The Americanization of the Virgin Islands, 1917-1946: Politics and Class Struggle During the First Thirty Years of American Rule

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1992

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Abstract

This study describes how the interaction between Virgin Islanders and their new American rulers shaped the political relationship between the Virgin Islands and the United States. Once control of the islands had passed from Denmark to the United states, Virgin Islanders forced American Officials to take sides in local political struggles. These struggles pitted a mostly white upper class of merchants and planters against a black middle and working class alliance that had just recently won some important victories. After 1917, both sides appealed to the American administrators for assistance. over the course of the next thirty years, the middle and working classes achieved greater success than the planter and merchant elite in obtaining American support. The middle and working classes gained this support by emphasizing their loyalty to the United States, and imploring the Americans to extend to Virgin Islanders the same rights enjoyed by U.S. citizens on the mainland. By same rights enjoyed by U.S. citizens on the mainland. By the end of the Second World War, black Virgin Islanders had not only gained control of the insular political system but also had convinced federal officials to extend substantial economic aid programs to the colony. Whatever success the elite enjoyed resulted largely from appealing to the Americans from the common ground of race. These appeals worked fairly well for the first fourteen years of American rule, when the Department of the Navy administered the islands. Cooperation between Navy officials and the local elite prevented political reforms that would have granted greater political power to middle and lower class islanders. However, numerous protests by black islanders, along with the Navy's inability to fashion an economic recovery, forced the federal government to transfer responsibility for the islands to the Department of the Interior. Less racially prejudiced than their Navy predecessors, the new civilian administrators realized that cooperation with black islanders was necessary to implement an economic recovery program. This cooperation formed the basis for the a lasting political relationship between the United States and the Virgin Islands.

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