Virgin Islanders in the Harlem Renaissance
Despite taking African-American and Caribbean history and literature courses in high school, I never learned much about the Harlem Renaissance. Specifically, even though I knew of Virgin Islanders who had been in New York at the time, I never learned about any Virgin Islanders in the Harlem Renaissance. When I read the piece by W. A. Domingo at the beginning of the semester, I realized how little I actually knew about the Virgin Islands. I decided to research the effects of West Indians on the Harlem Renaissance, the differences between native blacks and immigrant blacks, and the contributions of Virgin Islanders to the Harlem Renaissance.
Today there are more than half a million Afro-Caribbeans in New York. The transient nature of the West Indies, a series of islands dependent first on commerce and trade and then on tourism, made migration almost a rite of passage. High unemployment, limited opportunities, and political unrest contributed to the West Indians' desire to leave. They immigrated to the United States, mainly to New York, Massachusetts, and Florida.
The first of three waves of West Indian immigration this century began in 1900 and peaked in 1920. During this time period, the foreign Negro population increased at a more rapid rate than either the native black or the foreign white population. The table shows the number of foreign-born blacks in the U.S. and the percentage of foreign-blacks in the total black population of the U.S. (Kasinitz, Caribbean NY).
Year Foreign-born black pop % of total black pop
1890 19979 0.3
1900 20336 0.2
1910 40339 0.4
1920 73803 0.7
1930 98620 0.8
1980 815720 3.1
The figures for the foreign-born black population do not take into account Virgin Islanders who moved to the continental U.S. after 1917, the year the U.S. purchased the islands from the Danish. It appears that there are some 17,625 Negroes from outlying areas of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands that are not reflected in the 1930 figures (Reid, The Negro Immigrant His Background, 42).
Virgin Island immigrants are different from other Caribbean immigrants. Even before the U.S. owned the Virgin Islands, there were strong commercial ties between the U.S. and the islands, due to the slave trade and the rum industry. The U.S. had exported goods, imported rum, and maintained a consulate since before the American Revolution. Virgin Islanders knew more about the United States than other West Indians. Though the islands were Danish, the customs of the V.I. reflected a mix of the U.S. and the Danish ways (Walters, A Political History of the U.S.V.I.).
Virgin Islanders left their home for a number of reasons. A decline in the economy caused many workers to move to Panama, Puerto Rico, or the United States. The Virgin Islands suffered from a serious drought and major hurricanes in 1924 and1928. These hurricanes caused damage to the Charlotte Amalie harbor, a necessary port for commercial trade and the islands' economy.
W. A. Domingo refers to some 8,000 natives of the American Virgin Islands in New York (Lewis, PHRR, 11). In 1911 the Virgin Islands had a population of 27,086, in 1917 of 26, 051, and the population was down to 22,012 in 1930 (Willocks, The Umbilical Cord, 269). Actual emigration from the Virgin Islands is greater than it appears from these figures since a considerable number of Puerto Ricans and Americans moved to the Virgin Islands between 1917 and 1930. The mass emigration from the V.I. can be largely attributed to the passage of the Volstead Act. The Eighteenth Amendment (ratified in January 1919, scheduled to take effect in 1920), prohibiting alcohol, did not immediately apply to the Virgin Islands. The Volstead Act of October 1919 clarified some matters of prohibition and enforced the Eighteenth Amendment. In 1921 the Volstead Act was extended to the Virgin Islands, ending the legal manufacture and distribution of rum in a territory (predominantly the island of St. Croix) which had depended on the manufacture and sale of alcohol for its profit. While bootleggers made profits during Prohibition, the blacks who had been employed by rum manufacturers found themselves without jobs (Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 70).
The Virgin Islands was under a "temporary naval administration" from 1917 until 1931. The V.I. had seven governors during this time, many of whom were Southern whites and segregationists, and none of whom had any previous knowledge of the Caribbean. These governors were all naval officers. There was no civilian rule in the Virgin Islands until 1931. The military presence and the ineffectual rule by outsiders caused much discontent.
