State of the Territory | Navigating the Path to Self-Determination in the U.S. Virgin Islands: Part 3

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 3, I want to share some crucial aspects of our history as we explore the impact of Danish and American colonial forces on our islands.

As we delve deeper into the intricate journey of self-determination for the U.S. Virgin Islands, I invite you to join me on a path marked by challenges, milestones, and the unyielding spirit of a people yearning for self-governance.

Let’s begin our exploration with the 1936 Organic Act, often hailed as the first constitution of the islands. This act marked a significant step where Congress granted us a measure of self-determination. Elected municipal councils replaced the colonial councils, and the universal suffrage bestowed upon those who could read and write English opened the doors of political engagement for all social classes. This was a momentous shift, breaking the long-standing monopoly of political power held by planters and merchants.

In addition, the 1936 Act stipulated that all federal taxes collected in the islands would remain within our territory. Nevertheless, there were caveats. The U.S. president still held the power to appoint the governor, government secretary, and district judge. The president could also disapprove an override of a governor’s veto, and the Secretary of the Interior was given the authority to appoint other federally funded executive and administrative officers.

Fast forward a decade, and we find the 1936 Act fostering the formation of local political parties and the passage of local social legislation. The year 1946 marked another milestone when President Harry S. Truman appointed the first Black governor of the Islands, William Hastie. However, these strides fell short of full self-determination. The territory was still under Washington’s administration, and Virgin Islanders lacked the power to determine their political status or form of government. Our dependency on Washington, both governmentally and economically, remained a challenging reality.

The Revised Organic Act of 1954 extended suffrage by removing the English literacy requirement, thereby allowing Spanish-speaking islanders to vote. This act also ensured that federal revenues collected on articles produced in the Virgin Islands, such as rum, were annually paid into the local government’s treasury. Unfortunately, the 1954 Act maintained the presidential appointment of the governor and the governor’s secretary. It did not provide for an elected resident commissioner in Congress, which was a source of disappointment for many Virgin Islanders.

Furthermore, the Act imposed conditions such as requiring presidential approval of specific expenditures, the governor’s obligation to reorganize the Virgin Islands government into no more than nine executive departments, and the need for the Secretary of the Interior’s prior approval for the creation of any additional administrative agency. Instead of increasing self-government, these provisions were perceived as a means to retain a significant measure of control over the territorial government within the hands of Washington’s bureaucracy.

Our quest for more self-government persisted, with demands for the right to elect our governor, be represented in Congress by a resident commissioner, and legislate on internal matters. The formation of the British West Indies Federation in 1958, comprising 10 Caribbean island units, fueled our campaign. These units, like Jamaica and Barbados, were preparing to attain independence within the British Commonwealth. The promise of comprehensive self-government for our British neighbors contrasted sharply with our ongoing colonial status.

However, amidst these changes, an incident on St. Thomas reshaped the narrative. A fire in January 1958 destroyed the newly constructed redwood home of a friend of the visiting Secretary of Interior, Fred Seaton. This event led to the dismissal of the chief of police, who was on leave during the fire, and the commissioner of public safety. Surprisingly, the fire chief, who failed to save the house, retained his position. The local public was incensed over this apparent injustice, leading to a demonstration that same month. Three thousand Virgin Islanders, led by Valdemar Hill, president of the Virgin Islands Unity Party, and Senator Earle B. Ottley, marched on Government House. They petitioned for the removal of California Gov. Walter Gordon, citing his incompetence, abuse of powers, and poor administration. They declared their readiness to embrace the responsibilities of self-government.

This demonstration sparked disapproval from Washington officials. California Congressman Clair Engle, chairman of the powerful House Interior and the Insular Affairs Committee, responded irately, stating his readiness to introduce legislation if a sizable group of Virgin Islanders demanded self-government and independence from the United States. Looking back, this moment marked a turning point, as the arrogance of Washington gave way to a change in posture.

