Something new was added to the ceremony honoring servicemen and women on St. John this Memorial Day.
The American Legion from the 10th District, Puerto Rico, held a public event in the park in Cruz Bay featuring speeches, prayers, and musical selections by the Lutheran and Moravian church choirs.
Following that, participants sang as they walked to the cemetery in Cruz Bay to lay a wreath in honor of one particular veteran, Theovald E. Moorehead – better known as “Mooie” – a businessman, community leader, and senator whose activism stirred the racially segregated military and changed the future of St. John.
As a reporter, I had the good fortune to interview Mooie in the early 1990s and then wrote a short biography for the book St. John People.
What follows are some of the highlights from my interviews with him.
“Mooie” was born in 1916, the youngest child of police officers Edward Alfred Moorehead and Eugene Theodora Keating. He attended the Bethany Moravian School through sixth grade and continued on to Charlotte Amalie High School, boarding with a family on St. Thomas and coming home to St. John only on weekends.
After graduating in 1936, he became St. John’s first Immigration and Customs inspector and married the former Genevieve Hendricks after a long courtship.
During World War II, he worked for the Navy on St. Thomas as a civilian clerk. America was at war, and Moorehead seriously considered enlisting in the Navy. “But you see, because of my color, I was going to have to change rank. I would have had to have been a mess steward, so I said, ‘To hell with that!'” he said.
Ironically, several months later, he was one of 540 Virgin Islanders drafted into the Army. The racially segregated Army “didn’t know what the hell to do with us,” he said. “They had two types of Puerto Ricans, the black ones they called ‘madama,’ and the ones that were supposed to be white or ‘clear.’ But we didn’t fit anywhere, so they had to form a battalion for us.”
After basic training, the group was sent to New Orleans. When the men arrived in the South and experienced the effects of racial segregation for the first time, they took it as a joke, he said, and then they got mad.
“They used to have some signs in the back of the bus – ‘Colored patrons only’ – we took the damned signs down and threw them out. The bus driver told the other passengers, ‘Sit down – these people ain’ from here; they’re from Puerto Rico or some other place.'”
Eventually, the Virgin Islands soldiers decided to take direct action against the military in an event that became known as the Camp Plauche incident. “They had a separate PX for black soldiers. The club had a nickelodeon and a pool table, and that was it. We had to ask for a Coke machine. Then we decided, “To hell with it; we’re going into the main PX.”
“We created a riot. They put gas around us, disarmed us, and cordoned us off with military police and other soldiers, so we couldn’t leave the barracks. Then they hurried up and shipped us to the West Coast.”
Moorehead and his cohorts served as stevedores at Sand Island near Diamond Head, Hawaii; at the end of the war, he decided to make the military his career. Throughout his 12 years of service, he was posted in locations in Europe, the United States, and the Caribbean.
“Gov. Farrelly and Gov. King were in my outfit. I used to tell them, ‘I’m a 30-year man.’ That was until the National Park caused me to get out.”
His battle with the National Park Service began in 1955. Moorehead was in the Army then, stationed in France, when he saw a copy of The Saturday Evening Post with a picture of Sen. Julius Sprauve shaking hands with Laurance Rockefeller. An accompanying article proclaimed the upcoming dedication of the Virgin Islands National Park.
“Do you know what they planned to do? They planned to condemn the entire island. The idea was to move everybody to Fish Bay and use the Battery as the park headquarters.”
Moorhead was outraged. He marched into his superior’s office the next day with his request for a discharge, and 17 days later, he was out of the military.
He immediately went to Washington and “lobbied like hell” – collaring senators, placing ads in the Washington Post, and organizing a multifaceted campaign against the National Park’s takeover of the entire island.
His effort paid off; the amendment which mandated the condemnation was defeated. Moorehead became a local hero and ran for the V.I. Legislature, serving for 16 years. His activism is described in the documentary “Our Island, Our Home.”
Moorehead’s business enterprises included real estate management and appraisal, construction, and development. He is one of the founders of St. John’s first ferry company. Over the years, he’d been involved with a dozen civic organizations and government agencies, including the Lions Club, the Boy Scouts, the Small Business Administration, the Port Authority, the Insurance Commission, and the Lutheran Church. He died in 1995.
Towards the conclusion of the Memorial Day ceremony, Theodora Moorehead, Mooie’s daughter, laid the wreath on her father’s tomb while members of the community and American Legion Post 131 looked on, and Emmanuel Boyd played “Taps.”