The acquisition of the Virgin Islands by the U.S. also complicated the issue of citizenship. According to the Treaty of Acquisition in 1917, Danish citizens in the Virgin Islands were given the option of remaining or moving. Those who stayed had the choice of maintaining Danish citizenship or becoming U.S. citizens. Citizenship was not extended to Virgin Islanders residing in the continental U.S. at the time of the transfer. In June of 1922 Virgin Islands immigrants held a mass meeting to discuss the naval administration and to protest their political status (or lack thereof). Citizenship would allow them more participation in politics (Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 84). In 1927 the Act Conferring U.S. Citizenship extended citizenship to V.I. natives residing in the U.S. at the time of transfer. In 1932 another act was passed granting citizenship to all natives of the Virgin Islands who in 1932 were residing in the Virgin Islands, the continental United States, or any other U.S. possession. The act also lifted the quota on immigration for two years (Leary, U.S.V.I. Major Political Documents, 105-123).
A number of the prominent figures in the Harlem Renaissance were from the Caribbean. In general, West Indians had had more of an opportunity to receive an education. After being involved in politics in their home countries, they were both more active and more radical. People of Caribbean origin in New York included Claude McKay, Eric Walrond, W.A. Domingo, Cyril Briggs (journalist), Richard Moore (radical), Ethelred Brown (national leader), Arthur Schomburg (bibliophile), Marcus Garvey, and Virgin Islanders Frank Crosswaith (organizer), Austin Hansen (photographer), Hubert Harrison (orator), Elizabeth Hendrickson (civil rights leader), Casper Holstein (humanitarian), J. Raymond Jones (politician), and Ashley Totten (organizer).
"Benevolent organizations helped institutionalize ethnic presence in Harlem" (Klevan, The West Indian Americans, 71). To this end, several groups were established in New York including the American West Indians Ladies Aid Society and the Virgin Islands Congressional Council. In addition to political involvement, Virgin Islanders also started a number of religious organizations. Hubert Harrison tried but failed to start the Liberal Church of Harlem. Ethelred Brown started an offshoot, known as the Harlem Community Unitarian Church, which was run by Brown and Frank Crosswaith. An Antiguan who was educated in the Virgin Islands, Dr. George Alexander McGuire organized the African Orthodox Church (Klevan, The West Indian Americans, 63).
Caribbean immigrants formed their own subcultures within Harlem, but they were not geographically segregated from other Harlem residents. "Given the stiff competition for space in the zone of black settlement, the formation of a distinct Caribbean enclave within the black community would have been difficult, even if West Indian immigrants had desired it" (Kasinitz, Caribbean NY, 43). Harlem was something of a black metropolis, and West Indians became in some ways part of a larger, more Pan-African, demographic group.
Caribbean immigrants from different countries and different classes found themselves being considered part of the same homogeneous group in the Harlem community. Their struggle for freedom, their history and heritage, and the prejudice they encountered in the U.S. both united them to one another and differentiated them from American Negroes. The Virgin Islander, especially, found his problem complicated by the failure of natives to make the distinction between him (as an American citizen) and immigrants from foreign countries. West Indians worshipped in different churches, practiced different religious customs, had a different family structure, dressed differently, had a different accent, and were generally noticeably different from native blacks. "In the first place, visibility plays a vital role. The outward evidence of distinction, color, dress and language operate upon the Negro immigrant group as well as upon the white" (Reid, The Negro Immigrant, 113). The West Indian's more casual dress and dialect were objects of the derision and scorn of natives.
The Caribbean immigrant, even the Virgin Islander who knew more about the U.S., also noticed many differences in New York. Ira De A. Reid describes what he considers the typical Virgin Islander's reaction, including the shock and disillusionment of encountering segregation, the lack of intimacy, and being called names such as "Barbados" and "monkey-chaser" (Reid, The Negro Immigrant, 192). The immigrant met prejudice from both whites and other blacks, was ridiculed for his different clothing, and was economically at the bottom of the barrel. There was tension between native and immigrant blacks who were forced to live together and compete for the same jobs. Natives resented the outsiders who were often getting better jobs.
