Author’s Note: St. Croix, once more, stands at a crossroads. The present situation appears unworkable, the path forward uncertain. It is not, however, the first time St. Croix has stood at such a precipice. This historical six-part series explores three moments in the past century – VI Corp, Harvey Aluminum, and Hess Oil – where frustration with the given situation boiled over into radical change. Breaking with the past, a better future for St. Croix was declared, a new foundation laid. These decreed Crucian futures sometimes aligned with the people and sometimes overrode the people. Today, Limetree comes into view at just such a crossroads, and once more the future of St. Croix is up for grabs.
“St. Croix is primarily an agricultural island,” wrote the head of the Virgin Islands Legislature in 1958, and “its wealth lies in agriculture.” During the 1950s, most people on St. Croix worked in agriculture and homestead farms profitably grew sugar cane for export and an array of vegetables, fruits, and meat for local markets. Twenty years later Crucian farming was nearly extinct. The Governor of the Virgin Islands mourned the rapidly “diminishing agricultural industry” on St. Croix in 1967 as nearly all prime farmland fell out of cultivation.
What happened between 1950 and 1970? The Virgin Islands decided to get “the industrial revolution going right here in our own backyard of St. Croix,” as VI Senator Walter Hodge put it. Inspired by Operation Bootstrap in Puerto Rico, the Government House in Charlotte Amalie set its sights upon a single path of development for St. Croix: heavy industry. With generous tax breaks and sizable subsidies, Harvey Aluminum (1962) and Hess Oil (1965) were enticed to set up shop on the south shore of St. Croix.
The state-sponsored industrialization of the Crucian economy wrote one labor union in St. Thomas, promised to be “the greatest thing that ever happened in the history of the Virgin Islands.” This view of progress presumed agriculture would recede quietly into history as the wages of industry drove St. Croix into modern affluence. When Crucian farming refused to become a relic, proponents of industry took a more repressive turn: the infrastructure of agriculture had to be systematically dismantled so that industrial enterprise could take the helm. Realizing their lives were being placed in the firing line, thousands of farmers took to the streets of Frederiksted and Christiansted in furious protest.
For a few years in the 1960s, the future of the Virgin Islands swung uneasily between the advocates of industry and the defenders of agriculture. It was a debate that quickly came to inhabit and amplify other fault-lines in the territory – local farms versus union wages, St. Croix versus St. Thomas, freedom versus slavery, Black versus white – as each side worked to bend the Virgin Islands towards the future they believed in.
Although rooted in the Virgin Islands, this struggle echoed fights underway across the colonial world in the 1960s. From Cuba to Vietnam, the question of whether peasants or industrialists offered the surest path of development out of colonialism was fiercely debated. Was newfound autonomy best capitalized by distributing land to the people or by building export-oriented manufacturing? Was a good economy found in production sufficient to nearby need or in the steady increase of GDP? And while the Virgin Islands never gained full independence from the United States, it is striking how the debates in the territory paralleled contemporaneous movements to decolonize parts of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.
While the winners and losers of this historical struggle may seem obvious in hindsight, the outcome was far from guaranteed on St. Croix. “We are in a Revolution,” declared the St. Croix Avis in 1963 as the future of agriculture suddenly grew dim. At the time, roughly one in four Crucians found gainful employment in agriculture, many of them working on their own modest 5-10 acre homestead farms. The island’s rich farms delivered a bounty of food, dignity, and self-sufficiency to the Virgin Islands. And when agriculture was threatened, thousands of Crucians from all walks of life poured into the streets to insist that farmers retain a place of privilege in the Virgin Islands.
A few years later and barely a hundred people identified as farmers in the entirety of the Virgin Islands, or less than one-half of 1 percent of all residents. “Agriculture has nearly vanished as an occupation in recent years,” one federal report on the Virgin Islands in the 1970s noted. In his later years, Governor Paiewonsky solemnly reflected on “the death of agriculture” on St. Croix. The more apt verdict might be that agriculture was murdered.
The Glint of Aluminum
This reckoning over the future of St. Croix first leaped onto the headlines in early 1962 when Paiewonsky announced a deal to bring Harvey Aluminum to the Virgin Islands. The legacy of colonialism weighed heavy over St. Croix, even after emancipation and territorial enfranchisement. Paiewonsky argued that only the wages of the industry could break with the gravity of the past and launch St. Croix into a more prosperous future. Voicing his enthusiastic support for Harvey, Senator Alexander explained, “We, the natives, want to see the Islands modern and up to date.”
Wary of disrupting the flourishing tourist trade on St. Thomas and St. John, the Government House searched for a site that could become a world-class industrial port and remain out-of-view for visitors. Krause Lagoon fit the bill. This mangrove estuary on the south shore of St. Croix was “worthless,” explained Governor Paiewonsky, and the introduction of the industry could only improve its value.
The legislative transcript records Krause Lagoon as “swamp land, useless and marshy.” The estuary’s only real use at the time, one Senator noted, was as an informal trash dump. Harvey could only improve it. The Home Journal explained the merits of bringing aluminum plants and oil refineries to Krause Lagoon: “The release of idle land, much of it swampy, and granting of tax exemptions are a small price to pay for an industry which would bring so many benefits to the people of the Virgin Islands.”
