As I was driving one day listening to a radio talk show, there was a heated discussion about the possibility of a government-owned hotel being leased or sold to the highest bidder. What caught my attention was when I heard a young lady speaking passionately about not wanting the government to sell the hotels.
The V.I. Public Finance Authority board recently passed a resolution to conduct a feasibility study on whether to sell or lease King’s Alley Hotel and the Anchor Inn site, which are both located in downtown Christiansted.
This is prime real estate, waterfront property owned by the people of the Virgin Islands and managed by a government entity. Virgin Islanders owning property have been an issue during and after slavery. Although the population of “Free Colored” had long been established in the mid-1700s in the Danish West Indies, few of them obtained property.
However, the masses of enslaved Africans did not own as much as a plot of land. Thus, the colonial history of Virgin Islanders owning land is one that has never been considered by those who oppressed the masses.
Denmark never got a land reform that would have made it possible for former slaves to own their own property. After the insurrection of 1878, known as the “Fireburn,” Danish authorities made a half-step attempt to distribute about 36 small plots of land on plantations.
This initiative of land distribution by the Danish government to former slaves failed because it was never supported by planters and merchants who once owned slaves and a government that failed to better the conditions of the working-class people in the Danish West Indies.
In 1917, when the islands were transferred to the United States, only a handful of native Virgin Islanders remained active on the land, which was distributed after the 1878 revolt. When the U.S. Navy administrators began governing the newly-acquired Virgin Islands of the United States, nothing was done to promote the development of small landholders.
A November 1917 survey, conducted by the Department of Commerce under Sam L. Rogers, provided an overall picture of the economy, landholders, population, among others that gave a clear understanding of the conditions and people of the Virgin Islands. On St. Croix, for example, over 90% of the Crucian countryside belonged to 25% of big corporations or family plantation owners, while the poor dispossessed inhabited, unsanitary plantation estates. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover referred to the Virgin Islands as “an effective poor house.”
He would note upon a visit to the islands that “it is unfortunate that we ever acquired these islands. Nevertheless, having assumed the responsibility, we must do our best to help the inhabitants.”
In the late 1900s, some planters began to rent out land to Black tenants. This was one way to keep poor people on the estates. According to the Census, by the 1930s there were some 600 such Black tenants called “squatters” with 1,000 acres cultivating cane.
While these Black farmers were highly productive in cultivating the land, their living situation was unhealthy. Their plots of land were marginal, tenure was insecure, rents were excessively high, and they had no legal protection and no possibility of ever owning the land they farmed. As a result, Black farmers were unable to obtain land of their own.
They were also unwilling to work for others for lower wages. Therefore, many Crucians left the countryside of St. Croix for better opportunities in the towns or migrated to the United States or other countries. This situation also took place on St. Thomas and St. John.
According to local historian George Tyson, “Between 1890 and 1930, the rural population of St. Croix shrunk by half, from about 10,000 to 5,000 persons, despite large influxes of migrant labor from Vieques and other Caribbean Islands.” In order to stop the flow of Virgin Islanders leaving the islands, the federal government during the 1930s initiated the homestead program on St. Croix.
However, it was not due to a commitment to social justice by the American government, but rather to the possible collapse of the sugar industry (which occurred), and fiscal concerns of the U.S. Congress.
Beginning in the 1920s, there was a steady decline of falling sugar prices and several hurricanes that led to the closing of three to four large estates or corporations that dominated the sugar industry.
Then, a blow came when the West India Sugar Plantation went bankrupt, which shut down Estate Bethlehem’s central sugar factory. More than a 1,000 people were left unemployed. Within a year of the shutdown, over half of the population were being supported by the federal government or through private relief efforts.
It was for this reason President Herbert Hoover declared Virgin Islands “an effective poorhouse.” Nevertheless, the Homestead Program did help the Hispanic and Black populations of St. Croix by giving them a greater share of agricultural resources.
Despite these gains, one cannot judge the program as a great success, as it did not produce a major economic and social transformational change. In the 1950s, 5% of the population owned 80% of the land. The sugar industry was controlled by a single corporation that dominated the Virgin Islands economy and had the best agricultural lands.
Today, those who represent us in government appear not to know our history when it comes to property stewardship of the people. We are quick to sell the shirt off our backs, so to speak, without thinking about future generations.
David Hamilton Jackson once said, “A time will come when native Virgin Islanders would have no land.” That saying still stands today.
— Olasee Davis, St. Croix, is an ecologist at the University of the Virgin Islands. He is active in Virgin Islands’ historical, cultural and environmental preservation.