The following stories are part of a series highlighting experiences with systemic racism on the U.S. mainland. Previous stories focused on Black men and women who grew up in predominantly Black communities in the Caribbean. These are the stories of Black people who were born on the mainland and later established roots in the Virgin Islands.
Luther Edwards was born in Champaign, Illinois but spent most of his childhood living with his grandparents and brother on the edge of the Black Bottom projects in Detroit. Joe Louis trained down the street from his home and Aretha Franklin’s father’s church was a few blocks away. The area was given its name for the rich black soil, not the Black population.
“We were extremely poor. I have no idea how my grandmother kept food on the table. We only got shoes at Christmastime and that was a gift from a police and newspaper organization,” he recalls. “The shoes were of poor quality. Most of the year we wore shoes with no bottoms or with cardboard inserts, even during the wet winter months.”
Edwards learned about racism early – at around 4 years old. His grandmother taught herself to read and studied history. She consumed three or four newspapers and magazines a day. She also spoke openly about Black history including the part about lynching.
Edwards grew up witnessing systemic racism – including police brutality – and later experienced it firsthand.
On one occasion he remembers running for the phone to call the police when he saw two young boys in handcuffs being beaten. His grandmother stopped him: “Take another look; that is the police.”
As a result of that incident and others, Edwards learned to hide when he saw a police car, especially when walking home in the evening after delivering newspapers.
Eventually, with the help of white high school teachers, Edwards was able to abandon the paper route after he received scholarships to study civil engineering at Wayne State University in Detroit and the University of Illinois in Champaign. There were fewer than 100 Black students in an enrollment class of 25,000 at the University of Illinois, he says.
He remembers one student in a six-person class project who blurted out they didn’t want their proposed highway project to go through the “nigger district.” He says, “they must have forgotten I was there when he said it,” because suddenly the room the fell silent.
A much more terrifying incident occurred shortly after he graduated from college. Edwards is and was an ardent volunteer throughout his adulthood. While in Detroit, he sponsored an 8-year-old boy who suffered from mental health issues. He met with the youngster several times a week. Edwards says one day police spotted him and “the little brother” carrying a television upstairs to the boy’s house. The episode degraded to the point where the policeman was pointing a gun at Edwards and the boy, who by this time had grabbed a kitchen knife.
“Put your hands up, they want to kill us,” Edwards shouted to the child, later realizing, “I could have disarmed him, myself.” Fortunately, the officer was a professional and talked gently to the little boy, Edwards recalls.
Today, demonstrations around the world remind Edwards of another frightening incident that took place during the 1967 Detroit riots.
At that time, he and his pregnant wife lived on the third floor of a non-air-conditioned apartment building that was set on fire. He says that, due to the sporadic gunfire, the fire department wouldn’t come without a police escort. When he called them, the police told him they couldn’t respond without a military escort, because they were also under fire. In the end, the residents put out the fire themselves, then guarded the building with kitchen knives.
Those incidents and others remind Edwards, “It was many years before I lost my fear of the police. However,” he says, “I began to feel more secure as I acquired the financial means and the knowledge to protect myself in court.” It would still be some time before he realized “that all police are not thugs.”
Through his many and varied experiences, Edwards has come to believe that white people play an important role in overcoming racism. “To start with,” he says, “people must teach their children about it at the kitchen table, and then educators must follow through at school.”
And, he says, the white community needs to speak out continuously against racist talk and action when it occurs and until attitudes change.
Furthermore, he believes white people must move forward laws to fight discrimination and push the government to prosecute court cases.
“People must get the government to do what it should do. Demonstrations are soon forgotten, like in the ’60s.”
Over the years, the Edwards’ were discriminated against stateside because of the color of their skin when they tried to rent numerous houses. Finally, before the family moved to St. Croix in 1973, they were able to buy a house in an upscale neighborhood.
In all the years he has lived on St. Croix he said he has never experienced “any unpleasant incidents” with the local police.
After 47 years on St. Croix, Edwards has made many friends. He says Black people in the islands are different than those he knew growing up and living in the states. Crucians rarely talk about racism, he says, adding, “West Indians don’t have the same racist experiences. There’s not 10 people who have seen police violence. They have trouble relating to the stateside experience.”
Sheena Walker was born and raised in Syracuse, New York, where she spent most of her school years as the “token” Black child.
Her father had grown up in the inner city which had clear racial and ethnic dividing lines, she remembers.
“The north was where the Irish lived, the east was Latino and Black, the west was Jewish.”
“My father had grown up in that.” His goal, she says, was to get us out.
He wanted Walker and her brother to be exposed to the best there was to offer.
“To make it was to get out to the suburbs.”
Her father achieved his goal, moving the family to a white suburb, where Walker says hers was the only Black family.
Her high school graduating class was 693 students. There were only 36 Black students in the entire high school.
Having the advantage of a suburban education with its attendant racial implications left a scar, she says. For one thing, she always felt she had to be 10 times better than her classmates at everything. “I always internalized that I am less than,” she says.
She is still peeling back the layers of pain left by her early years as a minority in a sea of privileged white people.
“Even as a psychologist, I have to keep comparing myself.”
She says while the advantages she was given in that white suburban school “propelled me forward, it also held me back. It’s still painful.”
From early on she knew two things. She wanted to be a psychologist, and she wanted to serve in an international community, and not as a minority.
She thought maybe The Gambia. But that was not the answer.
In 2000, she traveled with an African Studies group to the tiny West African country, where she says, “We just knew we were going to be accepted.”
But Walker met a new kind of divide there. “We were Americans,” and as such, not welcomed as fellow Black sisters and brothers, as she had dreamed of. “I so longed for Black cohesion.”
By the time she met Dwight Walker at Fisk University – the man she would eventually marry, “I knew I wanted to be in the Virgin Islands.” She says, “I wanted to no longer be a racial minority.”
For years she spent three weeks at a time vacationing on St. Thomas while she completed her doctorate stateside. In 2008, she came back for good.
After going through the changes that accompany the difference between being on vacation in “paradise” and actually residing there, she settled in.
The Walkers have four children, and Sheena says that despite some of the territory’s problems, she is happy to be able to raise her children in a place where they don’t feel the kind of insecurity she still carries from her own childhood. “I wanted them to not internalize the self-loathing,” that so many Black people on the mainland living in a white world take as a given.
And she has achieved that goal, she feels. Her oldest son is off to Howard University in the fall, and while she is concerned about COVID, she is confident about his confidence.
The flip side is “They don’t realize the struggles of American Blacks,” she says.
“I have to keep myself in check. I don’t want to project my need to support the oppressed on them.”
Recently she watched the 1979 movie adaptation of Maya Angelou’s autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” with her kids. She described this scene where the young girl chastises her mother for not standing up for herself when two “white trash” boys are disrespectful to her.
Watching the scene was poignant because, growing up in America, Walker knows the pain of being treated as “less than.”
But she asks herself regularly, “How far do I want to take this? I want them to have their own experience.”
Luckily, as a professor of psychology at the University of the Virgin Islands, she can “have a platform,” because, she believes, “these are intersecting issues.”
As a therapist, however, she has to be careful. “I am much more of a receptacle for my clients.”
Walker is hopeful that as more and more young Virgin Islanders return home from the States having had the racist experiences that marked her youth, that what she describes as blasé attitudes about civil rights will fade, and social justice will become much more of a cause for concern in the territory.
“These returning Virgin Islanders have brilliant minds. We need to incentivize them to stay by offering them leadership positions.”