residents.
Sonia Dow, Executive Direction of St. Croix Landmarks Society in front of "My Granny House"

We interviewed her on the property of the Estate Whim Museum. I have actually had an exhibit there. You can see a link here and here to view some of the images from that show.
Iron Bed as a part of the "My Granny House" Exhibit at the Estate Whim Museum

However we chose to interview her in front of a beautiful wooden house that was constructed about 20 years ago that has been recently converted into an exhibit entitled "My Granny House". The first time I entered the house it brought back so many memories of both of my grandmothers houses. My grandmother in Barbados and Tobago have similar homes. The kitchen, the bed, the grip, the dollies, the crochet doll, the rocking chair, coal pot all made me think of my Granny and how my parents grew up. Both of them in one and two room wooden houses that they shared with 6-8 people.

What was most memorable to me about our interview was Ms. Dow's commentary on the effect of uncovering one's family history. She talked about the varied emotions that surface when someone finds that first African born ancestor or the first ancestor that was a slaveholder. Due to the meticulous Danish accounting of property taxes, and we remember that slaves were considered property, it is possible for many Virgin Islanders to trace their family history in their library. The process, she says, is incredibly healing, the stories are healing. And for me, although I am not related to anyone that owned my house, we agreed that the stories are powerful enough that they transcend bloodlines. It was a great reminder of one of the many reasons that I am doing this documentary.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Hucksters and Housekeepers

Frederiksted Huckster, 1900 Danish Maritime Museum

Several of the people who owned my house were women. During the Danish colonial time women were able to obtain freedom by a variety of ways. One of them was by being a huckster, an itinerant vendor who sold bread, fruit, herbs or vegetables and with the money they earned some were able to purchase their freedom.

Oceana James as a Huckster for the film "The House That Freedom Built", July 2013
 The huckster is another version of the quintessential image of a Caribbean market lady. From the perspective of a visual artist I have often felt that these images have often been over-used and romanticized in painting. While doing this project I have gained a new understanding for the fortitude of these women and a new appreciation for who they were and what they represent. Simple things, like trying to find a tray/ basket that was the right size for our reenactment made me understand that these women would want a tray large enough to carry enough goods to make money, but not too large that you couldn't bear the weight. And then of course one imagines these women walking around often balancing this weight on their heads.
Oceana James as a "Housekeeper". Effects test for the film "The House That Freedom Built", July 2013

And then there is the more controversial image of the "housekeeper". Often Danish men would have come to the colonies without their families. Although it was illegal for them to marry women of color and even live with them in a romantic capacity, the position of a "housekeeper" was legal. This would be a woman who worked for a Danish officer in his home, the use of quotations signifies that this relationship was often more than laundry and cooking. It was often also sexual and might have also produced children. These liasons were also one of the ways that women could obtain their freedom.

Oceana James as a Huckster for the film "The House That Freedom Built", July 2013
Sayeeda Carter as a Huckster for the film "The House That Freedom Built", July 2013

Two beautiful actors worked on these representations with me, Oceana James and Sayeeda Carter. It was a fun day. We worked in the late afternoon so the lighting was beautiful. Several people stopped us while filming to ask about the project and they were very intrigued. Since our entire town is historic is was amazing how quickly you were transported back in time.

Although there are some photographs like the one below of "Big Mouth Catherine" that I may be able to use for the film. I wanted some more diversity in my imagery. My cameraman, Bill Stelzer, talked about why historical images tend to look the way they do, why the portraits all seemed to have a despondency or emptiness in the expression.
Huckster, "Big Mouth Catherine", 1890 Danish Royal Library

He reminded us that taking a picture in the 1800's meant that a subject would have had to stand still for several minutes often resulting in a certain "stiffness". Videotaping our actors gave another dimension of life: smiles, gestures, etc. I look forward to seeing how it all fits together in the film.
Sayeeda Carter and Oceana James as Hucksters for the film "The House That Freedom Built", July 2013

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Interview: Suzette Bough James of 6B Fisher Street

6B Fisher Street, home of Suzette Bough James in Christiansted, St. Croix

Her house actually feels like it's more on King Cross Street, but she said that because they seemed to mark the houses based on where the front door opens to, hers is marked as 6B Fisher St. I thought that was interesting. Suzette or Suzie as she is most preferably called comes from a large and well established Christiansted town family, the Boughs. She is a retired art teacher who was born and raised in Free Gut, or Hillside as the neighborhood is most commonly called by the generation who experienced its heyday in the 1940's-60's. Every time I interview someone from this generation I yearn to have lived in that time. It sounds like a magical era, where everyone knew each other, and loved each other and looked out for one another. A time where although people lived with far less materially, they seemed to have a lot more joy, more sense of community and more dedication to family. She describes the town as beautiful, well cared for and full of life.

Suzette Bough James, resident of Free Gut, Christiansted

When I asked her about the earliest memory of her house she told me a moving story about the day her mother died. She said she was five years old and she remembers walking into the house for the first time without her mother in it. She commented on the way the jalousie windows (wooden louvered windows) were open and that later neighbors had come by to comfort her.

Although the windows have changed, they are now glass louvered windows and covered with iron grill work to keep out the burglars (she's had a few over the last decade), the view has not changed. We stood there imagining this class of Freed Blacks looking at the same view of the ocean and wondering what they thought, what they felt. We both agreed that their view must have reflected back to them a sense of freedom and tranquility.

View from "Hillside" at the home of Suzette Bough James

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


The other day I was at the house and heard voices. I was surprised because most of the houses in the area are abandoned. When I went to see where the voices were coming from I was pleasantly surprised to see that the house just behind me had some people that were about to open it. Toney Prescot has just come back to St. Croix to start the renovation of his family property.

 My neighbor Toney on Prince St. He has just come home to renovate his family property.

I was thrilled to meet he and his wife Rose and talk to them about my renovation project and the documentary. I was able to interview him today and  collect his memories of growing up in the area. He is apparently family to the owners who preceded me and shared a lovely memory of "Auntie Dolly" as he called her. He talked about how most of the family had moved to the states, but that every time she came home the first thing Auntie Dolly would do when she arrived was go outside to look for and collect her "bush". It was a striking image of an elder returning home and looking for her "roots", literally.

Toney's family property on Prince St., Christianted. 

Normally the area is quiet because of the abandoned properties, but today it was a challenge for us to find a place to do Toney's interview. This was a good thing because all of the noise was construction noise. My neighbors on both sides and myself were busy renovating and working on our properties. It was good to see that. It was a wonderful affirmation on how the universe works. There is a synergy happening. One by one, house by house, Christiansted is coming alive again.