Author’s Note: St. Croix, once more, stands at a crossroads. The present situation appears unworkable, the path forward uncertain. It is not, however, the first time St. Croix has stood at such a precipice. This historical six-part series explores three moments in the past century – VI Corp, Harvey Aluminum, and Hess Oil – where frustration with the given situation boiled over into radical change. Breaking with the past, a better future for St. Croix was declared, a new foundation laid. These decreed Crucian futures sometimes aligned with the people and sometimes overrode the people. Today, Limetree comes into view at just such a crossroads, and once more the future of St. Croix is up for grabs.
The First Green New Deal (Part 1) (Part 2 – below)
Landed Grievance and Landless Hope
The St. Croix Colonial Council debated Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proposal for a public corporation to reorganize the island’s economy for months in early 1934, a debate that routinely spilled out into national news. Merchants and planters, described as a coalition of wealthy whites and mulattoes by the contemporary press, quickly rallied their members. Any forced redistribution of the land, wrote a letter to the St. Croix Tribune, was “intolerably oppressive and entirely subversive.” VI Corp, yet another letter opined, was one of those “experiments in paternalism” fit only for the colonies.
Writing from Harlem, Casper Holstein, a Crucian gambler and philanthropist who rose to prominence in the 1920s, captured the mood of those Virgin Islanders threatened by radical reform: VI Corp, he complained, “is vicious, blood-curdling, and confiscatory.” The New Deal in the Virgin Islands, Holstein argued, works toward “establishing a Socialist State in a Capitalistic Government.”
The St. Croix Tribune soon printed the “Proceedings of the Colonial Council” in its entirety during the spring of 1934. Council Member Clarke (Frederiksted) worried the new authority of VI Corp would not police the growing desperation of “the poor class of people” but instead be used to regulate the wealth of “individuals like myself and other property owners.” Editor of the St. Croix Tribune and Council Member Ralph de Chabert (Christiansted) argued that VI Corp “provides for the tearing down of some people” but makes no provision “for the building up of the masses.” Raising the threat of socialism, Council Member Alexander (Christiansted) complained, “This is the work of some brain-trust man or some professional theorist who is trying to introduce here what he is afraid to introduce in the United States.”
Arnold Golden, chair of the Colonial Council, wrote of Roosevelt’s brain trust: “They are forgetting that we have a civilization of over two hundred and fifty years. We are a civilized people, a people with culture, but Americans cannot seem to understand.” George Moorehead, a union leader and member of Colonial Council, retorted, “I want to say we haven’t anything to be proud of for those two hundred and fifty years.”
The historical record is plush with the elegant complaints of planters and merchants, each of whom lodges a resplendent dissent. The poor rarely make it into the colonial archive but as a problem to be shoved back down. You have to strain through the written record to hear the voices of the hungry, the homeless, the hopeless. Occasionally the high-minded debates about proper governance step aside enough to let the worsening condition of most step into view. Remarking on the despairing hunger on St. Croix, one member said “the poor people of this island will be well served if this bill goes through,” and that was enough to secure his support. Referencing the famished masses, another member said anything that helps get St. Croix back into cultivation would garner his support.
Farming as Slavery?
Eventually, the center of gravity on the Colonial Council found its guiding critique of VI Corp. Roosevelt’s real agenda, one letter to the St. Croix Tribune argued, was “to confine the natives to a course of Agricultural SERVITUDE.” Slavery, all over again, but this time in the name of progressive change. Land redistribution on St. Croix would really just “enslave the people,” Council Member Fabio (Christiansted) argued. Homesteading would not free the masses but chain them to the soil once more. The St. Croix Tribune editorialized the situation: “Our black brethren, who are being miserably deceived. They visualize what may be termed race emancipation.” A few days later the newspaper sharpened the point: VI Corp promised “our island converted into a Baby Russia.”
None of this seemed enough to dissuade those who stood to benefit: the poor. Swelling popular support for breaking up the estates and redistributing the land, the St. Croix Tribune wrote, can “only be motivated by a feeling of a grudge against those who they believe are more prosperous than themselves.” On one occasion the Governor retorted, “In St. Croix, the desire to own land amounts almost to religious passion.”
Why, then, did the people’s representatives on the Colonial Council stand so fiercely against them owning land? With substantial property restrictions on voting that barred 80 percent of the population from political participation, the Colonial Council was comprised of planters, merchants, and labor unions (which had amassed substantial estates when sugar prices collapsed in the 1920s). And as planters and merchants closed ranks in opposition to Roosevelt’s proposal, unions came to voice their own spirited vision for VI Corp.
