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The gathering in the parking lot between the United Caribbean Association’s building and the Customs House marked the day in 1878 when St. Croix’s black population, freed for 30 years but living in conditions little better than slavery, finally had enough.
On Oct. 1, 1878 – “contract day,” the one day of the year when they supposedly could change the conditions of their employment – violence broke out and left one man dead, black Crucians took to the streets, burning most of Frederiksted and putting manor houses to the torch.

The uprising was finally halted by militia brought in to control the situation. The people perceived as the ringleaders were arrested and dragged to Denmark in chains, but as one speaker said, it brought about the end of the contract labor system and the end of subjugation in fact as well as name. The story is such an important part of the island’s tradition that it was actually told three times Saturday before it was reenacted in a torchlight parade through Frederiksted.

As darkness fell over the Frederiksted waterfront area, chairs were arrayed in a semi-circle around an open area lit only by an overhead streetlight, casting the evening’s activities in amber light. Reggae music pulsed over the growing crowd, as grandmothers and their grandchildren tapped their feet, bobbed their heads and sang along with Bob Marley.

After a performance by dance company UCA Rebel Daughters, local historian Mario Moorhead took the microphone. His telling of the Fireburn story started 30 years before the event, in 18489, when slaves led my General Buddhoe marched on Fort Frederik and forced the governor to declare an end to slavery.