In some ways though, the immigrant blacks sometimes found themselves to have an advantage over native blacks. Their education, previous political involvement, and their ability to deal with whites worked to their benefit. Whites often treated them more as immigrants and hence less as blacks and former slaves. In this way their dress and dialect, which worked against them in Harlem, became beneficial by identifying them as distinct from native blacks. Immigrants often tried to emphasize their non-native status and as a result were reluctant to assimilate into the culture of native blacks.
A disproportionate number of Afro-Caribbeans were economically successful and involved in politics. This may explain why many native blacks were so resentful and reluctant to accept them. Du Bois, on the other hand, held Caribbean immigrants up as an example of people with good moral and cultural values (such as the emphasis on saving and a strong work ethic) from which native blacks could learn (Reid, The Negro Immigrant, 113).
The foreign-born Negro took a more active role in politics than the native for a number of reasons. Afro-Caribbeans were more accustomed to politics, small governments, black rule, cooperation, and having to fight aggressively to end colonialism. The Socialist and Communist movements in Harlem were largely composed of West Indians. Foreigners found Marx's economic ideas more compelling and relevant, perhaps because they felt they had less to lose than chains. There is clearly some connection between labor unrest, social conditions, and emigration to the United States by West Indians. "John R. Commons holds that immigrants from countries having a low economic standard, when once moved by the spirit of unionism are the most dangerous and determined of unionists" (Reid, The Negro Immigrant, 122). To make what may be considered an over-generalization, West Indian Americans were more radical, more leftist, than native blacks.
It was as street-corner speakers that these immigrants really shone. This tradition was essentially invented by radicals in the late 1910's, radicals who were self-educated, mostly Caribbean immigrants. Most notable among these radical street-speakers were natives A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen and immigrants Richard Moore, W. A. Domingo, Marcus Garvey, Grace Campbell, Hubert Harrison, Elizabeth Hendrickson, and Frank Crosswaith, the last three of whom were born in the Virgin Islands. "The street corner became the most viable location for an alternative politics and the place where new social movements gained a hearing and recruited supporters" (Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 92).
Authorities frequently blamed Caribbean immigrants for stirring up discontent in Harlem. The Negro immigrant was more radical than the native, and he introduced his radical thoughts to a mass that was eager at least to listen to new ideas. In this way the immigrant played a significant part in the shaping of politics in New York City (Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 22). From their street corners, Virgin Island immigrants, concerned with the politics of their homeland, were able to orate and organize changes.
The street-speaker was a well-known phenomenon in Harlem. Members of the black working class and the Talented Tenth alike gathered to hear speakers like Harrison and Crosswaith. This oral political tradition, this powerful medium for propaganda, was part of the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance. "Contemporaries believe that it was such meetings that inspired the New Negro movement of the Harlem Renaissance" (Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 94). This connection is one that is often overlooked, though it is probably the Virgin Islanders' most significant contribution to the Renaissance.
In the second part of my paper, I will discuss in more detail the contributions of specific Virgin Islanders to the Harlem Renaissance.
Frank Rudolph Crosswaith (1892-1965) was born in St. Croix. He served in the Navy and worked as a porter and garment worker. Crosswaith was a union leader and civil rights crusader. He helped to start the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and served as a special organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. He helped organize elevator operators, motion-picture operators, drugstore and grocery clerks, mechanics, and laundry workers (Profiles of Outstanding Virgin Islanders, 56).
In 1917 he started speaking on street corners. He was "one of the most polished orators in any setting. He traveled widely and became the most recognized stepladder speaker outside of Harlem" (Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 106). "From the 1920s to his death he was one of the most effective organizers of Negro workers in New York City" (Dictionary of American Negro Biography, 142). An adherent to socialism with perhaps as much influence as Eugene V. Debs, he was called the "Negro Debs." Unlike many other radical Caribbean organizers, he avoided any affiliation with the Communist party.
He served as the secretary of the Trade Union Committee for Organizing Negro Workers and as a full-time organizer for the Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car porters. He planned the Harlem Labor Committee in 1934 and called for the first Negro Labor Conference in 1935, at which he was one of the main speakers. The Negro Labor Committee, of which he was chairman, evolved from this meeting. In 1943, Mayor LaGuardia appointed him to the New York City Housing Authority Board.
