In 1917 German victories in the European war prompted the Americans to purchase the islands from Denmark to protect the newly completed Panama Canal. To avoid mistakes made in governance in Panama, the newly appointed Naval Administrator, Captain Warner, commandeers Stephen’s legal help.
Stephen soon finds that the law he has studied and sworn to uphold is often in conflict with local culture and tradition. When he falls in love with a playmate of his childhood, Alice Hansen, a young woman of mixed blood training to be a nurse, the reactions of his extended family extend from acceptance to violence.
Due to Stephen’s skill in handling local conflict, public health is much improved but passage of the Prohibition Amendment by the American Congress threatens the economic well-being of the rum-producing U.S. Virgin Islands. Problems engendered by race and class, new values versus old traditions, are transcended by the common need to survive in a rapidly changing world.
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Stephen found relief from the early afternoon sun by sharing the shade of a palm tree between the sea and Strand Street with a tall, stout black woman whose face, turned away from him, was half-hidden by a broad-brimmed hat placed securely on top of a madras kerchief. If she sensed his presence, she did not turn to acknowledge it but continued to stare up at the Danish Flag flying from the tower of Fort Frederik at the end of the street. The woman’s strong straight back and the defiant stance were familiar. He was almost certain his treesharer was Beulah Heyliger and the possibility filled him with the same awe he had felt as a child entering her bakeshop.
When she did turn to face him their eyes met at the same level. Beulah was no longer a black giant frowning down on a terrified child who was afraid that the coin for the family bread might slip through his sweaty fingers. He had dropped it once and he still remembered Beulah’s scolding as he rushed to the doorsill to retrieve it.
“Jus’ stop scarin’ my hens, scramblin’ ‘bout like a land crab. Dey’ll stop layin’ eggs, and den where’ll you get your cakes, de ones your mudda likes so much?”
Stephen’s mother no longer ate cake, but listening to Beulah he felt like the child he had once been.
“It’s young Master Stephen, isn’t it?” she asked. After Stephen nodded to confirm the guess, she continued, “You ‘member me don’ you? I’m Beulah. Your fadda tol’ me you back. You grow a lot. Just ‘bout tall as me. You’d be taller if you stood up straight ‘stead a leanin’ agin’ dat tree. Look at your fadda up dere on de balcony. Now dere’s a man who stan’ straight. Fine, upstandin’ man, your fadda. He does look real good in his funeral suit. It’s not a funeral, a flag comin’down. Just as sad, dough, in a way.”
“What’s so sad about a flag coming down?” Stephen said. “We voted for it. We wanted it. We wanted to become Americans. And that’s not a funeral suit.”
“Who voted for it? Not me. You forget who kin vote here. Dey tol’ me you was a lawyer now. Some lawyer. Don’even know de law. Got a mout’ on you, dough. Always did.”
Stephen, with an effort, decided to keep his offending mouth shut. Besides, Beulah’s attention had wandered to the local band, now playing the Star-Spangled Banner as the American flag slithered up the rope to replace the descending Danish one.
“Play nice, don’ dey?” she said. The uniformed group on the freshly painted white gazebo in front of the Fort was playing their wind instruments and banging their drums energetically.
“Very nice,” Stephen replied, surprised that it was true. Despite the heat and the constrictions of the tight, highnecked braided jackets, the twelve middle-aged black men produced a better-sounding version of the Star Spangled Banner than the well-rehearsed student band at his Harvard Law School graduation.
“I hear the Americans don’ like us black people,” Beulah said.
Stephen hesitated. “I saw no signs of it at Harvard,” he finally said.
“Lawyer, liar,” Beulah said. “Well, we’ll see. Come by me shop. I’ll give you a loaf of nice fresh bread as a graduation present.”
“Thanks. I’d like that. The best bread I ever tasted.”
“That’s why my business doin’ so good. I’m a successful business woman but I didn’t get no invite to the party your fadda’s givin’ for all dem important people up dere lookin’ down on us.”
“But local business people were invited. I know. My father insisted upon it when they asked him to give the reception for the Navy. I saw some invitations myself. Ralph Henry. John Hawes. Perhaps yours got lost in delivery.”
“Ralph Henry!” Beulah tossed her head and clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “I may have fl our on me hands, but he got ink on his. I read his paper every morning. I even sell dem in my store. John Hawes? My business bigger dan his. Wha’ does he do but sell a few provisions, half of dem rotten. I’m surprised at your fadda, forgettin’me. It ain’t like him to forget Beulah.”
“My fault,” said Stephen. “It’s all my fault. It was my responsibility to check the list. Please come to the reception, Miss Beulah. I have to go now. I promised Mother I would see that everything was set up properly. The naval officers are very prompt. Father warned me.”
“Dey don’ go by Cruzan time,” Beulah laughed, restored to good humor. “I’ll be dere as soon as I can. I goin’to change to me funeral clothes. Don’look so. I jus’ foolin’.
I goin’ to wear me church clothes, good enough for God, good enough for de Americans. Your mudda won’t be dere? Still doin’poorly, is she? She missed you real bad, all de years you was away. Your brudda, he try to take your place, but you de one she dotes on. Big help to your fadda, your brudda Mark. But your mudda…poor woman.”
“The Navy is bringing in new doctors…and building a new hospital.”
“Jus’for de white people?”
“Of course not.”
“At least de Danes give us a hospital. And doctors. And train our local girls to be nurses.’’
“I must go. I’ll tell Father you’re coming.”
“Tell me cousin Ralph I’m comin’. Didn’t you know he was me cousin? So high and mighty, him bein’ invited and not me. All you white people ‘fraid of Ralph. Not me.”
She’s right, Stephen thought as he walked up past the shorefront warehouses to the Markham property, the threestory white house decorated with carved wood balconies. The style, known as “Frederiksted Gingerbread”, camouflaged the utilitarian purpose of the first floor offices but was in keeping with the interior courtyard of palms, climbing vines and flowering bushes.
He hoped the Navy would be favorably impressed by the attractive building but kept reminding himself that externals were not enough. Just a few years away from the island and he had almost forgotten the basic rules of maintaining social harmony on Saint Croix. Never forget blood or acquired relatives and stay on the right side of Ralph Henry. Stephen recalled his grandfather’s oft-repeated tales of the Labor Riots of 1878 and his father’s insistence on politeness and respect, a lecture repeated a few days after his return home.
His father had reminded him that the Markhams had always been merchants, business men who sold plows to plantation owners, machetes to the cane-growers and ink to the newspaper editor. Good men were those who paid their bills on time. A labor leader like Ralph Henry, who published a newspaper that everybody read, was a valued customer because he had never asked for a discount although he often received one.
To cut short the familiar lecture, Stephen had asked his father what Ralph Henry was likely to write about the transfer of the islands from Denmark to the United States.
“I can’t predict that.” Cedric Markham was not a tall man but he did stand very straight, as Beulah had noted. He spoke slowly, clearly, thoughtfully and people tended to listen to what he had to say.
“I wonder how the Naval Administration is going to treat him,” Stephen said.
“My only responsibility right now is to see that the Transfer ceremonies take place smoothly, that the band plays on cue as the American flag goes up and that the basic etiquette of gentlemen is observed as the Danes relinquish power. At least, Captain Warner finally agreed to my inviting some of the local people when he found out that the Danes considered it correct procedure. This March 31st will be a day to forget as far as I’m concerned. It’s been a nightmare with no precedent to follow, no real rules for protocol. I can‘t predict what the Naval Administration will do. I have no influence with the Americans.”