This is the fifth and final story in a series on notable Virgin Islands women in honor of Virgin Islands History Month and Women’s History Month.
A women’s liberation movement never took root in the Virgin Islands, there was no need to fight to break the glass ceiling. Women combined the traditional roles of wife and mother and asserted the roles of leadership with the support from their husbands, family and a strong belief in God’s blessings on their work and endeavors.
By the 1960s and ’70s, women had already been legislators, doctors and lawyers. They served on the boards of important community organizations and were a part of the decision-making process. Little has been written about the energy and spirit of these women.
During this time, Americans from the U.S. mainland were flocking to the Virgin Islands, the United States paradise, to find work and share the sun, sand and sea with their female counterparts in the territory. Some came with husbands whose jobs brought them to administer U.S. programs or take part in the growing affluence of the late 1950s and ’60s. These women too would become contributors to the fabric of the Virgin Islands.
The “Continentals,” as they were called, arrived in the early 1960s and ’70s, a result of burgeoning economic stability in the U.S. and the fast-growing Virgin Islands. They would become a viable part of society, contributors on many fronts.
The women became equally involved in the community and became lifelong friends with local women fighting for environmental protection (League of Women Voters), child care legislation and educational and business improvements (Business and Professional Women Organization).
One such Continental came in the early part of the ’60s and would become an integral part of the art world, depicting Caribbean scenes on a silk screen. Rhoda Tillett and her husband would establish an art complex for tourists and locals alike. Tillett Gardens would become a mini center for art and performances.
Many years before, a local Virgin Islands woman, Eldra Shulterbrandt, orchestrated an enormous effort to bring the Reichhold Center to the University of the Virgin Islands. The Reichhold Center remains today the Virgin Islands’ major performance and art center.
Another Virgin Island woman who came as a Continental to work on St. Thomas as a social worker would later establish one of the largest real estate firms on the island. Few people would know that Marilyn Blackhall started her career on St. Thomas as a social worker, managing the programs for the elderly at the Queen Louise Home for the Aged. She would later join her husband and establish a local RE/MAX real estate firm. Before Blackhall, the island had Kate Shpetner, Beatrice George and April Moran Newland. Cathy O’Gara came on a visit with her mother in the early ’60s and would become a resident as well as a great supporter and advertiser of the local tourism product. Her magazine, “Destinations,” would reach thousands of travelers from around the world each year. Many came and stayed and became a part of the dreams, goals and hopes for these islands.
During the Wider Opportunity for Women (WOW) conference held in the 1990s, co-sponsored by Sen. Lorraine Berry and her fellow female senators, Berry said, “Many young people today say they see no mentors in the community.” The question she said is, “where are they looking?” The future holds a clear and distinctive path for young women of today.
Reflecting on the Virgin Islands Woman Series
The joy of researching this Women of the Virgin Islands series came to me many years ago as I realized I was writing about women not just of my community, but people I know. I could own the successes and accomplishments, failures and hurrahs as part of my own identity because it reflected who I could be, part of who I was and, more importantly, who I am today. This is huge.
The other significant realization was that these women were not stymied in making strides because of nationality, ethnicity, education, cultural or economic backgrounds. Nothing stopped these women. In cases where they came from somewhere other than the Virgin Islands, their involvement and contributions were accepted by an open and caring community.
I could think of several women who came and made their mark: Judy Nagelberg, Kate Shpetner, mother of Norma Levin, as well as Norma herself, Olivia Stanford, Rhoda Tillett and Marilyn Blackhall, who came to the islands as a social worker and was my supervisor back in the early 1970s. Laura Yergen, Elizabeth Sanchez, Annie Hillary, Judy Grybowski and Patti DeLone, all who initially worked in health care and health research at the College of the Virgin Islands’ nursing program. There are many others whose names do not appear here.
A most significant finding is that there is a continuance of commitment and contribution by several generations of women of the same family. Grandmothers and mothers set the tone of leadership and the fight for important causes. Learned behaviors certainly have played a role here.
Teresita Nunez would be among the stalwarts in education, becoming known fondly in the northside community on St. Thomas as she taught many generations of children at Robert Herrick School. Her daughter, Maxine Nunez, would lead the nursing department of the College of the Virgin Islands, contributing to the growth and development of many nurses, and now her granddaughter, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, a professor at Yale University, would be one of the first appointments of President Joe Biden to co-lead the task force to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. with a special focus on racial and ethnic equity.
No one can receive more credit for recently putting the Virgin Islands on the map, so to speak, than Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett. In her memorable role as a manager of the House prosecution team at then-President Donald Trump’s most recent impeachment, she delivered crushing and remarkable evidence of reasons for impeachment. In recent weeks, if I mentioned to someone, stranger though they may be, that I am from the Virgin Islands, the next question would be, “Do you know Stacey Plaskett?” and happily, I would say, “Yes I do.”
As stated above, the late Sen. Berry, at her Wider Opportunity for Women conference, many years ago, said that many young people are looking for role models. I have found based on my experience and research that in the Virgin Islands they don’t have far to look.
The Virgin Islands woman of yesterday and today can stand proud in the sunlight of these islands. Her face to the horizons of the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, a Virgin Islands and American flag overhead. She can be proud and stand tall for her accomplishments are many. She has helped to shape and sustain a beautiful Virgin Islands. This is the U.S. Virgin Islands woman.
About the author: Debra Adelita Brown DeLone is a third-generation Virgin Islander with ancestral roots on St. Thomas and St. Croix. She has worked in the private and government sectors of St. Thomas for 45 years and has been a community contributor for more than 40 years. She has a bachelor’s degree in human service administration and a master’s degree in public administration. She is the past president of the League of Women Voters ’98 and a past president of Rotary Club Charlotte Amalie. She is married to professor William DeLone, formerly with the University of the Virgin Islands, and has a daughter, Andrea Brown-White and two stepchildren Tim and Niki DeLone. She resides in Rockville, Maryland, and enjoys spending time with her grandchildren, Alonzo IV, August and Thayre Marie.
Other parts of this series:
Part 1: Virgin Islands Woman: Rebel, Leader and Queen
Part 2: Virgin Islands Woman: Market Woman, Business Leader, Humanitarian
Part 3: Virgin Islands Woman – Educator, Civic Servant and Role Model
Part 4: Virgin Islands Woman – Political Advocate, Legislator and Judge