Austin Victor Hansen (1910-1996) was born in St. Thomas. He became interested in photography at an early age and took photographs of St. Thomas landscapes and events such as Charles Lindbergh's landing on his famous transatlantic flight (Profiles of Outstanding Virgin Islanders, 91).
Hansen went to New York in 1928 and got jobs washing dishes, running elevators, and in his own words, "doing all the menial things blacks were doing at the time" (New York Times, January 25, 1996). He continued taking pictures. He got his first breakthrough when he caught a young black woman performing for Mrs. Roosevelt and sold the picture to the N.Y. Amsterdam News for two dollars. He took pictures, more than 100,000 of them, for the next 60 years. His portraits and pictures include those of families, clergymen, political leaders, jazz greats, and notable visitors, including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Louis, Haile Selassie, Marian Anderson, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Harry Belafonte.
He served as photographer's mate, 2nd class, in World War II, an unusual distinction for an African-American at the time. His photos capture decades of life in Harlem and the U.S. An exhibit, "Hansen's Harlem" was displayed in the Schomburg Center in New York (Hansen's Harlem, an Exhibit).
·Hubert H. Harrison
Hubert H. Harrison (1883-1927), born in St. Croix, moved to New York in 1900 to join his older sister after the death of his father. He worked as a hotel bellman, telephone operator, and a clerk in a post office. Ultimately, he lost his job because his political views upset Booker T. Washington. He was a well-known Socialist leader, critic, and defender of the "Negro's racial heritage" (Klevan, The West Indian Americans, 59). Harrison, believing color prejudice to be based on economic foundations, joined the Socialist party in 1909. In 1912 he was approached by party leaders who wanted him to be a paid speaker and organizer to recruit African-Americans to the party. Harrison essentially brought Socialism to Harlem and encouraged Harlem radicals. He helped to establish the Harlem School of Social Science and the Modern School. He participated in leading a strike of silk workers in Paterson, New Jersey in 1912 and 1913. (Blood Relations, 95-96) "Hubert Harrison was one of the more prominent 'radical' leaders of the first quarter of the twentieth century" (Dictionary of American Negro Biography, 292).
After three years as a Socialist orator, Harrison left the party due to disagreements about African-American civil rights. Harrison thought more attention needed to be paid to problems of the black masses instead of just lumping them in with those of white workers. After he left the Socialist party, he advocated some Socialist beliefs but believed in "race first." He organized the Liberty League in 1917 and offered Marcus Garvey his first public speaking appearance in New York in July of 1917. He issued a call for a mass meeting to protest the St. Louis Riots of 1917, a meeting which more than two thousand Harlem residents attended. He was one of the first African-Americans to publicly discuss color issues within the race, specifically the disproportionate success of lighter skinned African-Americans (Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 97-100).
He edited Garvey's Negro World and published his own collection of essays, The Negro and the Nation. In these essays he said that Negroes were essentially made to be proletarians, that the Negroes needed political rights in order to have economic rights, and that socialism would prevent some of the exploitation. Harrison founded The Voice, the newspaper of the Liberty League. "Harrison's Voice set the tone and served as the forerunner of subsequent radical Harlem publications after the summer of 1917. Launched on July 4, 1917, Harrison called the journal 'a newspaper for the New Negro.' According to Montserratan journalist Hodge Kirnon, the paper 'really crystallized the radicalism of the Negro in New York and environs.'" (Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 158).
Harrison's major influence, was not print, but speech. Before World War I, Harrison was one of the Socialist party's leading speakers, speaking forcefully from the corner of Wall and Broad Streets. Later he continued to speak at West 96th Street off Broadway and on Lenox Avenue. (Dictionary of American Negro Biography, 292) He was a special lecturer for New York University and he was appointed as a staff lecturer by the Board of Education in 1926, but mostly he spoke from his street corner soapboxes.
