President Truman’s 1948 Visit set the Virgin Islands on the Road to Becoming “America’s Paradise”
When President Harry S. Truman’s yacht, the U.S.S. Williamsburg — named for Virginia’s colonial capital — docked at the West India Company pier on St. Thomas at 10:32 A.M., February 22, 1948, few islanders knew what to expect. Only 100 years earlier, slavery had been abolished in the then Danish West Indies.
Despite a century of freedom, however, most Virgin islanders remained impoverished — even 31 years after their islands were purchased by the United States in 1917. Herbert Hoover, the first president to visit the Virgin Islands in 1931, called the islands the “effective poor-house” of the United States.
Few in 1948 knew that Harry Truman aimed to change that.
Later that February 22nd morning in Charlotte Amalie’s Emancipation Garden, President Truman told a crowd in the thousands that the “continuing effort to expand freedom” including “freedom from want” in the Virgin Islands would proceed along two roads. First, the Federal Government would help “stabilize and develop the economy and improve living conditions.” At the same time, Washington aimed to grant the Territory of the Virgin Islands self-government.
Encouraging tourism was key to Truman’s plan.
“I hope that more and more continental Americans will discover and come to enjoy the beauty of the Virgin Islands,” President Truman said. “I know they will enjoy themselves and bring you prosperity and continued happiness.”
Achieving racial equality was also on Truman’s agenda. Eight months before stepping ashore on St. Thomas, President Truman on June 29, 1947 stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and told the 10,000 delegates of the annual NAAC P conference the following:
“As Americans, we believe that every man should be free to live his life as he wishes. He should be limited only by his responsibility to his fellow countrymen. If this freedom is to be more than a dream, each man must be guaranteed equality of opportunity. The only limit to an American’s achievement should be his ability, his industry, and his character . . . There is no justifiable reason for discrimination because of ancestry, or religion, or race, or color.”
In his Truman biography, historian David McCullough called this the “strongest statement on civil rights heard in Washington since the time of Lincoln.”
Later that summer of 1947, President Truman also called for “the maximum degree of local self-government for the Virgin Islands.” To help achieve racial equality and self-rule in the islands, President Truman had appointed William Hastie governor of the US Virgin Islands. A distinguished Harvard-educated jurist and author of the first “Organic Act” granting the islands the first elements of self-rule, Hastie was also the first African-American to serve as governor of any U.S. Territory or State.
Well aware of racial sensitivities within the federal bureaucracy, Truman told Governor Hastie he should come “directly to me” whenever he felt it necessary. In retirement, Hastie explained in a Truman Presidential library interview that one of the few times he went directly to the President was to get help improving St. Thomas harbor. Although, “the best, relatively small, landlocked harbor in the West Indies,” Hastie said nothing had been done to it since Danish days. And, Congress wouldn’t approve funding for Army Corps of Engineers dredging work needed to prepare St. Thomas for bigger modern cruise ships.
“True to his word,” Hastie recalled, Truman “directed the Bureau of the Budget to include St. Thomas dredging in the next Appropriations bill.” And, during Truman’s visit a year later, he referred to Governor Hastie as his “friend” and applauded the many economic projects underway in the Territory.
“It was pretty obvious to me that during his visit he relaxed and felt he could be Harry Truman the human being,” Hastie remembered. The President also asked Hastie a lot of questions about Virgin Island history and culture.
President Truman’s 1948 visit also focused the world’s attention to the majestic beauty of the Virgin Islands and the politeness and civility of the Afro-Euro American islanders. To make sure the exquisite islands were photographed, filmed and written about, Truman brought along 28 journalists from the New York Times, Washington Post, Time Magazine, ABC, CBS, NBC, Associated Press and other leading media as well as representatives from Pan American Airways. The Secretary of the Interior, who had responsibility for U.S. Territories, also came, bringing along two Department public relations men to publicize the islands.
After his Charlotte Amalie speech, President Truman and his entourage drove up to the now famous mountain promontory of Drake’s Seat. They remained there long enough to take in and record the dazzling sight hundreds of feet below of the unspoiled sand and palm fringed Magens Bay.
From the mountain top, the President and his group also viewed historic Leeward passage between St. Thomas and Hans Lollik Island through which Sir Francis Drake and his British fleet sailed to attack Spanish Puerto Rico in 1595. To this day, the relatively narrow body of Caribbean water separating the British Virgin Islands from the U.S. island of St. John and nearby St. Thomas is called Sir Francis Drake channel in honor of that same “sneak” attack on Puerto Rico. Drake used the then mostly empty Virgin Islands to hide the approach of his fleet from the Spanish in San Juan.
