Virgin Islands Transfer Day – To Celebrate or Not to Celebrate

Virgin Islands Transfer Day

By Dr. Eugene A. Petersen

Many times we jump on a band wagon because people that we like or trust are on the band wagon. I would like to suggest that we begin to think for ourselves and in order to process reasonable thoughts we must educate ourselves and be aware of the facts. Our leaders have not initiated or lead sufficient discussions on our status and self-determination over the last twenty years. How do they know what we desire, independence, statehood, some other form of association, or just simply to remain
the same?

How can we make decisions as a people if we are not educated and have an understanding of all the possibilities? Do we know what must be sacrificed in return for the vote, full citizenship, and all the amenities of full inclusion as citizens of the United States? What do we know about independence? What are the parameters that we must consider, and the possibility of assistance from the United States to facilitate the move to independence? Can it be amicable or must it be contentious? If we as a people are expected to make wise choices these decision must be preceded with education and extensive analysis of the facts.

The Virgin Islands are approaching the centennial years since the transfer from Denmark to the United States. There are those that are deliberating the sanity of celebrating or commemorating this important bench mark in our history.

I am also a bit ambivalent on this issue since I know the history surrounding the transfer and the travails of our ancestors prior to, during and after the milestone. I am only too aware of the pain and suffering endured by all especially the African population. However, I am concerned that we are not taking this opportunity to take advantage of the immense attention that will focus on us during this period of time.

There are several issues that we should focus on. One is the opportunity to market our main product which is tourism. We should use this opportunity to improve our infrastructure and prepare ourselves for the curious, the historical, and cultural tourist that would be interested in visiting our shores. It will be an item on the bucket list of many who are seeking sites to visit annually, and are planning their next tourist vacation.

Another opportunity is that it gives us the impetus to discuss and determine for ourselves what is the preferred Status or relationship that we as a people will seek with the United States. As we know inhabitants of all U.S. Territories do not enjoy all the benefits and provisions provided for in the U.S. Constitution. This in fact makes us a second class citizen. Since the early 1960s the United Nations passed a resolution, of which the United States is a signatory, that all territories and colonies of all nations must be given the opportunity for self-determination.

The U.S. Congress has given us the mandate to discuss and propose a V.I. Constitution and to engage in a deliberation on status. There is nothing preventing us, as a people, from determining by poll, referendum or survey what the people of the Virgin Islands want for itself. We can structure the survey or referendum to determine, nativity (born and live in the V.I.), residency (born elsewhere but reside in the V.I.) or ex-patriot (born in the V.I. or offspring or a V.I. born person, but
lives elsewhere). This information will be useful in petitioning the U.S. for changes in our status based on the results of these surveys, polls or referendum.

Do you know that before the transfer the death rate in the Danish West Indies was higher than the birth rate and do you know that one out of every five babies did not make it to the age or 3? Do you know that public health and education was almost none existence. The population of the Danish West Indies was constantly declining for over 30 years prior to and for some time after transfer? Yes the Navy rule was no picnic and had troubles of its own, but there is ample reason for us as Virgin Islanders to commemorate and even celebrate this epoch in our history.

I want you to consider this thought: Should a family not celebrate the birth of a child because the birth was problematic and painful or even unwanted? Of course, we all celebrate our birthdate regardless of the circumstances surrounding that birth because it is an important beginning of our existence. Therefore, the Virgin Islands of the United State was born on March 31, 1917 which is an “epoch in our history and is deserving of a grand celebration”. (D. Hamilton Jackson)

We know that the previous 50 years or so leading up to the transfer were not a happy time in the Danish West Indies. The initial attempts to sell met with mixed emotion. At first many were against the sale and when initial attempts failed it was a relief to many. In the years following the initial attempt, which included the “Fire Burn” year of 1878, the situation changed drastically. Denmark was having trouble in Europe and hardly any financial assistance was given to the colony.