"If credit is given to one individual for establishing the open-air forums both as political and educational institutions in New York City as well as in Harlem, it would be Hubert Harrison, a brilliant scholar and biting social critic. A man of stocky build, dark complexion, and booming voice, he was known around New York as the 'Black Socrates'" (Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 95).
"Harrison had never been recognized by the 'Negro leaders' and had never been mentioned in W. E. B. Du Bois's Crisis" (Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 97). Harrison was a radical, a Socialist and a labor organizer. He was never involved with the "mainstream" of the Harlem Renaissance and its artistic movement.
Elizabeth Anna Hendrickson (1884-1946) was a civil rights leader who was born in St. Croix. Her college education was subsidized by Crosswaith and Harrison. With Ashley L. Totten she formed the Virgin Islands Protective Association, which aimed at addressing the mistreatment of those in their homeland. She worked with the American West Indian Ladies Aid Society and the Virgin Islands Catholic Relief Organization to help Virgin Islanders at home and in Harlem. She also assisted prominent Virgin Islander Rothschild Francis in establishing his paper, The Emancipator. She was a well-known street corner speaker and was involved in the struggles of the Harlem Tenants League in the 1920's (Profiles of Outstanding Virgin Islanders, 99).
The American West Indian Ladies Aid Society (AWILAS) was called the Danish West Indians Ladies Aid Society when it was established in Harlem in 1915 to serve Danish West Indian immigrant women. At the time there were other Danish West Indian organizations in New York, but none geared specifically toward women. The AWILAS worked in conjunction with many other organizations in Harlem. Elizabeth Hendrickson served as president of the Society in 1924 and 1930.
Other AWILAS officers, including Redalia Matthews, Antoinette Reubel, Sylvania Smith, and Estelle Williams, were involved in a variety of political activities. The Society was an active supporter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. The Society was also involved with the International Labor Defense of the American Communist Party in the 1930's. The members of the AWILAS were not only interested in supporting their group, but in being involved with many others. (Klevan, Miriam. The West Indian Americans, 70-71)
Casper Holstein1 (1876-1944) was born in St. Croix. He moved to New York with his mother in 1894 and attended high school in Brooklyn. In 1898 he enlisted in the Navy and served on the U.S.S. Saratoga. Upon his return he worked as a bellhop, a porter, and for a Wall Street broker from whom he learned much about banking. Shortly before World War I, Holstein started running a numbers game from the Turf Club at 111 West 136th Street. People placed bets on a three digit number, hence the odds of winning were 1 in 900. Holstein paid off at 600 to 1, leaving him a large profit. It is speculated that he made over two million dollars illegally from his gambling interests. Casper Holstein, whom Lewis considers one of "the Six," was often looked down on by respectable Harlem. His fame, or perhaps infamy, came not from a respectable profession, but from introducing organized gambling to Harlem.
Yet the way in which his fortune was amassed is often overlooked in favor of the way in which he spent his money. "For this he was admired by the masses and the best people of the community. He reportedly circulated with the cream of Harlem society" (Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 143). Holstein was a humanitarian and a philanthropist who supported dozens of charities. He funded a $1,000 award in the Opportunity writing contests (Harrison described him as the only black patron of the arts in New York), gave money to a Baptist school in Liberia to build a girls' dormitory and to a home for delinquent girls in Indiana, gave five hundred baskets of food and gifts at Christmas to needy residents, donated money to Garvey's UNIA, to the publication of Locke's New Negro (at least reportedly), to Fisk and Howard Universities, and to numerous charities (including Jewish and Catholic charities), and paid $36,000 for Liberty Hall when it was sold at an auction in 1928. He also headed the Monarch Lodge No. 45 of the Independent Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World, wrote a regular column in The Negro World, helped poor poets financially, and paid for the college educations of a dozen Virgin Islanders. Eric Walrond wrote that "among Virgin Islanders he is looked upon as some sort of messiah" (Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 143) who would take care of many of their costs. After hurricanes hit the Virgin Islands in 1924 and 1928 he established hurricane relief funds and chartered a steamship to deliver building materials. He also established a dairy farm on St. Croix which distributed milk for free to needy children.
