Taking History Home

wtstelzer-IMG_7639American Culture students help residents of U.S. Virgin Islands reclaim historical documents

A group of Randolph College students held up poster- sized passport photos on the side of a busy street on the island of St. John one day in March. Most cars just drove past them, but the scene caught the attention of one woman during her commute. She slowed down, opened her window, and asked what they were doing.

wtstelzer-IMG_7681Julio Rodriguez, a Randolph sociology professor and director of the American Culture Program accompanying the students, explained that they were participating in a project to help give the island’s people ownership of their history by delivering copies of historical documents that were only available in the United States.

The woman glanced at the photos, pointed at one, and said, “That’s Miss Giddings.”  Sure enough, it was a photo of Martha Giddings, who had left the island in 1918 to work for a family in Brooklyn, New York.

The woman had to move on to keep traffic flowing, leaving the group certain they were helping this island connect with its past. “I think it’s important that that personal connection was re- established,” Rodriguez said.

Each year, Randolph College’s American Culture Program invites students to delve deep into aspects of American society and history. This year, the course explored American involvement in the Caribbean, focusing on St. John and the other U.S. Virgin Islands, which became an American territory in 1917. Because of climate conditions that make document preservation difficult, most of the islands’ historical documents have been kept by the nations that have owned them.

Today, most of St. John is a national park, and much of the rest is a tourist hot spot.

IMG_2697Lori Lee, the Ainsworth Visiting Professor of American Culture, introduced the students to the historical documents project that she started a decade ago. They digitized documents in the National Archives and took the copies with them when they traveled to St. John.

“In a way, they’ve had their history taken from them,” said Evan Smith ’15, one of the participants. “We hoped to bring something of their past back to them.”

Smith and his classmates also interviewed people on St. John to learn more about their experiences and their relationship to American culture. He said it was frustrating to realize the Caribbean’s lack of economic opportunities outside of tourism. “They have to serve foreigners. They don’t really serve themselves,” he said.

The students wished they could do something to improve the islands’ economies; this desire fueled most of their questions when they met with leaders in the World Bank and other organizations later in the semester.

These leaders encouraged the students to promote awareness of the need for improvements. “As long as you continue to promote awareness, you’re going to reach the right people,” said Lee. “Or there will be enough awareness that people will be able to move and make significant social change.”