State of the Territory | Navigating the Path to Self-Determination in the U.S. Virgin Islands: Part 2

In her bi-weekly column, “State of the Territory,” former Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw delves deeper into issues of concern for V.I. residents.

Our journey through the history of the United States Virgin Islands and our quest for self-determination continues. In Part 2, I want to share some crucial aspects of our history as we explore the impact of Danish and American colonial forces on our islands.

In 1917, Denmark sold the Virgin Islands to the United States for $25 million in gold. What many may not know is that the United States pressured Denmark into the sale by threatening to seize the islands by force. Furthermore, the United States took control of the islands without seeking the consent of the local inhabitants; no plebiscite was conducted as Denmark had initially requested. To make matters even more complex, many Virgin Islanders believed they would be granted American citizenship, but this status was denied to them.

After acquiring Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam as a result of the Spanish-American War, the United States faced a pivotal legal question. The Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution did not automatically extend to these new territories. Instead, the inhabitants of these territories were only granted rights by Congress and were not protected by the Constitution. This ruling marked a significant departure from the principle of equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence and previous territorial acquisitions. Notably, this change in approach was associated with Justice Edward White, who had served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and had concerns about applying constitutional rights to non-white populations in the new territories.

This shift in legal interpretation led to the denial of U.S. citizenship to the predominantly Black inhabitants of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Supreme Court’s stance, known as the Insular Cases, set a precedent for future developments in the islands.

From 1917 to 1931, the U.S. Navy, composed of an all-white administration, governed the predominantly Black population of the Virgin Islands. It was a period of limited self-determination and political democracy. Many Virgin Islanders wrongly believed that U.S. citizenship would be granted to those who had not chosen Danish citizenship under the terms of the treaty of purchase. They also anticipated gaining the right to vote and a degree of self-determination. Regrettably, none of these hopes were realized during these years.

Navy administrators were firmly opposed to the native leaders who advocated for more self-determination. Prominent Virgin Islanders like Rothschild Francis and D. Hamilton Jackson faced prosecution and imprisonment for their criticisms of the Navy government in their newspapers. It was a challenging period in which discontent grew as economic conditions deteriorated and aspirations remained unfulfilled.

In 1931, President Herbert Hoover transferred jurisdiction over the Virgin Islands from the Navy to the Interior Department in an effort to rehabilitate the islands’ economy. Dr. Paul M. Pearson was appointed as the first civilian governor, and his tenure marked the beginning of civil government. Pearson showed compassion for the islands and aimed to increase local responsibility in government by appointing Virgin Islanders to administrative and executive positions. He made notable improvements in various aspects of life, from education to health and employment.

However, the Virgin Islanders, though appreciative of these improvements, remained discontented during Pearson’s governance. Their lack of experience with American politics, the lingering sense of non-participation in their own government, and the historical repression they had faced contributed to their skepticism. They wanted self-determination and the right to rule themselves, not to be ruled by Washington. The experience under Pearson did not align with their long-standing aspirations. In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt removed Pearson from his position due to social unrest and mass demonstrations. Pearson had made sincere efforts to improve conditions, but it seemed that the Virgin Islanders’ demand for self-determination would not be satisfied easily.

The Virgin Islands’ journey to self-determination was complicated, marked by shifting governance, evolving legal interpretations, and a growing desire for autonomy. This period set the stage for future developments that would shape our islands’ path towards self-determination.

In the next installment of this series, we will continue to delve into the Virgin Islands’ history, exploring the impact of the New Deal and the ongoing struggle for self-determination.

Related Link:

State of the Territory | Navigating the Path to Self-Determination in the U.S. Virgin Islands: Part 1