The late Leon A. Mawson, a former journalist who served the territory as public safety commissioner, director of civil defense and emergency planning, Board of Education chairman, and acting postmaster, had an interest in Virgin Islands history.
In particular, the life and times of Rothschild “Polly” Francis fascinated him, so he wrote a scholarly book about Francis called “Persecuted and Prosecuted.”
“Dad admired him, and he never liked to see an injustice done,” Mawson’s daughter, Diane Walker, said of feelings shared by both Mawson and Francis.
“Persecuted and Prosecuted” was first published in 1987, but a second edition recently came out.
“Poems from a Small Island” by her mother, Valerie Creque Mawson, was first published in 2009, but is available again.
Leon A. Mawson was born in 1906 on St. Thomas and died in 1999. Valerie Creque Mawson was born on St. Thomas in 1911. She died on St. John in 2002.
Born in 1891, Francis died in 1963. He is hailed as a man who fought injustices and racial predjudice inflicted on native residents by the U.S. Navy. Those running things on the island were mainly white, and those they governed were mainly black. The Navy ran the territory from the time the United States bought it in 1917 until 1931, with Mawson’s book covering the years through 1924.
Market Square on St. Thomas, a place where he frequently made speeches, is named in his honor.
Mawson sets the stage for his book on Francis and Navy rule by outlining the harsh conditions faced in the post-slavery era in which Francis was born. He segues into the Colonial Councils under Danish Rule, and then to the March 1917 transfer of what was then called the Danish West Indies to the United States.
“Yet the advent of the United States rule, although hailed by the natives as assuring a new and greater development, has nearly wrecked the whole system painstakingly built up,” Mawson wrote.
The treatment by the Navy was so dire that even mainland newspapers took note. There were social and legal injustices that harmed the economy.
As a member of the Colonial Council and the V.I. Committee formed to right the wrongs, Francis pointed out at a March 1924 U.S. Senate hearing that those living in the Virgin Islands were not citizens of any nation and had to have an income of $300 a year or property yielding $60 a year in order to vote in local elections. This meant that only 2 percent of the population could cast ballots.
Residents of the Virgin Islands didn’t gain U.S. citizenship until 1927.
To further point out injustices suffered by those in the Virgin Islands, Francis printed the first copy of his newspaper, “The Emancipator,” on May 21, 1921.
When a police officer killed a woman in the Market, Francis rushed to write about it in his newspaper, claiming the government supported the killer. Francis was arrested and found guilty on libel charges for printing the story.
Valerie Creque Mawson’s “Poems from a Small Island” reflect in many ways on island life.
“I wrote my name upon the sand one evening by the shore; The sea came up upon the land and Lo! It was no more,” she wrote in Impressions.
In addition to Walker, their children are Marlene Carney Malacarne of St. John and Alana Mawson of St. Thomas.
The books can be purchased by calling Malacarne at 1-340-776-6704 or sending email to [email protected]