This is the third part in a series on notable Virgin Islands women in honor of Virgin Islands History Month and Women’s History Month.
In their capacity as teachers – usually seen as a traditional female role – Virgin Islands women garnered important clout. In 1935, women of the St. Thomas Teachers Association sued the V.I. Board of Elections and won the right for women to vote in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Women had an impact on the community through the role of educator. They were highly respected, and many male leaders deferred to teachers for advice and guidance.
Few teachers have known the renown and love of their students as much as one woman experienced during her lifetime. Her impact on the St. Thomas community was felt more in the hearts and souls of her students, and even by those who were not her students. Blanche Sasso was a warm and loving teacher who ruled her classroom with firm discipline and high expectations. Many in the community knew her as “Mama Sasso.” She would have been a student and part of the education system when in 1890 the Sisters of La Sainte Union des Coeurs established a Catholic school on St. Thomas. She worked for many years as a teacher in both the Catholic and public schools and remained loved by all until her passing at more than 100 years of age.
Many women became teachers and moved up the ranks to assistant principals and principals. They would leave for the U.S. mainland in the summer to take college courses toward earning degrees in education. They would return armed with an arsenal of information, courses and knowledge. They left their marks on the children of the Virgin Islands.
Some of them may not have had biological children, but their students would become their children. Their commitment to the education system gave the Virgin Islands an exemplary environment for learning.
One would be remiss not to mention here some of these influencers of the Virgin Islands community: Gwendolyn Kean, Ulla Muller, Louise Brady, Mavis Brady, Erma B.Sewer, the Kean sisters, Eudora, Adina and Aileen, Hulda Joseph, Jane E. Tuitt, Juanita Gardine, Eulalie Rohlson Rivera, Eldra Shulterbrandt, Bertha C. Boschulte, Edith Williams, Lucille Roberts and Marilyn Krigger, who would later move to higher education at the University of the Virgin Islands. Two people who would later become principals at their alma mater, the Catholic high school, were Sarah Watlington-Connell and Anna Mae Brown-Comment. This was a large community of women dedicated to the education of children, and sometimes the parents, of the Virgin Islands.
Many more women can be mentioned here. LaVerne Ragster started her career in higher education and would achieve appointment as president of the University of the Virgin Islands, the first woman to do so.
The name of another Virgin Island woman – Ruth Thomas – was synonymous with excellence and school pride. Her mentor came from an early cadre of educators, such as Bianca Andre, who taught in the classroom without a formal college education, but inculcated the foundations and academics for a great education.
Many principals demonstrated the standards of excellence which were the requirements within their schools. They were the intellectuals of the early society of the Virgin Islands. Several teachers, such as Ruth Moolenaar and Adelita Cancryn, produced major historical publications about fellow Virgin Islanders and issues of the day. One well-respected stalwart in the halls of education, Elena Christian, lived on St. Croix and years later her granddaughter would become the first woman to represent the Virgin Islands in the U.S. Congress. St. John, too, gave the V.I. a leader in education and public administration and she should be counted among the great educators of the 20th century. Today, a school is named after Elaine Ione Sprauve.
Who is this Virgin Islands Woman? Blanche “Mamma Sasso” Mary Joseph Sasso
They called her “Mamma Sasso.” Few teachers have known the renown and love of their students that Blanche Sasso experienced during her lifetime. Born in 1899, Sasso taught for almost 50 years in private and public schools on St. Thomas, first under Danish rule and then when the island was the U.S. Virgin Islands.
She started her teaching career at a very young age, no more than a teenager herself when she took on the role to teach the children of the Virgin Islands.
Born Sept. 15, 1899, she witnessed the transfer of the Virgin Islands from Danish rule to U.S. rule in 1917. Many of the residents were ambivalent about the sale of their beloved island to the U.S. A sense of the unknown permeated the hearts of those locals who had come to live among the Danes in a peaceful manner. Sasso spoke of this fear in an interview in 1999. She said, “We knew what we had with the Danish government, but we didn’t know what we were getting with the change to the U.S.”