Labor leader Lionel Roberts called the New Deal plan to break up sugar estates an “atonement” for “the wrongs the Federal government has perpetuated upon the islands,” the first step toward reckoning with the dark past that still clouded social relations on the island.
Famed labor leader and stalwart civil rights advocate A. Philip Randolph brought a similar perspective to the Council in a letter from Harlem. “Virgin Islanders in dire want and need in this depression,” Randolph said, and land reform was a mighty good place to begin to emancipate “the broad masses of laboring people in their relation the tiny fabric of capitalistically minded native landlords and landowners.” (Randolph also insisted the resulting public corporation appoint a native “representing LABOR” to its board, advice that was heeded a few months later.)
Opting Out of Leadership
After four months of fierce debate, the St. Croix Colonial Council coalesced around a workable compromise: they would refuse to hold a vote on Roosevelt’s plan. Rather than reject it outright they opted “to assume no responsibility” for the proposal. They simply ignored it. When asked to explain, Arnold Golden captured the anxiety of planters and merchants on the Council: “Why ask us to tie a rope around our neck?”
The Colonial Council will not trade away “liberty for a crust of bread,” the St. Croix Tribune explained. Redistribution of land, the paper argued, was not the floor of political rights but its prison ceiling. Voting to scuttle talk of public ownership, they claimed, was really a vote for the freedom of Virgin Islanders.
“The St. Croix Colonial Council has not circumscribed the future of its youth to a 5 acre plot of land,” wrote the St. Croix Tribune. The paper explained the Colonial Council’s decision on April 19: “It has not closed the doors of opportunity upon him. It has left him free to soar to any height that his ability will take him.” Leaving open the slim chance for a theoretical poor child to amass colossal wealth, the Colonial Council concluded, outweighed the immediate uplift of providing abundant farmland to the hungry masses.
Undeterred, the Roosevelt Administration turned the decision over to St. Thomas and St. John, which both chartered the Virgin Islands Corporation a few days later in 1934. Roosevelt visited St. Croix to view the progress in July of that year, and by September hundreds of acres of former plantation land were being broken up into homesteads with a long line of applicants. Hundreds of workers and farmers gathered in a special thanksgiving celebration when the sugar factory resumed operation in October 1934.
Building an economy around enterprising small farms, VI Corp breathed new life into St. Croix. As returns from this investment started rolling in, VI Corp came to underwrite public education and healthcare in St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas.
A generation later, informed opinion across the Virgin Islands was uniform in its praise for VI Corp and instrumental role in saving St. Croix (including from many members of the Colonial Council). Yet such a consensus soon found itself wielded in unexpected ways. As thousands of farmers protested the industrialization of the south shore of St. Croix in the 1960s, a primary point of reference for VI Legislators supporting Harvey Aluminum and Hess Oil was how misguided the opposition to VI Corp had been in the 1930s.
By most measures, VI Corp was a rousing success. Yet the ability of VI Corp to overcome gentrified opposition and empower working people was far from a given. VI Corp’s adept navigation of island fraught politics and desperate realities came to rest in no small part on the key role labor unions played in it.
From Hubert Harrison to D. Hamilton Jackson, the labor movement in the United States gained widespread achievement and acclaim from the outsized contributions of St. Croix. And it was from such a rich legacy that the first board of directors of VI Corp was enlisted. Lionel Roberts, a fierce advocate for working people in the Virgin Islands, was appointed as the first director of VI Corp and D. Hamilton Jackson served on the board of directors. The advisory council for VI Corp also included the Executive Director of the NAACP. Leadership from labor ensured VI Corp aligned its operations with the needs of the people in everything from lowering the cost of land for farmers to opening up opportunities for all residents.
While plantation owners had charged a rent of $7-$12 an acre, the homestead program made that same land available to own at $2-$5 an acre. This not only led to a flood of homesteads – “The number of small farms has increased more than 300%” the annual report noted in 1935 – it reclaimed huge areas of the bush and put St. Croix back in productive cultivation. By 1940, there were over 800 homestead farmers on St. Croix and the number kept growing.
Federal investments and union leadership transformed the modern infrastructure of agriculture into a public resource for small farms. This collective foundation empowered enterprising farmers to purchase land, oriented Crucian farming towards social needs while still allowing for individual ingenuity in cultivation, and restored the agricultural soul of St. Croix wholly apart from the plantation model. St. Croix, wrote Governor Cramer, was well on its way to reclaiming the title “Garden of the West Indies.”
