Senators approved several resolutions during Tuesday’s Legislative Session, which was recessed and will continue on Dec. 29.
Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger, sponsor of Bill No. 34-0295, requested a legal opinion from the Legislature’s Legal Counsel Amos Carty Jr., regarding a key piece of the legislation.
The billwas a Resolution petitioning the President of the United States of America to issue a posthumous pardon to Rothschild “Polly” Francis for his unjust conviction for the federal crimes of criminal libel, contempt, and embezzlement, but there were questions about whether it should instead be directed to the Virgin Islands governor.
Carty explained that while the Virgin Islands was under control of the Navy at the time Francis was prosecuted in a federal court, he was convicted of local offenses, so the pardon request should be directed to the governor.
The bill, which was ultimately amended and approved, seeks to clear Francis’ name in the historical record and recognize his role in advocating for the rights of Virgin Islanders.
“He was arrested, assaulted without cause, charged and convicted in deceitful and dishonest judicial proceedings,” Glenn “Kwabena” Davis testified at a previous committee hearing. “Though he went into self-exile, he never stopped fighting for dispossessed, the downtrodden and the demeaned.”
In 1918, Francis wrote a letter to V.I. Gov. James Oliver after U.S. sailors terrorized citizens in the streets on Christmas Eve, chasing, attacking, and firing at individuals: “Why were these men not ordered off the streets? Would the civil rights of the people on the mainland have been so disrespected? Is this Democracy? This outrage is race hatred pure and simple. We demand that all available measures be adopted and assurances given that such an outrage will never be made real again.”
According to the bill, Rear Admiral James Oliver, the first American governor, reported in 1919 to the Director of Naval Intelligence in Washington that Francis is a “sort of half- witted negro apparently without an occupation constantly causing agitation among the ignorant class.”
In letters to the editor published in Current History magazine and the New York Times, Francis engaged in public debates with a top law enforcement official, George Washington Williams.
“After Francis published letters to the editor exposing the oppressive conditions that Virgin Islanders lived under, Williams would write letters in response claiming that Francis was lying, and that the United States was doing nothing but good in the islands,” according to the bill.
Francis purchased a printing press and established the political newspaper, the Emancipator, in 1921, and wrote about the dire conditions facing the people of St. Thomas in 1923, drawing the attention of U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, Edward Browne Davis testified at the hearing.
According to the bill, the government attorney filed criminal libel charges against Francis in 1924, and District Court Judge Williams “denied Francis a trial by jury on the grounds the right to a trial by jury guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment did not extend to the unincorporated territories.”
Francis was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in jail, and was subsequently convicted of contempt of court and embezzlement, a charge that came under suspicious circumstances, according to the bill.
Francis was finally declared a free man in May 1928, and left the Virgin Islands for New York, where he died in 1963 at age 72.
Virgin Islanders gained U.S. citizenship on Feb. 25, 1927, “and a democratic system of government based on American principles became law on June 22, 1936. The enactment of the Organic Act of June 22, 1936, included citizenship, civilian government, a bill of rights, and adult suffrage subject to a literacy test in English. Rothschild Francis is often referred to as the ‘Father of the Organic Act’ because of his relentless advocacy for a civil form of government,” Browne said.
Senators also voted to approve:
Bill No. 34-0288: A Resolution to honor and commend Command Sergeant Major Charles David, Retired, for his service to the Virgin Islands National Guard.
Bill No. 34-0292: An Act to posthumously honor and commend Rafael Garcia, MD for his outstanding years of service to the Virgin Islands community as a medical doctor and a public servant.
Bill No. 34-0293: A Resolution honoring and commending the Reverend Dr. George E. Phillips for his invaluable contribution to the gospel, ministry, and people of the Virgin Islands.
Bill No. 34-0297: A Resolution to posthumously honor and commend Roselin Maud McFarlane for her contributions to the V.I. Community and specifically as an advocate of independent living for people with disabilities.
Bill No. 34-0376: An Act posthumously honoring and commending Valmy Thomas for his contributions to the Virgin Islands community and for renaming Soboetker Lane and West Lane in his memory; making and $15,000 appropriation; and for other related purposes.
Bill No. 34-0380: A Resolution honoring and commending Michelle Mycah Leone Smith for her outstanding performance in track and field and her contributions to the Virgin Islands community as a sports ambassador.
Fourteen senators were in attendance for the session, and Sen. Milton Potter was excused.