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History, Race and Economics of the Virgin Islands


Dear Source:
I took Ms. Angela Gilliam's advice and read "Correlates of Race, Ethnicity and National Origin in the United States Virgin Islands"
This report appears to be incomplete, lacking many details for all groups that do make up the Virgin Islands population. Some of it is detailed, some of it is too generalized, and some of it contains assumable statements instead of actual facts. Some of this report can create some very misleading views to those unfamiliar with the history of each sector of our island's population.
The following I give as an example of how easy something can be misinterpreted. It fits well with the old adage, never judge a book by its cover.
/"For example, in St. Thomas whites dominate Water Island, and those parts of the East End, North Side, and West End with beach/cliff frontage and expansive water views"/
//The "whites" of Water Island and the East End are mostly of stateside origins. I do not know the origins of the "whites" of the West End./ /The "whites" of the North side are mostly French descendants whose families migrated from the Eastern Caribbean.//
Finding written history on the "French" Virgin Islanders of the Northside is basically non-existent. I do agree with the report when it said collecting data about this and other sectors of the population as problematic.
There are two distinct French descent communities on St. Thomas. The community of Frenchtown and the Northside. I am unsure about what written histories exist about the Frenchtown community.
During 1982 to 1983, over a period of several months, I sat down almost daily with my grandmother to put together history on my family and all the people she knew about. My grandmother died in March of 1983 and at the time of her death, I had accumulated 17 books of history. In 1989, they were destroyed in Hugo. They were rewritten and destroyed again in 1995.
The house in which my grandmother lived in was a two-room West Indian cottage. It was the house my mother and all 5 of her siblings were born in. The bathroom was always an outhouse. Plumbing was never added to the house, only electricity was added in latter years. A small chest high cistern was also added in the backyard. On top of it sat a clean, empty, large tin can with a wire handle and a string to bail water whenever it was needed. My grandmother cooked with firewood until propane stoves came into the picture.
I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, who showed me how to braid certain types of palm leaves that she used to make hats and bags, how to make brooms out of other types, how to deseed cotton to make pillows and thread. She pointed out how to watch where the sun rose and set during the different months of the year, how to watch the casting of shadows to tell what time of day it was without looking at a clock, what to for watch in the shifts of weather and sea patterns. From her I also learned about different plants, herbs, and their uses.
The Northside at the time the French began migrating to it, was an undeveloped dense tropical jungle on the steepest, hilliest, part of St. Thomas. There were no roads, or easy access into this area.
The reason the French migrated into this area had nothing to do with its /with beach/cliff frontage and expansive water views/. It also had nothing to do with racial segregation/. /
//They were farmers and fishermen. Farmers were in search of good soil and fresh water for farming. The Northside has always been and still is the area on St. Thomas that gets the most rains. It once had many fresh water springs that do not exist anymore. Many of the springs were destroyed when roads were finally opened up due to lack of planning to preserve them.
Fishing on this side of the island was also a good potential because it was not developed and wasn't being used as much as town side was.
At the time they settled into this area, there wasn't any interest in the area by other groups already existing or migrating to the islands.
Most of the island's commerce took place in town. Not many wanted to be bothered by this undeveloped area with no easy access to it.
St. Barts terrain was/is kind of similar to the Northside so it was not intimidating to the French to attempt dealing with this area. St. Barts was a drier island that did not get the amount of rains St. Thomas Northside does.
Backbreaking work went into establishing a community, building homes, and farms in this area. The homes were small. Many were carried piece by piece through bushes into areas they finally settled into. Water for homes, things like laundry, meant hiking through the steep terrain to wherever the springs were at. Donkeys and horses were used for carrying everything and anything. It was mostly after the opening of roads that some homes finally added cisterns.
For the majority of the Northside families, the history is same. They were not rich people that chose this area because of its views. They were farmers and fishermen trying to find a place to make a living. The majority worked hard to own the lands, farm it, make a home and raise their families.
In the progressing years after the roads opened up, size and types of homes changed. In some cases small portions of lands were sold in order to acquire monies to build the homes that stand today. Labor costs were cut down because many extended family members helped each other out with actual labor. Many of the homes had an extra apartment added to them to help pay for the cost of building. The people worked together in finding ways to get homes and ways to cut costs. Further cutting of costs took place in the subdivisions of lands. By passing down properties from one generation to the next, for many (not all) it eliminated the step of having to buy property first before building a home. Farms grew smaller as more homes were built within "family" properties.
Throughout the past several decades, the community fought to keep commercial development out of the Northside. The purpose behind that was to keep the Northside as strictly a local "residential" area.