A 1934 report profiled a few of these homesteaders, noting how many of them were women. “Antoinetta Douglas, a woman homesteader, delivered 125,367 pounds of sugarcane from her 3.5 acre plot. After paying $13.24 land installment, she had $152.66 leftover. In addition, she raised a large quantity of vegetables on her plot. Dolores Garcia, another woman homesteader, delivered 150,710 pounds of cane and had $180.51 left after paying her land installment.” The report also described how profitable vegetables raised for local markets were becoming.
In its first two years, VI Corp brought 3,000 acres of former plantation land back into cultivation on St. Croix, much of it distributed to homesteaders. These enterprising farmers earned far more cultivating their own land than they would have as workers. Unemployment disappeared within months of VI Corp being chartered and wages increased significantly in all sectors (in part, due to successful strikes by agricultural workers at the central factory operated by VI Corp). After decades of strain, municipal budgets soon found themselves flush with cash. Young men were hired to plant mahogany trees along the main thoroughfares on the island, some of which still stand.
As the island’s economy swung into high gear, VI Corp earnings were funneled back into a massive investment in education and health care across the Virgin Islands. Beyond profits, VI Corp also paid substantial taxes into the local treasury. Nursery schools were established to let mothers help with farming and for the first time, public education was extended through high school. Teachers were given substantial raises and modern schools were built. New programs of adult education were also inaugurated, providing training in home construction and modern farming techniques alongside classes in literature and history. One in ten adults on St. Croix were enrolled in such programs by 1935.
This surge of small farms also helped break the oligarchs’ exclusive claim to political participation. Responding to popular demands, universal suffrage was inaugurated in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1936 without restrictions based on property, income, or gender.
Social investments also targeted healthcare, building new clinics and training new nurses in the Virgin Islands. Infant mortality fell 43% in the first year of VI Corp. Reflecting on its first year, the Governor said VI Corp “far exceeded all expectations.” Applauding the remarkable results of the “progressive homesteading program” on St. Croix, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes described VI Corp as “one of the most successful PWA [Public Works Administration] ventures” when he announced plans to widen its reach in December 1935.
By 1949, St. Croix markets bustled with locally raised produce and the island was profitably shipping over 300,000 pounds of vegetables to the mainland each winter. The agricultural station “propagated and distributed” just under a million vegetable starts for local farmers, made available at cost. The cooperative also provided seeds, “baby chicks, young pigs, and other livestock” to homesteaders, and soon there was also a robust local market in eggs, chicken, and pork.
Foreclosing the Plantation
A decade out and VI Corp had broken up every entrenched plantation and redistributed the land into collectively held farmland and small homesteads. Plantations on St. Croix, reflected Governor Cramer in 1940, “no longer exist.” This marked more of a revolution than is often recognized as the plantation was not only the primary productive unit of the Caribbean but also its enduring social institution. The end of slavery did not dispose of the plantation. As a mercenary economic reality, the plantation continued to thrive long after emancipation, a fact Queen Mary rightly protested in the labor riot of 1878. And well into the 20th century, the plantation consigned life across the Caribbean into racial hierarchies and single-use landscapes. Neither was sustainable and yet neither fell out of fashion on their own accord.
The plantation was forced out of business on St. Croix in the 1930s, even as their charming ruins and charged meaning lingers on to this day. Plantations lost their operational command over the Virgin Islands only when the will of the people and institutions of democratic governance insisted on a radically different reality for the island. The plantation’s death sentence was issued not by the inevitabilities of the Great Depression but from enthusiasm for the New Deal. And on St. Croix that meant VI Corp, for it was only when the island’s fertile land was taken away from out-of-touch profiteering and placed back in the service of people that the practical reign of the plantation was broken and a new society made possible.
When a former editor of The Nation visited St. Croix to report firsthand on this progressive experiment in 1936, he was most impressed. Public ownership had set the islands on a path of self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and general flourishing that would have been impossible with private capital. Not only was the homesteading program a smashing success but many small farmers had built up “a substantial cash reserve” after just two years, Ernest Gruening noted. “It is axiomatic that political liberties march hand in hand with economic emancipation,” he wrote, and St. Croix exemplified how economic policies attuned to the empowerment of ordinary people might enliven American democracy once more.
Part three of this six-part series will discuss the beginnings of Harvey Aluminum and its impact on the island of St. Croix.
The First Green New Deal (Part 1)
The First Green New Deal (Part 2)
Manufactured Progress: Harvey Aluminum on St. Croix (Part 3)
Manufactured Progress: Harvey Aluminum on St. Croix (Part 4)
David Bond teaches anthropology at Bennington College. He researched the Hovensa refinery in 2010 and 2011 and has written on how the history of the refinery informs the present struggle for justice on St. Croix.