In the aftermath, President Dwight D. Eisenhower replaced Gov. Gordon with John Merwin of St. Croix, who became the first native-born governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Notably, Gov. Merwin appointed an all-native cabinet, signifying a shift in the local administration. Despite his support for an elective governor and resident commissioner in Congress, he hesitated to support both an elected resident commissioner and governor, fearing a potential conflict, particularly in his relations with the insular Legislature.

During the early 1960s, there was growing national support for increased self-government. This support was echoed by President Eisenhower in his 1960 and 1961 budget messages and Interior Secretary Seaton, as well as Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Antonio Fernos-Isern. The 1960 national platforms of both the Republican and Democratic parties also endorsed our cause. Additionally, U.N. Delegate Sen. Wayne Morse proclaimed the decline of colonialism under the American flag. He noted that Guam had acquired its first indigenous governor, while we had already had a native-born governor for some time. Despite this external support and unanimous approval by a congressional subcommittee for a non-voting delegate, our demands for more self-government still faced obstacles and would take several years to materialize.

One of the most significant turning points came during Ralph Paiewonsky’s inauguration as governor on April 5, 1961. Assistant Secretary of the Interior John A. Carver made an unprecedented announcement, ushering in a new policy direction for the federal government’s relationship with the Virgin Islands. Carver pledged to provide us with the broadest promise of self-determination to date. He emphasized that the federal government would turn to our people to identify their problems and express their hopes, including choosing their ultimate relationship with the United States.

This promise left us with questions about the source of Carver’s authority. Nevertheless, it marked a monumental shift, where the federal government relinquished much of its influence, allowing the Virgin Islands more freedom to self-govern. This commitment challenged the prevailing status quo and laid the foundation for a promising future.

As we continued to navigate the path of self-determination, Congress decided to address the matter of increased self-government through a series of incremental steps rather than a comprehensive package. After facing some setbacks, Congress passed the Elective Governor Act of 1968. This act allowed Virgin Islanders to elect their governor and lieutenant governor for the first time in 1970. Notably, the act abolished the presidential veto of territorial legislation and empowered the local Legislature to override the governor’s veto with a two-thirds majority vote.

In 1972, additional legislation authorized Virgin Islanders to elect a non-voting delegate to Congress, granting us a voice in the nation’s capital. It is crucial to note that all these measures had been specifically proposed by the 33 elected delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1965, established by the Virgin Islands Legislature to draft a Second Revised Organic Act. Nonetheless, some key proposals remained unapproved. These included granting Virgin Islanders the right to vote for the president and vice president of the United States and allowing the governor to appoint the comptroller. The 1965 convention had also firmly rejected independence, annexation to any U.S. state, or any change in the islands’ status as an unincorporated territory.

In 1971, the Virgin Islands Legislature authorized a second Constitutional Convention. The resulting proposed constitution and Federal Relations Act gained approval in 1972 by more voters than those who rejected these documents. However, due to a significant number of blank ballots, the votes in favor did not surpass half of the ballots cast. Consequently, the two documents were not submitted to Congress.

In 1974, Congressional Delegate Ron de Lugo introduced legislation in Congress allowing the people of the Virgin Islands to establish their government based on a constitution of their own choosing. Congress passed the enabling legislation in 1976, setting the stage for the proposed constitution’s submission to the president for review, approval by Congress, and endorsement by a majority of local referendum voters.

Nonetheless, it’s important to recognize that Congress did place limitations on the scope of self-government considered in the Constitutional Convention. While addressing areas such as taxing power and local court jurisdiction, Congress expressly prohibited any discussion of the territory’s political status or alterations in existing federal relations. This constraint was a significant hurdle in our ongoing journey towards self-determination. Our determination for self-governance and self-determination persisted despite the setbacks and obstacles we encountered on this journey. The story of our quest for self-determination continues to unfold, and our commitment remains unwavering.

Related Links:

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

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