In subsequent census reports that indicate the growing number of "whites" into the Northside was not a situation of "movement" into the Northside, it was a situation of generations being "born" inside of this area.
We have watched development run rampant without proper planning to have equal ground between the growing tourist economy and the local residential areas. One only has to look along the entire East End shorelines and the lack of public access to the hotel beaches.
The effects of tourism have been two-fold, having both positives and negatives.
The majority of local both black and white workers in many of the hotels over the years have been on the lower end of the pay scales. The majority of turnover management companies bring in their own people for upper management pay scale jobs. It has not been an on-going situation of training locals for those positions, in order for local pay rates to rise over the years.
Many locals both black and white worked 2 and 3 jobs in order to make ends meet. The tourist industry fluctuates between winter and summer.
Hours are cut down in many cases for off-season. I have listened to the senate argue over whether to raise the minimum wage to $ 6.15. At a 160 hrs a month, the gross pay at 6.15 an hour equals 984.00 a month. All one has to do is flip through any rental section of the newspaper and see what the rates of rents are, walk through any grocery store, etc.
There is not one local person black or white that can survive on 6.15 an hour with only one job in the private sector.
Many of the young adults that should be able to be out on their own are still living at home because they cannot afford a place of their own.
It's a catch 22, even if they could afford a place of the own, there are also instances in which pa
rents depend on the additional income from their children to keep the homes they rent.
In addition to it being a problem within the home just for survival basis, it also forces the issues of further education for children coming out of school. If people are barely getting by on a day-to-day level in their daily lives, trying to send their children to college is an additional burden many can not handle.
For those not working in gov't jobs, many of the private sector jobs do not have the benefits the gov't does. Things like health insurance, retirement plans, etc are either limited or non-existent. These also become unaffordable also for many.
To compound the issues even further, many of us are single parents trying to deal with the burdens of all combined.
All of these factors in trying to define anything on census reports or statistical reports make it difficult to be defining clearly.
When it comes to filling out forms that define whether white, black, Hispanic, other, etc. I always fill out "other". The reason I do that is so that I am not confused with "stateside" whites that are living here and mistakenly lumped into their financial category when my own financial status as a local "white" has far different that those who have moved here as a vacation home, retirement area, or that came here with financial resources to afford living here.
For any local trying to survive on these islands without becoming dependant on gov't assistance is becoming a harder and harder task to accomplish. Although much of the Northside community has managed to do that so far because of the help from inside of the community itself, at the rate the economy is going, the generations coming up now and in the future will not all be able to maintain that.
The few in the population that are financially better off do not seem to understand how deeply suppressed the majority of locals are financially.
The rise in crime is a clear indication to that in situations of what one can not get they steal, when monies are difficult to come by through hard honest work and easier to come via drug trade or other illegal resources, etc. We have all read in the past Daily News the reports of some young girls giving themselves up in order to get "things" they can not get on their own or via their families. Murders have occurred in our community over issues of "monies and things". Gangs have reared its head in the more recent decade. Financial suppression is the road that leads to crime and hatred.
Even though my grandmother lived in a time with no roads, in a two-room house with an outhouse, on an island with no major development, it was a time that was far "richer" than what exists today. She didn't consider herself poor or rich. She considered herself blessed because she had a roof over her head that was her own, and she had bread to break and tea to drink, daily. She lived in a time when it was truly "a village raising all its children together."
I am living in a time when "the village is splitting apart and the children are running rampant". I am living in a time in which too many of us have to work too hard to make ends meet, don't have insurance to for health, don't have savings for the future, don't own homes, can't afford to send our children to college, don't have a plan of any kind to even be able to deal with emergencies and getting old, can't afford any of life's "luxuries". I living in a time in which "working hard" does not always constitute "moving forward" in life.
The uproar on racist issues of black and white is only a mask to the reality of the problems. The problems stem from the struggle to survive in an economy that is costly to the point it continues to suppress too many people from moving forward or improving their lives to a point of any consistent financial comfort levels. Too many of us live at a level at surviving on a day-to-day basis.
Growing up here, I never felt a division between colors, I was not harassed or treated as different. I was always treated the same and treated others the same. It is only in these more recent years that "racism" issues have really risen.
What I loved as a native of the Virgin Islands was that we had a diverse population that got along together as a group better than most places I have traveled to. What it most sad is to see a few attempting to cause a shift taking place and not addressing all the real problems or realizing that the same problems they face also is faced by all colors.
Carol Berry
St. Thomas

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