When we think of “Mama Sasso,” the image is one of an elegant lady who appeared to be younger than her years. She smiled as easily as she corrected wrongdoing, and no student who sat in her classroom could forget the motherly way she scolded and then would hug them minutes later as she told them of her expectations for good behavior and excellent schoolwork. She was a rarity of gentleness amidst discipline.
Her memory of her years of teaching was a happy reflection for her and those who knew her marveled at how much she remembered. One recalled how, two years after her 100th birthday at an alumni function held by the Catholic Diocese, she accurately regaled her favorite part of teaching, “my students.”
In a 2007 interview, Sasso’s daughter, Lea McAllister, spoke of her mother’s independence and competence to the very end of her life.
“She was a perfectionist,” wanting to do everything for herself because no one, she felt, could do it as well. She made her own bed up to age 104.
Sasso taught at least five generations of Virgin Islands children during her 50-year career.
Who is this Virgin Islands Woman: Ruth E. Thomas
Ruth Thomas was a principal, educator and foremost, a teacher. These are the attributes that one would think of when they hear the name Ruth Thomas mentioned in the community of St. Thomas.
In the early 1970s, Thomas’s name was on the lips of every student on St. Thomas. It didn’t matter whether you attended Charlotte Amalie School, Saints Peter and Paul Catholic school, All Saints (Anglican School) or Antilles school. Those were the days before Eudora Kean. She never let anything stop her. Thomas was influenced and motivated by her mother, Adina Penn Christian Thomas, and Gwendolyn Kean. She was also motivated by her students and the community’s attitude toward higher education. People looked up to teachers in those days.
The name “Ruth Thomas” was synonymous with excellence during her tenure as principal of Charlotte Amalie High School. It was a time in which a public school education in the Virgin Islands was returned to the quality education of the old days, a time when Charlotte Amalie High School’s “pride” was talked about and demonstrated by the students attending there. No other school stayed in the forefront of academic prowess and accomplishment as in those days, and if it had before, perhaps it was not as visibly applauded.
In this author’s recollection, for I was at Saints Peter and Paul School during this time, no other school’s teams could beat the athletic teams of CAHS. They were unbeatable. Any school up for competition with CAHS shivered in their boots at the thought of facing a CAHS team on the football field, basketball court or any other sport. A CAHS team came with confidence, character, training and full school support. Many from those years – students, parents and teachers alike – attribute this strength to Thomas. Times may have been different and perhaps easier than today, but Thomas’s leadership played a significant role. Thomas was the principal of Charlotte Amalie High School for many years, yet it was never her aspiration to become principal. Her commitment to her students to teach and impart knowledge was a more rewarding goal, and her love for the classroom and her students motivated her to stay in the classroom as a teacher until retirement. However, Principal Charles Turnbull asked her to serve as assistant principal.
Her most difficult decision was to leave the island to go away for a higher degree, but she decided not to stay for her doctorate and hastily return to her classes at CAHS. In an interview for my book on V.I. women, she expressed regret that she missed the classes of 1956 and ’57 while she was away studying. These were classes in which students such as Roy Schneider and Angel LeBron, future leaders of the Virgin Islands were excelling.
“I missed the development of that class and that was a hard decision for me to have been away during those years,” she said.
“Women in the V.I. have always done what they wanted to do,” she said “They have never allowed barriers to where they were going in this society.”
In 1966, Jane E. Tuitt established a “night school,” where adults could finish high school and receive their diploma because, in the early years, there was no high school above ninth grade. For Thomas, this was a motivating factor in her teaching.
Gov. Charles Turnbull said Thomas was “a great veteran educator, civic servant and role model.”
About the author: Debra Adelita Brown DeLone is a third-generation Virgin Islander with ancestral roots on St. Thomas and St. Croix. She has worked in the private and government sectors of St. Thomas for 45 years and has been a community contributor for more than 40 years. She has a bachelor’s degree in human service administration and a master’s degree in public administration. She is the past president of the League of Women Voters ’98 and a past president of Rotary Club Charlotte Amalie. She is married to professor William DeLone, formerly with the University of the Virgin Islands, and has a daughter, Andrea Brown-White and two stepchildren Tim and Niki DeLone. She resides in Rockville, Maryland, and enjoys spending time with her grandchildren, Alonzo IV, August and Thayre Marie.