Health care, sanitation, public works and other government interest were minimal or in many cases non-existent. Food was difficult to come by other than what were grown for exchange of sale in the local markets. The population began to decrease that by the time of transfer it went from 48,000 to about 23,000 due the low birth and survival rate mentioned above and emigration to other parts of the world.

The United States had started to become a regional power and had acquired Puerto Rico as a result of war and was occupying both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. World War I was in progress and with the Harbor in St. Thomas being of strategic value, and Germany a concern the United States applied political pressure to insure the transfer.

Upon the transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States improvement in infrastructure began to take place. Navy doctors were assigned to civilian care, sanitation was improved and water catchments were built (including Creque Dam, and the reservoir in Estate Contentment on St. Croix and Contant on St. Thomas). Local nurses were trained and some government jobs became available for locals. Luminaries began to agitate for changes and U.S. citizenship, which was granted in 1927.

The Organic Act in 1936 granted some home rule after the Navy left and established elected municipal councils and appointed civilian Governors and the Organic Act of 1954 established our current legislature and paved the way for our elected governor, representation in the U.S. Congress, and the establishment of our Supreme Court.

As a step toward more self-determination, or home rule, Congress has also allowed the territories to write our constitution. The Virgin Islands have made five attempts to do so and each time for varying reasons have failed to have it ratified.

Virgin Islanders are very vocal about the fact that we are not fully incorporated as citizens in the United States while residing in the territory (even mainland citizens lose some rights and benefits while residing out of the mainland) and cannot vote for the President, and our Delegate to Congress does not have a vote on the floor.

The Centennial has brought the issue of status to the forefront and both the University of the Virgin Islands and the Virgin Islands Centennial Commission are actively engaged in education and capacity building on self-determination. Hopefully, based on these discussions, studies and possible referendum we will be able to determine the desires of Virgin Islanders, and what course to pursue in attaining a final status.


Eugene A. Petersen was born on February 3, 1949 to James and Evadney Petersen in Frederiksted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands. He entered St. Patrick kindergarten and elementary school, attended Claude O. Markoe Junior High School, and Graduated from St. Croix Central High School in 1968.

Because of his affection for horses and other animals he matriculated at Tuskegee Institute (University) where he studied veterinary medicine and was the first Virgin Islander to earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Degree in 1975. Dr. Petersen returned home to practice his profession, and owned the Princesse Veterinary Hospital in La Grande Princesse, St. Croix where he practiced for 25 years.

Dr. Petersen is an avid horse racing fan and raced horses for many years on St. Croix. He also managed the Randall “Doc” James Race Track as the President and CEO of the Virgin Islands Racing Corp. where he was instrumental in introducing simulcasting and account wagering to the Virgin Islands.

One of his major interests is music and entertainment. He began singing as a teenager and learned to play the guitar to accompany his singing. He excelled in the cultural music of the Caribbean, calypso, but is also a balladeer and sings various genre` of songs.

Doc Petersen, as he is known, have travelled worldwide as a solo artist or with small groups. His travels have taken him to places such as India, Denmark, most of Western Europe and many places in the United States. He can still be heard as a solo artist in several clubs and restaurants on St. Croix or at major events such as carnivals and festivals. He is a recording artist and has written and produced four music albums and several musical plays for the theater.

Besides begin a popular radio talk show/music show host for many years, an author of his book “Tan Tan Tales and Tan Tan Tails”, Doc Petersen has served on many boards of directors, such as, the Virgin Island Veterinary Board, The Frederiksted Economic Development Board, WTJX public television, and Island Center for the Performing Arts, where he also served as Executive Director for 8 years. He was an integral part in the production of Sunset Jazz, Wednesday evening in the Park, Blue Bay Jazz Festival, and The Virgin Islands Cultural Expose` and Extravaganza.

Eugene A Petersen, DVM
Cultural Consultant
PO Box 801 Frederikted
St. Croix, US Virgin Islands

Eugene Petersen photo courtesy of Diego Conde.

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