The House That FREEDOM Built


a documentary by La Vaughn Belle

Copyright       2011 La Vaughn Belle                Photo Credit: Bernard Castillo


An artist buys a decrepit building in Christiansted, Virgin Islands and begins a journey of renovation and discovery as she uncovers the history of the previous owners and the exclusive community of freed Blacks to which they belong.


This film will be the first documentary about the story of Free Gut, an area of Christiansted, Virgin Islands where the freed Black population was allowed to live during the 18th and 19th century slavery period.  The story follows the artist La Vaughn Belle, the most recent owner of an abandoned property located in the area of Free Gut and follows her along her journey in restoring the building, researching its previous owners and learning about the larger, very special community to which they belonged. The House That Freedom Built will intertwine three components:

1. The artist and director of the film, La Vaughn Belle, has just purchased what her husband mockingly calls her “two shacks”.  It is a property in the back streets of Christiansted, a quaint town of the former Danish West Indies, today known as the Virgin Islands.  Unlike the main streets which are closer to the harbor and home to the Governor’s House and other buildings of grander size and function, the back streets were where during colonial times the workers were relegated to live and today is currently full of dilapidated buildings. La Vaughn has always been attracted to these building, admiring the language of the West Indian architecture and sensing that there is more to these houses than their current state of disrepair.  This film will follow her journey on renovating her property on 18B East Street as she confronts the challenges of the renovation, both physically and financially.

2. The second element of this film follows the stories of the previous owners. Of all the colonizers the Danes kept and maintained immaculate and extensive records of the colony they owned for over 250 years. Over the past few years 1.8 million of these documents have been scanned, translated and uploaded to a public database.  The implications of this database are enormous.  It means that now for the first time infinite untold stories can be told, whether it be to search for someone’s ancestors, do medical research on births and deaths, marriage patterns, etc…With the help of local historian George Tyson, La Vaughn uncovers that she has just stepped into a long history of owners dating from the 1700’s that include African born women who managed to purchase their freedom and other freed blacks who ironically owned slaves. 

3. The third component of this film is to tell the larger story of Free Gut.  18B East Street is a part of a community of properties that was called Negger Gotter, Black Gut, later known as Free Gut.  Built along a dried riverbed, this area of Christiansted was where the freed blacks were allowed to build their own houses.  This class of blacks was persons who were able to obtain their freedom in various ways.  Some were children of plantation managers and enslaved African women. Some purchased themselves or were purchased by loved ones who later freed them.  They were able to earn the money by selling their wares or by hiring themselves out on their day off.   Although this story is on one level a testament to survival, ingenuity and hard work, it is also full of puzzling contradictions.  Some of these same freed blacks owned slaves and as a condition of them being granted equal status to whites they had to hunt runaway slaves.

This film will intertwine these three elements. The story will open and be anchored in the renovation process.  It will follow La Vaughn on the journey of renovation and bring to life the stories of the previous owners while layering them in the larger context of the Free Gut community and history.  The film will close during the completion of the renovation, bringing the search of the previous owners to present day.

The title of the film references the famous cumulative story The House That Jack Built, a story that is less about Jack and more about showing connections and parallels.   This concept of interconnectivity and moving from the micro to the macro will drive the style of the film.

For a complete proposal please contact: