Precarious Learners: Race, Status and
the Making of Virgin Islands Education from 1917-1970
by Jessica S. Samuel, Ph. D.
In the United States, political status and degree of belonging continue to dictate one’s access to a quality education. Undergirding this relationship between citizenship and education is the particularly American ideal that education should be a vehicle for civic participation. Founding framers such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson argued that a thorough and world-class education was the stepping stone to democratic republicanism. However, in the United States, the very precept of self-governance has long been circumscribed by racial ideologies that have regarded non-white people as ineligible participants of civic society, and subsequently, of its educational systems. For the inhabitants of American territories who share a wide range of political arrangements with the U.S., access to comprehensive education is often encumbered by what some have called “political apartheid.“ In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the territory’s unique history of acquisition has determined the way its inhabitants have and continue to relate to the United States. A primarily African-descended population,Virgin Islanders’ own history of enslavement and continual colonization has caused an inconsistent and troubled evolution of numerous local institutions, especially that of education. Warped by a history of racialized domination and economic deprivation, education for Black Virgin Islanders has long been fraught by the conditions of precarious citizenship.
When the United States purchased the Danish West Indies (now U.S. Virgin Islands) from Denmark in 1917 for $25,000,000 in gold bullion the change in the islands’ political status profoundly impacted the educational options afforded to those residing in the territory. Being new subjects of a U.S. empire primarily concerned with preventing enemy expansion in the Caribbean basin both improved and complicated Virgin Islanders’ access to comprehensive education. On one hand, this new affiliation with the United States granted some Virgin Islands people access to educational institutions not otherwise available in the islands. On the other hand, this same affiliation also obfuscated who counted as a Virgin Islander, and thus, could access certain educational institutions. For those residing in the U.S. Virgin Islands, American citizenship both exposed and exacerbated the precarious conditions of learning and belonging in a U.S. territory.
The Inherited State of Education in America’s Virgin Islands (1732-1917)
When the United States purchased the Danish West Indies, they acquired a set of islands that had been experiencing considerable economic and political turmoil. As early as the 1800s, it had become unprofitable for the Danish to maintain their only Caribbean colony, and for several decades, sale of the islands loomed. The economic predicament of the islands left most of its inhabitants living in poverty and unable to develop vibrant political systems of their own. In the case of education, however, economic strain coupled with a legacy of colonial slavery led to its depraved state at the time of purchase. Though the education of the islands’ Black population had an unconventionally early start, the haphazard and inconsistent nature of its development ultimately obstructed its effectiveness.
The earliest known learning program made available to Black inhabitants came by way of Moravian missionaries in 1732. A tool for religious conversion, the education of enslaved African children involved after-hours instruction from the Bible, once plantation work had been completed for the day.1 The first formal institution of learning was established in 1747 by Dutch Reformers in St. Thomas. However, it functioned at the exclusive service of the white children of the island’s planter class. More than 90 years would pass before, in 1839 (fewer than ten years before he would abolish slavery in the colony) Danish Governor-General Peter vonScholten passed an ordinance providing for free, compulsory and universal education for all Black children living in the country areas of the islands. Eight country day schools were to be built on St. Croix, five in St. Thomas, and four on St. John. Given their successful track record of educating enslaved children especially at the St. John schools of Emmaus and Bethany, the Moravian missionaries were called upon by the Danish government to administer this new school system while under the supervision of Lutheran clergy–the official organ of the Danish government. In 1876, the first institution of higher education in the Danish West Indies was established but phased out just a few years later since there was not a large enough pipeline of high school graduates to matriculate. With a focus primarily on meeting the desires of the plantation class, education in the Danish West Indies followed the rhythm of European Christian evangelism and elitism. Though effective during the period of Danish slavery, after emancipation, the parochial management of schooling throughout the islands struggled to meet the demands of the newly freed class of people. The school system in place left students and teachers without a single formal textbook for instruction.2 By the time the U.S. acquired the islands in 1917, the state of education was “decidedly backward and disgraceful.“3
The decade following the United States’ purchase would be marked by massive changes in the organization of schooling on the islands. U.S. officials would introduce the 6-3-3 school organization model (which distinguished elementary, junior, and senior high school levels), increase the total education expenditures by approximately 500%, extend the length of the school day, raise the age limit for compulsory education, and increase the total number of students served.4 Under Naval administration, education in the U.S. Virgin Islands would come under law and order. Virgin Islanders could now look to the U.S. government to provide them a more cohesive education system, albeit on terms that most aligned with the United States’ own raciopolitical priorities. This military-led education program did little to improve native people’s access to robust political rights, nor did it improve their capacity to participate in civic society.
At the time of acquisition, the newly-forming concept of “unincorporated territorial status” had not yet been finalized by the U.S. federal government, which left the question of whether Virgin Islanders counted as U.S. citizens unanswered until 1927 for most, and 1932 for others.5 The precarity of their political status, joined by the racial tensions created from having a primarily white military base administer a predominantly Black island populace, only exacerbated the colonial predicament island inhabitants had already been subjected to under Danish rule. U.S. Naval admirals possessed neither the expertise nor willingness necessary to cultivate a well-rounded civic society in which Black natives could engage.6 The political conditions of their belonging created a lack in the Virgin Islanders’ ability to either access or develop quality institutions of learning that reflected their local needs. Not yet able to elect their own political leaders, Virgin Islanders would have to rely on the political projects of external agents of the state for the development of their educational system.
The Role of American Citizenship and Political Autonomy in Virgin Islands Education (1931-1960)
When the political administration of the U.S.Virgin Islands changed from a naval to civilian government in 1931, the overlapping years of the Great Depression as well as the decline of certain local industries rendered the islands “an effective poorhouse.“ Still, the territory’s first appointed civilian governor, Governor Paul Pearson, used his new role to advocate for the development of a stronger education system in a way that previous naval governors had not. With Virgin Islanders now officially considered U.S. citizens at this time, Governor Pearson was better positioned to liaise with Congress on behalf of Virgin islanders for improvements in local institutions, including that of education. Governor Pearson’s own vested interest in developing self-governance among the local population (rather than in developing geopolitical strategy like his predecessors), led him to make substantial improvements to Virgin Islands society. Notably, his administration created the role of director of education, which would be responsible for administering the educational institutions present on all three islands. To complement this role, Governor Pearson also established two boards of education with their own superintendents to serve both the St. Thomas-St. John and St. Croix municipalities.
With more structure and cohesion that reflected the local context, the Virgin Islands education system was now able to both facilitate and take advantage of federal government programs earlier unavailable to them and, as a result, help to improve the learning conditions at home. An experimental nursery school, a vocational school on St. Croix and vocational program in the Charlotte Amalie High School in St. Thomas, which focused on agricultural training among other trades, were all introduced during Pearson’s tenure. The newly revamped education system even became responsible for administering the public library system of the territory as well as for the introduction of a free lunch program. Most significant among the changes to come about after the granting of U.S. citizenship to Virgin Islanders however, were the augmentations of teaching qualifications.
Because of the historical dearth of secondary education institutions in the islands, many local teachers lacked the qualifications necessary to establish a formal senior high school facility. Instead, upperclassmen students had to learn on rotating schedules filled by teachers who occasionally volunteered an additional eight hours of their time to instruct those in the higher grades. On the island of St. Thomas, secondary-level students had to attend classes in the junior high school and did not have access to a full-fledged high school curriculum. It wouldn’t be until 1931, that the first set of students would graduate from the 12th grade on St. Thomas. To remedy this shortage of certified teachers, local government officials looked to mainland educational organizations and colleges for the creation of several teacher’s training programs. The Virgin Islands government specifically developed stronger ties with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to carry out this mission. In particular, it developed partnerships with the Tuskegee Institute as well as with Hampton Institute. In the case of Hampton, a teacher education program was heavily encouraged by the university’s then-president and Virgin Islands native, Alonzo G. Moron. Among other things, the Hampton program provided undergraduate and graduate scholarships for teacher training and in-service education.
Despite all the opportunities available on the mainland, Native Virgin Islanders still exercised autonomy in crafting their own solutions to their education problem. Major champions of Virgin Islands education reform, such as Bertha C. Boschulte, Jane Tuitt and Louis Scott, developed the Teacher’s Institute, a local teacher’s training program which worked in tandem with other government-led initiatives to upgrade teacher qualifications and standards through inservice training courses administered by Hampton Institute, New York University, and Inter American University in Puerto Rico. Through their collective efforts, by 1944 less than 10% of teachers lacked high school education and roughly 15% were college graduates. The adult education programs introduced through these teacher’s institutes were so highly desired that WWII veterans returning home to the Virgin Islands also sought to complete their high school education during this time.
With new opportunities for learning and training available to Virgin Islanders, those interested in teaching were now required to have at least a complete high school education as well as relevant years of preparation in teaching in order to obtain permanent certification. These new requirements were among the first steps to ensure that Virgin Islands children could be provided quality education in the territory. It was evident that greater political access to the United States facilitated by a clearer definition of Virgin Island people’s citizenship status helped to influence the degree to which comprehensive improvements in local education could be made. Between the new civilian government and new American citizenship, Virgin Islands people were now in a position to properly develop their local institutions in a way that was most responsive to their needs. This increased capacity for educational development would be further strengthened with the passage of the Revised Organic Act of 1954.7
In addition to providing for a single territorial government, a unicameral legislature elected by residents of the Virgin Islands, a territorial court system, and a host of other political powers, the Revised Organic Act of 1954 helped to concretize the territories local capacity for creating and managing new educational institutions. The authority to create and modify rules and regulations that governed the school system as well as to issue education certificates was now vested in the local Virgin Islands executive branch, rather than Congress. Indeed, it was the Revised Organic Act of 1954, the most recent governing document of the islands, that allowed for some of the most important additions to the Virgin Islands education system such as the establishment of an Insular Department of Education, a territorial board of education to succeed the two-board municipal system, as well as the official post of commissioner of education. Through this document, more political power could be concentrated within the hands of native Virgin Islanders. The more opportunities native Virgin Islanders had for self-governance, the more they were able to create and access stronger systems of learning. Unfortunately, this experience would not translate to all those residing in the Virgin Islands. In Hosier v. Evans, the territory’s first major education lawsuit, the meaning of a precarious American citizenship would figure in new and complicated ways. Not only would it become apparent that political belonging was an ongoing American project, it would also become clear that the United States’ socioeconomic priorities heavily influenced what political belonging could even look like.
The Effects of the Virgin Islands’ Economic Boom on Virgin Islands Education (1945-1970)
As early as 1945, British West Indian migrants, also known as “down islanders,” began coming into the U.S. Virgin Islands from islands such as Antigua and St. Kitts to work as seasonal cane cutters on the rural island of St. Croix.8 For a time, cane cutters worked during the harvest months, then departed St. Croix. However, by the 1950s rapidly expanding hotel and construction industries led the local government to coordinate with federal immigration officials to create political arrangements that would allow more unskilled laborers from the British West Indies to come and remain on the islands. It did not take long before British West Indian immigrants (from the Eastern Caribbean) began arriving in the U.S. Virgin Islands on visitor permits that allowed them to work as certified construction workers, domestics, or hotel workers. Between 1960 and 1970 alone, the population of visiting-residents from the Eastern Caribbean more than tripled as laborers from other islands such as Dominica, St. Lucia, Anguilla, St. Vincent and Grenada began arriving too.9 At a number of 14,424, not including their dependents, such workers and their families comprised more than twenty-four percent of the overall population and made up forty-five percent of the local workforce.10 (Unofficial estimates of the undocumented workers put their figures as high as two-thirds of the labor force.) These figures were astonishing given the fact that so many Virgin Islanders were leaving the territory for the mainland U.S. in droves; nearly half of all Virgin Islanders were living on the mainland. Yet, the economic demand for immigrant labor continued way into the late 1970s.
Facilitating this massive wave of migrant workers was the flexible adjustment of immigration laws to fit the demands of large corporations that were in turn responding to the demands of a largely white American tourist population. Because of the long term nature of construction and tourism jobs, temporary residency was an untenable political arrangement for both laborers and those who contracted them. Whereas for native Virgin Islanders, political belonging was connected to the political project of formally establishing American citizenship, for this migrant population political belonging in the territory was now a product of economic projects rather than any specifically political one. Because the islands had long been in a precarious economic situation, government officials were more willing to create practical leeway to otherwise chaotic citizenship rules. Still the flexibility exercised in determining the political status of British West Indian laborers did very little to attend to the needs of their school-aged children. Because of the strain placed on the local public school system, many migrant workers had to send their children to makeshift private schools because public schools were refusing them.11 These laborers’ precarious political status as temporary residents directly impacted their ability to access quality education for their children, and in 1970, the educational implications of this kind of precarious political status would formally be dealt with in the new territorial courts.
In the fall of 1970, the Virgin Islands Department of Education was wholly unprepared for the twenty percent increase in the number of public school students. For months, students were without books, materials and even seats as the student-teacher ratio ballooned from an already-at-capacity 30:1 to a 50:1 average.12 The decade between the 1965-1966 and 1975-1976 school year saw the population of students in the Virgin Islands public school system more than double, rising from 10,254 to 24,369. The Virgin Islands Department of Education and the students it served would spend the following decades recovering from this population boom. The department would also work feverishly to restructure its multi-tier bureaucracy to meet the complicated municipal, territorial, and state demands of a bursting demographic.13 Due to overwhelm, certain public schools began to simply refuse to admit the children of British West Indian migrant laborers. Their decision to do so, while grounded in the rationale of insufficient capacity, provoked one of the most contentious debates about citizenship and belonging for generations to come.
In 1970, Leverne Hosier, Almond Hosier, Ralston Freeland, Hysenth Freeland, Rande Joseph, and Daphne De Vallard, migrant parents lawfully in the U.S. Virgin Islands on work bonds, filed a lawsuit against the Governor of the Virgin Islands, Commissioner of Education, Deputy Commissioner of the Virgin Islands and Virgin Islands Board of Education in Hosier v. Evans. They argued that their school-aged children were entitled to attend the public schools of the Virgin Islands, and that the Court should instruct defendants to refrain from excluding plaintiffs and the students who they represented from the territory’s public schools. Though former Governor Ralph Paeiwonsky and the various employers of the stateside industries and businesses that were now in operation in the territory had made the initial request to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) that brought the migrant students and their families to the Virgin Islands, they failed to make adequate provisions for the migrants’ social needs, including that of a quality and comprehensive education. Primarily focused on their usefulness to the territory’s economy, these government officials had not seen British West Indian laborers as full members of society who deserved access to certain public goods.
The matter of access to a quality education in this situation was as much an issue of political status and belonging as it was one about race and its complicated relationship to citizenship. Though the majority of these migrant laborers themselves were African-descended, many Virgin Islanders struggled to really identify with them. With more and more Virgin Islanders migrating to the continental U.S., it would be fair to assume that an allegiance to an American identity was more forthcoming than one to any West Indian one. Unlike other Caribbean islands that shared European colonizers, the Virgin Islands were the only colony in the region that had belonged to Denmark. With no immediately notable “common plight” as well as the ease of access to the mainland United States, Virgin Islanders were more apt to align themselves to American Blackness than a Caribbean identity. This relationship to American Blackness and its import to political belonging became evident in the court proceedings of Hosier v. Evans. Referencing an excerpt from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Judge Almeric L. Christian drew the following connection:
Here we address ourselves to the problem of alien children in this territory, worse in plight, for they are offered no free, public education at all. As did the court in Brown v. Board of Education, supra, I hold that public education, “where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
He went on further to specifically humanize migrant children and, therefore, legitimize Brown’s relevance to their case:
Once we start from the premise posited by the Supreme Court of the United States in Levy v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 68, 70, 88 S. Ct. 1509, 20 L. Ed. 2d 436 (1968), as it spoke of illegitimate children, and take full cognizance of the fact that aliens, likewise, are not “non persons,” but rather are “* * * humans, live, and have their being * * *” the conclusion is inescapable that alien children, lawfully within this territory, in the status of these plaintiffs, are unquestionably “persons” within the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The defendants in Hosier v. Evans noted that the influx of immigrants created an “undue burden” upon an “already severely inadequate” education system, which for its part was not untrue. However, the issues of political rights came to bear upon the final conclusion that access to public education “may be neither denied nor abridged solely because their implementation requires the expenditure of public funds.”14
Arriving under a temporary labor program as domestics and unskilled laborers, these British West Indian migrant workers and their families became notable exceptions to U.S. immigration law as well as prime examples of the disorders of U.S. empire. The ease with which U.S.-based employers could come to the U.S. Virgin Islands to set up their respective shops did not match the ease with which their pool of undocumented workers could navigate the same political system. Because these new ventures aligned with U.S. interest in creating economic stability in the territories they more easily received the accommodations necessary to make business work in paradise.15
The U.S. Virgin Islands’ territorial status facilitated new industries’ ability to employ outsourced laborers, while at the same time complicating the lives of these immigrants and the school system now having to serve them. While companies like H.E.S.S Oil and Caneel Bay Resort could hire whomever they wanted with little legal mishap, the local institutions such as the Virgin Islands Department of Education were left to clean up the mess created by such incommensurate political projects.16 In Hosier v. Evans, the court applied legal precedents based in the racialized politics of the U.S. mainland, and thereby, exposed the burdens of precarious American citizenship. Though they were closer in geographic and cultural proximity to the territory, British West Indian migrant laborers were, in many significant ways, viewed by local Virgin Islanders as distant, unfamiliar others who did not warrant the same privileges granted to them under the U.S. flag.
