When Dr. Paul M. Pearson first set sail for the Virgin Islands 90 years ago today to found the territory’s first civilian government after U.S. Navy oversight, he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the islands.
“After four days steaming, due South, through the cold waters of the North, and across the Gulf Stream, islands pass and disappear, then upon our startled view, as we gently adjust our eyes to this fantasy, like a beautiful backdrop of the stage, the sun streams over Castle Bluebeard, and down the hillsides like nectar from a golden beaker, the sky, a clear bright blue, with a lazy moon still drifting in it towards the west,” Dr. Pearson wrote while aboard the “U.S.S. Grebe” the day before he would be sworn in as the first governor on March 18, 1931.
“The water, the tint of lapis lazuli, murmurs along the ship’s side. A few puffs of hazy cloud, not dispelled by the coming of the sun, hover near the skyline, then melt and drift away on the wings of the morning’s freshening breeze,” he wrote.
Dr. Pearson was replacing what had been a string of eight naval governors during the 14 years the United States owned the U.S. Virgin Islands after purchasing it from Denmark on March 31, 1917, commonly known as Transfer Day.
The last naval governor, Capt. Waldo Evans, was well-liked by the residents of the territory because of his compassion for the people, and he elected to retire from the Navy after serving more than 40 years of honorable service. Capt. Evans and his wife relocated to Europe after vacationing on St. Thomas with the Paiewonsky family.
Born on a farm near Litchfield, Ill., on Oct. 22, 1871, Dr. Pearson was 15 when he graduated from Cherryvale High School in 1887 and just 19 when he graduated from Baker University in Baldwin, Kansas.
When he came to the U.S. Virgin Islands to establish a civilian government, Dr. Pearson had six goals to bring the fledgling territory into the United States government and on the path to self-determination:
- Encourage the Virgin Islanders to assume an increasing responsibility for their own government
- Make the island government self-supporting
- Improve economic conditions
- Improve health conditions
- Improve educational conditions
- Improve social conditions
This 90th anniversary of civilian government in the U.S. Virgin Islands is a good time to reflect on where we are on that path to self-determination that Paul M. Pearson set us upon on March 18, 1931.
— E. Alex Joseph, St. Thomas