In the early 1920's Holstein became interested in the Virgin Islands Congressional Council (VICC), an organization which was founded by Anselmo Jackson, and had Bell George, Carl Pardo, Anselmo Gasper, Andrew Pedro, Andrew Elskoe, and Horace Williams, all of St. Croix, as members. Holstein became its president in 1923, a position in which he served for more than a decade. The Council was funded, in part, by Holstein's notable fortune. The purposes of the Virgin Islands Congressional Council were to gain citizenship, political rights, civil liberties, and civil government for the people of the Virgin Islands. The VICC and the VI American League lobbied in Washington for citizenship and the end of the naval administration. Holstein was a central figure in Harlem's Caribbean immigrant circles.
The numbers racket in Harlem was run predominantly by Caribbean immigrants until white mobsters were attracted by its profits. In September of 1928 Holstein was kidnapped by gangsters. He was the first African-American to make major newspaper headlines in this manner. The Schultz gang finally took over gambling in 1931, leaving Holstein to his political pursuits. In 1937, long after he had given up numbers, he was indicted, convicted, and sentenced. When he got out of jail a year later he had lost his political power and his fortune (Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 145-46).
·J. Raymond Jones
Most of J. Raymond Jones' accomplishments were long after the Harlem Renaissance, but I have decided to include him both because he is often overlooked and because he was in many ways a product of the Renaissance.
J. Raymond Jones (1899-199?2 ) left St. Thomas in 1918 for New York where he rose to significant political power, including Chief of Tammany in 1964. In New York he worked as an elevator operator and at the docks while attending a Jewish school in the evenings to get a high school education. His success at these jobs was short-lived, as he rebelled against the way he was treated by whites. Like numerous other African-Americans at the time he worked on a Pullman car, but here he did not get along with the other workers.
Jones's first political involvement was with Garvey and the U.N.I.A. When Garveyism began dying out, Jones, realizing the power of political involvement, remained in the political scene. Many West Indian Democrats formed clubs that were not affiliated with white Democratic groups nor with the United Colored Democracy. Jones and his friends made up the Five Cent Fare Club. In the 1921 Democratic mayoral primary, candidate John F. Hylan asked for their support in delivering the black vote.
This was the beginning of a series of elections in which Jones was involved. Candidates would approach Jones and his colleagues to campaign. In return, they received political favors, bribes, and appointments. In the 1940's, after many attempts at winning an election of his own, Jones became a district leader in Harlem. In 1945, William O'Dwyer, for whom he had campaigned heavily, was elected mayor. Jones was appointed his personal secretary and regarded as the mayor's "eyes and ears of Harlem," and in 1947 he was appointed Deputy Commissioner of Housing and Buildings. He became known as "The Harlem Fox" for his shrewd political involvement (The Harlem Fox).
Neli (Nella) Walker Imes Larsen was born in 1891 in Chicago. Her history is difficult to relate because she gave so many false stories. (She says she studied at the University of Copenhagen, whereas neither their records of attendance nor her passport report this (Women of the Harlem Renaissance, 92).) Her mother was a Danish Crucian and her father was a black West Indian.
Unlike most West Indians, she had little association with immigrants in her community. G. James Fleming, a Virgin Islander, recalls that Larsen never attended V.I. gatherings. "Larsen projected both Danish and West Indian origins as a mark of uniqueness, even though she neither displayed an empathy with West Indians living in New York nor identified specific connections with West Indian relations" (Nella Larsen: Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, 5-6). Her lack of involvement can perhaps be attributed to her having no direct but only family connections to the Virgin Islands. She appears to be the only novelist, even the only major literary figure, from the Virgin Islands to participate in the Harlem Renaissance.
·Ashley L. Totten
Ashley L. Totten (1884-1963) was born in St. Croix. He was a humanitarian who helped to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. Totten came to the U.S. in 1915 and worked as a Pullman car porter on the New York Central Railroad. "He was a steady, dependable worker, cooperative, and well-respected among his peers. The company wagered that having Totten on their team would be a big plus. He was selected by the company to serve as a board member of the company union" (McKissack, Long Hard Journey, 52). When he had seen the discrimination in his church in New York City he formed his own religious group in the Bronx and worshipped in a private home conforming to what he considered the true traditions of Lutheranism. He encountered injustices working for the Pullman company, but here he was determined not to leave, but to bring about changes (Profiles of Outstanding Virgin Islanders, 218).