Skepticism initially came from environmental quarters. Describing Krause Lagoon as the Everglades of the Virgin Islands, George Seaman drew attention to the native flamingos, bustling mangroves, and prolific fisheries of the estuary to insist on its spectacular “ecological value.” Resident Alfred Hayes wrote a letter to the Daily News explaining that Krause Lagoon was a prime resting place for migratory birds and home to the best fishing in the Virgin Islands. Reflecting on the immensity of what might be lost, Hayes wrote, “We get no second chance if we bring large industry here.”
Such voices were met with derision. After listening to environmental concerns at a hearing in February 1962, Judge Herman Moore took the floor. “Most all of the witnesses who are opposed to Harvey Aluminum are the white people of St. Croix [APPLAUSE]. And if you notice, most all of the people who favor it are among the native and colored people of St. Croix [SUSTAINED APPLAUSE].” It was a charged accusation and one that drew attention to the fact that white Senators from St. Croix who were skeptical of Harvey frequented segregated country clubs and beaches. The critique silenced critics.
Opposition to Harvey, editorialized the Home Journal, was evidence of “the determination of some people to keep the colored population in economic slavery.” Aluminum plants and oil refineries promised to “remove the social, economic shackles which have prevented progress on St Croix,” another St. Thomas newspaper opined. The only motor with the horsepower to pull St. Croix out of the racist muck of its plantation past, argued the Governor and his supporters, was heavy industry.
But as the Harvey deal was rushed forward, other concerns surfaced. Alexander Moorhead, the President of the Chamber of Commerce on St. Croix, objected to the secrecy of the Harvey deal. “An intelligent opinion could not be given without knowing the full details of the contract,” Moorhead explained in the Daily News.
Refusing the accusation of racism by listing opposition from native Crucian families and reminding folks how race was wielded to sabotage VI Corp a generation earlier, another letter to the Daily News asked how it came to pass that “sensible colored people applauded the fact that they were deprived of seeing the contract.”
Senator Fritz Laewtz described the most “unusual procedure” surrounding the Harvey deal. While Paiewonsky negotiated with Harvey for months, legislators from St. Croix were refused any chance to review the contract until the day it was voted on.
Lawaewtz protested that the Legislature was being forced to assent to a contract they had been denied any meaningful role in shaping. And real concerns about preventing “pollution of air and water,” Lawaetz complained, remained unaddressed. In rebuttal, Senator Gomez reminded the Legislature that Lawaetz was a member of a segregated country club that refused entry to Blacks to its beach. “I suppose that is the only kind of water pollution that these people are afraid of,” Gomez said.
Overlooking concerns over process and pollution, the Legislature rushed the Harvey deal through and released the details afterward. Most Senators from St. Croix voted for it, including Lawaetz. The Virgin Islands would give Harvey 700 acres in Krause Lagoon, exempt Harvey from all taxes for 16 years, and pay Harvey half a million dollars annually to dredge the industrial port. In return, Harvey would build a world-class bauxite processing plant and promised to employ Crucians if it could find “residents with the ability to perform the services required.”
“No wonder it has been kept from public gaze,” fumed a letter to the St. Croix Avis soon after. Neglecting the acute need for educational investments and year-round employment on St. Croix while saying “nothing about anti-pollution measures,” the contract bankrolled Harvey while expecting painfully little in return. Showing a “manifest disregard” for Crucians, another letter objected, “the Harvey Company is being virtually subsidized by the US and Virgin Islands governments.”
While met with “mild indifference” on St. Thomas, the details of the Harvey deal sparked “indignant protest” across St. Croix, especially among farmers. Paiewonsky, who had initially championed the balancing of industry and agriculture on St. Croix, quickly moved to crush the opposition. If Crucian farmers refused to consent to the ascendancy of industry then they would be conscripted by force.
Rufus Martin, a columnist of the Home Journal on St. Thomas, wondered if it was the prominence of agriculture on St. Croix that actually led Crucians to “fail to see the true value” of industry. As Harvey Aluminum backfilled Krause Lagoon, Paiewonsky launched plans to uproot what he saw as the last anchor holding St. Croix to its agricultural past: public investments in farming. The way to ensure the industrial revolution on St. Croix was to bulldoze Crucians off farms and into factories.
This “March to Progress,” as one newspaper described it, came to form a unified project of subsidizing heavy industry and shuttering VI Corp on St. Croix. A publicly owned and operated company, VI Corp managed thousands of acres of prime agricultural land on St. Croix, ran the last remaining sugar factory in the Virgin Islands, and supported a robust community of homestead farming on St. Croix. It also channeled all revenue back into social programs across the Virgin Islands.
When rumors of Paiewonsky’s plan to sell VI Corp land to a mainland corporation leaked, St. Croix erupted in outrage. Some 2,000 Crucians marched to Christiansted in September 1963 to beg the Governor to reconsider auctioning off the agricultural soul of St. Croix. Refusing to acknowledge the protest, Paiewonsky directed his deputies to lock the doors of the Government House on King Street and ignore the rally. Flipping the Governors refusal of talk into its own form of protest, marchers nailed their demands to the door in silence. “There was no noise on the streets of Christiansted” during this solemn event, wrote the St. Croix Avis.
Part four of this six-part series will further discuss the impact of Harvey Aluminum on the island of St. Croix.
The First Green New Deal (Part 1)
The First Green New Deal (Part 2)
Manufactured Progress: Harvey Aluminum on St. Croix (Part 3)
Manufactured Progress: Harvey Aluminum on St. Croix (Part 4)
David Bond teaches anthropology at Bennington College. He researched the Hovensa refinery in 2010 and 2011 and has written on how the history of the refinery informs the present struggle for justice on St. Croix.