History October 15, 2021 at 02:00 pm

The ‘Black Moses’ of the Virgin Islands who helped his people escape a life of slavery

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor October 15, 2021 at 02:00 pm

October 15, 2021 at 02:00 pm | History

David Hamilton Jackson speaks at the Green Tower in 1915 (Det Kgl. Library Image)

David Hamilton Jackson was born in 1884 on St. Croix. That was more than three decades after the abolition of slavery on the island, but life was difficult for people, mostly Blacks. Black people suffered from low wages, a lack of healthcare and poor educational opportunities. Jackson would become a hero for the Black population.

A labor activist and an advocate of a free press, he played an immense role in St. Croix’s labor rights movements at a time when the island was part of the Danish West Indies. Apart from starting the first free press newspaper, he demanded better conditions for the Black working class on the islands.

Growing up, he had interest in community issues and never shied away from speaking his mind. Following in his parents footsteps, he became a teacher but was fired by the Danish school authorities after he spoke out critically about the Catholic church, according to history. He subsequently became a clerk but lost that job also after an argument with a governor.

Gradually, he became a community leader and activist for the working class, lecturing around St. Croix, instructing the working class to demand better social and economic conditions for themselves while criticizing conditions on the islands in his lectures and to newspapers. He even traveled from St. Croix to Denmark on April 15, 1915, where for two months he met with political leaders, the press and even the king, speaking on behalf of the working class in the Danish West Indies.

Lecturing at public gatherings, Jackson demanded among other things “an improvement of living conditions including the creation of smallholdings, freedom of expression, better housing conditions, an open legal system, an opportunity for further training in Denmark and suffrage for all men over 25. He also demanded that the governor of the colony at the time, L.C. Herweg-Larsen, be replaced,” as one account stated.

When he got back to St. Croix in September 1915, he got permission to publish his newspaper, The Herald, which became the first free press publication on the island. Jackson wrote and edited the four-page paper himself. The paper became the voice of the struggling working class, and an avenue to expose corruption while criticizing Danish colonial rule. Some people even went throughout communities to read it for those who could not read. Essentially, the paper was used to mobilize workers into becoming deeply involved in their own liberation.

According to one report, “Jackson was occasionally called in contempt proceedings for criticisms he wrote in his editorials on the situation in the islands and of people in positions of power.”

And thanks to his unique abilities of organizing, educating, and public speaking, Jackson became president of the first labor union on St. Croix, which he co-organized. When plantation owners refused to increase wages during the sugar harvest in 1915-16, the farmworkers on St. Croix went on strike, led by Jackson and the union, Virgin Islands History said. The strike had positive results as the workday of sunup to sundown was reduced to 9 hours and workers were given a raise from 10-20 cents to 35 cents per day. The dockworkers on St. Thomas also went on strike and their conditions also improved.

By 1917 when Denmark was thinking about selling the islands to the United States, Jackson was all for it after having expressed his frustration at the lack of reforms by the Danish government. Following the sale of the West Indies to the U.S., Jackson pursued a degree in law in the United States. He became a judge in Christiansted and politician on the islands until his death in 1946.

Today, he is celebrated as a hero on the islands. The Black population call him the Black Moses, who helped his people escape a life of slavery. What’s more, in the Virgin Islands, November 1, the day of the first publication of Jackson’s paper, is a public holiday — David Hamilton Jackson Day.

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