Totten is credited with helping to form the first successful black labor union. Previous attempts to unionize were made by Pullman porters in 1909, 1910, 1913, and 1918, but their unions were all quickly destroyed by the Pullman Company. Totten had been elected (by a vote of 9,131 out of 9,780) delegate to a wage conference that year. As a result, porters gained a small wage increase, but this, he realized, was not enough.
In 1925, Totten approached A. Philip Randolph, a well-know labor activist for help (Santino, Miles of Smiles, 33). Randolph was a non-Caribbean African-American and he was not employed by the Pullman Company. They formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The activities of the Brotherhood are usually credited to Randolph, but Totten was really the one doing the organizing behind the scenes. After its formation, Totten was fired from Pullman and worked as a full-time organizer for the Brotherhood (Brazeal,The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 18).
Totten was a powerful speaker. He spoke with emotion and talked to porters in a way that was familiar to them. They referred to him as "Totten the Terrible," meaning that he was a powerful force not to be reckoned with. (McKissack, A Long Hard Journey, 65) In a speech in 1934 he compared the founders of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to the founding fathers of the United States, saying: "Those of us who have read American history know that when the U.S. finished the War of Revolution the people were ragged, the wives and children were barefoot, the homes had not even windowpanes to keep out the cold; but America had her independence just the same" (McKissack, A Long Hard Journey, 108). He incited workers not to be "stool pigeons," but to stand up for themselves and bring about reform. Totten and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters had a profound effect on labor organization and unions in the U.S.
In addition to working for the Brotherhood, Totten and Hendrickson founded and administered the Protective League. He also worked with the American Virgin Islands Civic Association, was appointed by Harry S. Truman to the Board of Directors of the Virgin Islands Corporation, was a chairman of the draft board in Harlem, and served as vice president of the Trade Union Division of the Liberal Party of New York City. Unlike Harrison, Totten was politically neutral (Profiles of Outstanding Virgin Islanders, 218).
During the 1920's the Virgin Islands experienced political and economic hardships. Many people emigrated to the United States. In Harlem they formed community interest groups and became active in reform programs for the Virgin Islands. Casper Holstein was especially influential in bringing about civilian government in the Virgin Islands.
On the whole Caribbean immigrants met discrimination, but they were more educated than native blacks and were sometimes treated better by whites who saw them more as foreigners than as blacks. Perhaps as a result they were disproportionately successful in comparison to natives. There were disadvantages to being from the Caribbean as well; native blacks were prejudiced and discriminated against immigrant blacks. The political aspirations of Ashley Totten and Casper Holstein suffered because of their immigrant status. Totten selected Randolph as the head of the Brotherhood because he was not an immigrant, and Holstein's place of origin was used against him in an election.
Caribbean immigrants, especially from the Virgin Islands, made their contribution not to the arts but to politics. Their previous experiences in the West Indies led them to natural political interest and action. West Indians used their oratorical skills as political, religious, and labor leaders. Although the Harlem Renaissance was an artistic movement, it was both linked to and shaped by the politics of the time. That is, although Virgin Islanders did not directly contribute to the literary and artistic movements, their political involvement influenced these movements. Foremost among this involvement were the organization of labor and the political theory taught by the street speakers. Caribbean immigrants on the whole were far more radical than native blacks, and subscribed to Socialism more than their native counterparts.
The Virgin Islanders and the contributions described have often been overlooked, yet they played an important part in the shaping and history of the Harlem Renaissance. That so many political radicals were from the Caribbean suggests that place of origin is in fact significant to identity, and it is therefore worthwhile to consider Virgin Island immigrants as a group. The Harlem Renaissance was not just an artistic and literary phenomenon; it was in fact a political movement and it is in this context that Virgin Islanders came to the forefront.
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