A locally produced documentary, “”Our Island Our Home,” covers the life and work done by Theovald “Mooie” Moorehead, with emphasis on his advocacy regarding the establishment of the National Park on St. John.
The documentary was produced by the late senator’s daughter, Theodora Moorehead, and directed by Crystal Fortwangler through her company Wider Angle Productions. The film features commentary provided by Kurt G. Marsh Jr., David Knight Jr., Dr. Hadiya Sewer, and Theodora Moorehead.
By examining the works of Sen. Theovald Moorehead, the film illustrates how much of the senator’s predictions about the fallout of increased development on St. John have rung true. It highlights the impact of the establishment and expansion of the National Park has had on St. John’s history, and the film speaks to the alienation felt by native and ancestral St. Johnians who feel that those in power have prioritized tourism over the prosperity of local families.
The documentary also includes a call to action for the whole St. John community to collaborate in order to find the best solution for the island’s future.
Since its release in April the documentary has had multiple showings at the Bajo El Sol gallery, where the film team had the opportunity to speak directly with the community about the making of the film as well as the topics within it. The film is the result of over a decade of conversation and research between Theodora Moorehead and Crystal Fortwangler.
Fortwangler is the founder of the independent film production company Wider Angle Productions, and acted as the director for the film. Moorehead acted as producer.
“We weren’t quite sure of the medium at first, but we talked about my father’s work and the National Park as an institution. We wanted the best way to present the story from a historical perspective,” said Moorehead of the early beginnings of the film.
“Theodora and I discussed making a film with a fuller history of the Virgin Islands National Park. A Friends of the Park documentary already exists, but we wanted more than one perspective. We started with reading her father’s work and started to link the history of the park to the current moment,” Fortwangler said.
The two also worked closely with the executive members of St. Jan Co, a local nonprofit committed to community engagement and education, the preservation of St. John culture, and improving the way of life of ancestral and native St. Johnians.
“We want to start with regaining control of the narrative because the narrative of St. John has been hijacked for quite some time. So one of the most important things we realized that we needed to do towards that effort is educate people about what has happened. A lot of folks on island are moving within a space where they have no idea of one of the most significant stories in St. John history,” said St. Jan Co. co-founder Kurt Marsh Jr.
The documentary tells of Theovald Moorehead’s fierce resistance against the exploitative methods of the National Park to expand throughout St. John, how that fight made its way to Washington D.C. and how it led to a victory for the people of St. John.
The film gives an overview of the life of Theovald Moorehead, who was born and raised on St. John prior to its transfer from Denmark to the United States. While he spent over a decade in the armed forces, Laurence Rockefeller and Frank Stick were making large purchases of land in St. John and the National Park as we now know it was in its infancy.
Reading of the plans of the Park in 1955 prompted Moorehead to request leave from the Army and return home.
After returning, he served 16 years as a St. John senator and he was highly critical of the expansion of the National Park. He wrote scathing editorials in the Virgin Islands Daily News raising awareness about the impending danger to local culture and land ownership that the National Park presented.
The situation worsened as in 1962, Congress attempted to pass a law to expand the boundaries of the park, which included a condemnation clause that would give them control over land within the park bounds that belonged to local St. Johnians, while also giving them the ability to acquire more outside of the boundaries.
Through these developments, Theovald Moorehead championed a movement around “Resisting Condemnation without Representation.” He collected signatures of St. Johnians who were in opposition to the law, and he even took the fight directly to Washington D.C., lobbying with as many Congressmen as he could.
“’Condemnation without Representation’ made its way to Washington. Not many people know how this all came about. If you are in your 70s or 80s you would know because you participated. People now in their 30s and 40s have no idea” said Theodora Moorehead.
The condemnation clause eventually failed, but was resubmitted in early 1963. The St. John Protection League was launched shortly after to fight all future attempts at condemnation. Theovald Moorehead joined the league alongside Robert Gibney, Julius E. Sprauve, George Simmons, and Albert Sewer.
The documentary’s team faced multiple challenges during production. From the outset, tackling such a divisive topic in a way that is true to history while still engaging to those that need to hear it most was no easy task. In addition, the use of historical documents and photographs were hampered by their availability and the effects of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
“We were trying to weave together a story where everyone watching could understand where it’s coming from. We wanted native St. Johnians, new transplants and tourists to understand what happened,” Fortwangler said.
“There are so many parts of St. John history that aren’t easily available. Finding pictures was a community collaboration. I made sure to come to St. John with a light box for families who only had the negatives of their photos. To this day, we are still looking for photos of Vic’s Rendezvous,” Fortwangler said.
Ultimately, the documentary uses a compelling piece of St. John history to highlight how many of the issues the island currently faces fit within a historical context.
Theovald Moorehead knew how the development of St. John could lead to the marginalization of St. Johnians, and he pushed for sustainable forms of development that ensured that all on St. John would prosper, rather than a handful of land developers without much regard for St. John’s culture and people.
“It [the National Park] needs to be inclusive of people’s happiness. There needs to be a healthy and holistic approach to development” said St. John Co. secretary David Knight Jr. in the documentary.
St. Jan Co. co-founder Dr. Hadiya Sewer said of Moorehead’s work, “Sen. Theovald Moorehead’s advocacy reminds us that if we do not have a model of ecological conservation that’s considerate of the experiences of native and ancestral Virgin Islanders, then we do not have a sustainable long term project that’s conducive to our survivability in this space.”
The film also places emphasis on how building upon the activism within St. John history may hold the solutions to these issues. Resources covering St. John’s history are available, such as the St. John Historical Society, “St. John People” by Amy Roberts, and the recently released “Before Our Time: An Oral History of St. John” by Janet Burton, but both St. John Co. and Theodora Moorehead aim to go beyond what has already been done.
“Our Island Our Home” is planned to be the start of a series of documentaries centered on St. John issues, and the filmmakers hope that moving forward they can engage the younger generation of St. John.
“The focus now is to get the next generation involved. If they do not, we will lose it all. We need to let the younger generation know that things do not happen in a vacuum. Rockefeller looked for an island to develop, and the National Park was part of the plan. Younger people need to know what happened here, and they need to lobby for their future,” Moorehead said.
She further explained the need for wider discussion and collaboration between all who reside on St. John.
“Everyone needs to come together and discuss what is best for St. John. It’s not about who gets the message out, it just needs to get out,” said Moorehead.
“Our Island Our Home” can be viewed online here.