After showing off the views from Drake’s Seat, Truman and his company descended to Charlotte Amalie for a reception at Bluebeard’s Castle Resort, the hotel built around a Danish military observation tower built in the late 1600’s.
The next day, the President and his group sailed for Fredriksted, the charming Danish city and deep water roadstead on St. Croix. Today, cruise ships routinely stop there.
President Truman toured St. Croix and was entertained at the estate of Ward Canady, chairman of the board of Willys-Overland Company, then a major automobile manufacturer best known today for its design and manufacture of the Jeep. And, that very year, the first Jeep was brought to St. John on the deck of an inter-island schooner, according to author Gerald Singer. By 1953, St. John boasted three jeeps and a newly cut road from Cruz Bay to Coral Bay. Gasoline was delivered by steel drums via schooners.
In his St. Croix speech, Truman referred to Mr. Canady as one of the island’s “newest citizens” and said he hoped to convince him and “more of his ilk” to come down here to help develop the Virgin Islands.
“The new era of air travel should mean much to the Islands, particularly to St. Croix with its splendid airport possibilities,” Truman said. “Vacationers and tourists will travel more and more to the Caribbean and to our own American soil in the Virgin Islands. We must all be ready with enterprise and courage to make the most of these new developments, and through them to reach the higher standard of living we all strive for.”
And, tourists from the continental U.S. did come in increasing numbers. By 1950, 7,000 visitors from 15 cruise ships disembarked in St. Thomas. Bluebeard’s Castle and Hotel 1829 were among the most popular hotels in Charlotte Amalie, the V.I.’s capital city. On St. Croix, The Buccaneer resort was entertaining the rich and famous of Truman’s era including Hollywood’s Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall.
Since the entire population of the Virgins Islands totaled only 27,000 in 1948 — including about 750 living on St. John — thousands of tourists had a big impact on the islands. Next to rum exported from St. Croix, tourism quickly became the major business. Panama hats, bay rum and perfumes were big hits with visitors, in addition to rum.
And, as foreseen and fostered by President Truman, by 1954 Pan American Airways and a Caribbean airline based in Puerto Rico were bringing 30,000 passengers a year to the U.S. Virgin Islands. By the late 1950s, 70,000 tourists visited the islands annually, spending an estimated $4 million.
And, many of America’s famous and wealthy did follow Willy’s chairman Canady’s lead by building winter estates on St. Croix and St. Thomas. Actress Maureen O’Hara had a home on St. Thomas and in 1950 the nationally prominent magazine writer and editor Nancy Flagg Gibney and her artist husband Robert Gibney bought land on part of St. John’s Hawksnest Beach. Now known as Gibney Beach, they built a home and raised their family there.
Since then, more than 400 vacation villas have been built among St. John’s virtually unspoiled mountains overlooking miles of bays, beaches and other islands.
Today, more than 2.5 million visitors contribute in excess of $500 million annually to the USVI economy and account for thousands of jobs. And, the resident population has grown from 27,000 in 1948 to 106,000 in 2014.
With establishment of an effective tourism infrastructure, the Virgin Islands National Park — largely on St. John — and on-going restoration of its historic Danish cities of Charlotte Amalie, Christiansted and Fredriksted, the USVI has become “America’s Paradise.”
President Truman deserves much of the credit for propelling tourism growth and self-rule. In January 2015, Kenneth Mapp was sworn-in as the U.S. Virgin Islands’ eighth elected governor. By all accounts, 2015 will be a banner year for visitors and on St. John, Governor Mapp promised “to help businesses adjust to an expanding economy, rather than help the economy expand.” That is a welcome message to St. Johnians who value both prosperity and environmental protection as keys to maintaining “paradise.”
Written by: Jeffrey R. McCord
Jeffrey R. McCord is a free-lance journalist and media relations consultant who has called northern Virginia his home for more than 20 years. The author of “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea”
http://www.amazon.com/Undocumented-Visitors-Pirate-Sea-Investigation/dp/0989950816, a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest, Mr. McCord’s articles on international economics and consumer protection have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Gannett newspapers and Truthout.org, among other publications. He now divides his time between Virginia and St, John, USVI.