Mr. Guy H. Benjamin, aka Papa Guy, Uncle Benjie, Cousin Benji, Guy or Mr. Benjamin, but known to most of us as Benji.
Let me tell about him. Some of the things you may know already. Others not.
He was born Oct. 18, 1913, and died 98 years, eight months and one day later, just as the sun was reaching its zenith on its trip north.
For those who didn’t know, the “H” is for Henry, a well-known, well-respected East End family name. Benji was born and raised there by his maternal grandparents and his aunts — the Henrys. Even though Benji was an outside child, he was baptized inside the church — the Emmaus Moravian Church in Coral Bay. A longtime active participant, he played the organ, sang in the choir, and, in later life, became a well-respected elder.
Benji learned to read by age 3. He went to the East End School through the sixth and final grade. He finished the curriculum early and was able to help his fellow students with their studies. For other East Enders at the time, that, at 13, was the end of their education. Not for Benji.
Most labor at the time was physically demanding. Because he was of slight build his grandparents thought Benji would make a greater contribution if he went off to St. Thomas to complete his education. He graduated high school there with honors and with a teaching certificate. Returning to St. John he taught, first at the John’s Folly School, and later, at other schools on St. Thomas and St. John.
He then went to the states to continue his education. His undergraduate degree is from Howard University in D.C. and his master’s in literature with a minor in the Classics from New York University.
He returned to the Virgin Islands as a teacher, principal and supervisor of St. John schools. One of the schools he taught at was the Coral Bay School. It was later renamed in his honor. It is now the Guy H. Benjamin School.
Benji later became the superintendent of Schools for St. Thomas-St. John and the assistant commissioner of the Education Department. In that capacity, when the Education commissioner was away, Mr. Benjamin was made the acting commissioner.
Enough about his credentials. Let’s talk about Benji, the person.
I met Benji shortly after I got to St. John in 1987. A friend, knowing that I was interested in traditional crafts, suggested that I contact Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Herman Prince. All I can say is things took off from there. It was through Benji that I learned about St. John and the East End community, and through Mr. Prince about traditional basketry. Both embodied the values that made this small island and the even smaller, more isolated, independent, free, predominantly-black East End community — that existed for over a century — great. Even though the available resources were limited, they were able to survive and thrive.
They took responsibility for themselves, were hard working, diligent, skillful and resourceful. They knew how to make use of the resources that were available and to take care of themselves, each other and the environment. The community had a strong religious orientation. They were comfortable with who they were, had self-esteem, self-respect and pride and they accepted outsiders. Those are the values and attitudes that made East End and St. John the special communities that they were. They understood what it took to have a good life.
That is the community that Benji was raised in. His family — his sister, Aunt Constance, and his brother, George “Pudu” January (sister and brother by mother), his extended family and his many friends were very important to him. Among the closest was Herman Prince. He was born four days before Benji and, throughout their lifetimes together, Mr. Prince never let Benji forget it — that is until I discovered that Benji was baptized first.
Now, picture a child sitting in Benji’s lap while he taught him or her. Seeing that, you’d know Benji had found his calling. They were his children.
In 1956 when Laurance Rockefeller turned the property he had acquired to the U.S. National Park Service there were only 756 people on all of St. John. Benji had 125 godchildren. That number alone establishes his status in the community. As valuable as his contribution as a teacher was, he gave us so much more. It was based on his understanding, awareness, concern, sense of humor and love — the values he learned growing up in East End. It shows up on every page of his book titled, “Me And My Beloved Virgin.”
I can just see Benji:
• In his tiny, efficiency apartment in Carnegie Hall at 52nd and 5th in Manhattan
• Playing the organ at Emmaus or at home in Coral Bay
• Playing dominoes at Fred’s, his good friend’s restaurant in Cruz Bay
• Sitting in his yard under the shade of the towering tamarind tree by the road, greeting passersby and selling them copies of his book
• In his small house in Coral Bay, surrounded by the clutter of his memorabilia, books, historical records and materials and
• The articles and stories about St. John he wrote, published and shared with us
During the almost 25 years that we have known each other, we spent many special hours together. From him I learned what life was like growing up and living on St. John. We worked on the study documenting the history of the East End community together. We often had lunch together, eating Hercules’ fried fish, Johnny cakes and pates that I brought from Cruz Bay. The leftovers from our meals together were shared with his other friends — the goats, chickens, geese and birds — that populated his yard and with the donkeys with their heads poking through the front door waiting for a handout. Benji always made sure that they all had food and water.
During our time together we shared stories about his time on St. John, our lives in New York (including his experience working for the post office) and about his foreign travels. We also talked about our visit to Aunt Constance at her apartment in Riverdale, where I went to high school, and her reaction on first seeing me: “I didn’t know he wasn’t Black.”
In recent years when I was no longer on St. John, we stayed in touch. We spoke every three or four days. We talked about St. John of old and how it had changed and of the world today. Talk about change, when Benji was born it was Virgin Islands, DWI, and not USVI; all boats were under sail; and there were no vehicles or paved roads, no electricity, no phones, and no radios. All that, and much more, came about during his lifetime. During that lifetime he became a pillar in the community and made a major contribution to all he touched.
Whenever we spoke, after my “Hi Benji,” he always began our conversations with, “I’m fine” and always ended it with, “Good bye my friend.” And now I say the same to you, “Good bye my friend.”
When they created Benji, whatever they did, however they did it, they got it right. Let’s learn from that. Imagine what the world would be like if it were made up of people like Guy Benjamin. Benji is no longer with us physically, however, he will always be with us in spirit to remind us of the values he epitomized, the ones that made St. John and East End great.
Let us keep his spirit and those values alive. Thank you Benji. Thank you for being you and helping us see what is possible.
And as Benji would say, “God bless.”
Bernie Kemp, a former resident of St. John, resides in North Carolina.