Political Precarity and Educational Access
The United States has, since its founding, valued education and regarded it as a means to social and political achievement. Founding framers recognized the degree to which education could and should be used to enhance one’s position in society. It was through such an understanding that they vigorously advocated for the establishment of public schools across the expanding U.S. In truly “American” fashion, these democratic intellectuals believed that the opportunity to access the economic promises of the New World should be made available to all persons. Less explicit in their democratic conceptualizations, however, was the definition for “all.” Over the course of history, it has become abundantly clear that these framers and the politicians who subscribed to their political philosophies did not have Black citizens nor the prospective nonwhite inhabitants of outlying American territories in mind. Though knowledge was power, and power allowed people the ability to determine the course of their lives, American politicians did not necessarily believe that such power belonged in the hands of its nonwhite citizens. This was made particularly clear when the United States acquired the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1917.
Though the islands’ native inhabitants had access to new resources for and ideas about education, the extent to which they did was heavily contingent upon their status in the territory. Before Virgin Islanders gained American citizenship, they lacked the political power necessary to create and improve their own educational systems. Still, the granting of American citizenship to Virgin Islanders did not fully elucidate who exactly deserved access to a quality education. Once migrant laborers from other Caribbean islands came to the new American territory, it became clear that there existed more flexible renderings of citizenship than local inhabitants had realized. These migrant laborers were soon treated as “others” in a way that mirrored the way the federal government treated both its territories and mainland Black citizens. Unable to access quality education for their children, these temporary residents had to look to the territorial court system for educational justice.
Though improvements to the territory’s education system were made possible through its new affiliation with the United States, this very affiliation compromised Virgin Islands leaders’ capacity to provide comprehensive education to all students in need. The level of cohesion that Virgin Islands leaders strived to see in the local education system was only as good as the level of authority bestowed upon local administrative bodies to realize such cohesion. New leaders of their own political institutions, Virgin Islanders could only develop educational plans that also aligned with other American political priorities in the territory. In many ways, Virgin Islands people’s relationship to education illuminated the ways American citizenship has long been a sliding scale of constituting political belonging by the often unsystematic inclusions and exclusions of racialized others. This disorder in U.S. territories like the U.S. Virgin Islands continues to make obvious in every notable way that it is possible, if not wholly necessary, for some American residents to be foreign from within the nation state.
1 Marilyn Krigger (2017). Race Relations in the US Virgin Islands: St. Thomas—A Centennial Retrospective, Carolina Academic Press, Digital Edition, 504.
2 For more information about the parochial context of education in islands, see Dejnozka, 386.
3 On the state of the Virgin Islands upon acquisition, see Boyer,113.
4 See Dejnozka, 386.
5 Samuel (2013), 8-11; Sheree Bryant (2012). Emerging 21st-Century Education Challenges and Opportunities: An Appreciative Inquiry of Public Education in the U.S. Virgin Islands, [Dissertation, University of San Francisco], 16-17.
6 The purchase of the Danish West Indies served an explicitly geopolitical purpose to the United States. Things were still uncertain nearing the end of WWI and ensuring the United States’ protection in the Caribbean region by establishing naval bases was an important measure to be taken. See Harrigan and Varlack, The U.S. Virgin Islands and the Black Experience, 394 and Samuel (2021), Consuming the Virgin Islands: Conservation and Education in America’s Paradise, [Doctoral dissertation, Boston University], 64-67 for more information.
7 An organic act is an act of the United States Congress that establishes a territory of the United States and specifies how it is to be governed. In the absence of an organic law a territory is classified as unorganized. The first Organic Act for the U.S. Virgin Islands passed in 1936. For more information see Boyer.
8 Boyer, 59.
9 Boyer, 70; Klaus de Albuquerque and Jerome L. McElroy (1999). Correlates of Race, Ethnicity and National Origin in the United States Virgin Islands, Social and Economic Studies, 48(3), 12.
10 Boyer, 60.
11 Many migrant workers were not even being paid the wage agreed upon in the job clearance system of the Virgin Islands Employment Service. Employers, especially those on St. Thomas, insisted on paying migrant workers much less. John D. Merwin, 1959 Annual Report of the Governor of the Virgin Islands, 10; David Borgen, Migrant Labor: US Virgin Islands, NACLA, September 25, 2007.
12 Emanuel Hurwitz, Julius Menacker, Ward Weldon (1987), 97-99.
13 Hurwitz et al., 94.
14 District Judge Almeric L. Christian, Memorandum Opinion, Hosier v. Evans, 314 F. Supp. 316 (D.V.I. 1970).
15 Samuel (2013), 35-37.
16 Samuel (2013), 19-31; Olwig (2002), 64-67.
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Animated Video: Virgin Islands Emancipation
Video: Virgin Islands Transfer Day
Documentary: Our Island, Our Home
Jessica S. Samuel, Ph. D. is the recipient of a 2023 VCU Publishing Research Award.
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