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St. John USVI Culture: East End, St John

East End, St John USVI

The First School Bus
Excerpted from Tales of St. John and the Caribbean

The easterly trade winds blowing in from Africa first meet St. John over the long and narrow peninsula appropriately called East End. When these winds meet the higher elevations further west, the cool air currents rising from mountain slopes cause rain. Over East End, however, the trades often dry out the earth and erode the rocky outcroppings and exposed hillsides. Consequently East End has become arid, rocky and rugged and cultivation of the land can be difficult and unrewarding

When St. John was first colonized by the Danes, East End was sparsely settled by poor white farmers who owned small tracts of land. When the slaves on St. John revolted in 1733, these planters abandoned their farms and escaped by boat to St. Thomas and Tortola. The land reverted to bush.

Because East End property was neither suitable for sugar production, nor desirable for farming, the land was inexpensive. Thus, freed slaves and people of mixed race (known as free colored) could, after years of hard work and saving their meager earnings, afford to buy small tracts of land. So it came to pass that a free community was established at East End some fifty years before the official emancipation of the slaves. The inhabitants survived by fishing, farming, raising animals, burning charcoal and boatbuilding.

East End had abundant marine resources, and a strong tradition of seafaring developed among the people. There were numerous protected bays from which boats could be launched or moored and where nets could be set to catch turtles and fish. Whelk could be picked along the rocky shoreline and conch harvested from shallow undersea grasslands.

The seafaring tradition was further strengthened by the quality and popularity of the boats built by East End craftsmen and by the area’s unique geographical location which made travel by sea the most convenient method of transportation.

Coral Bay, which was a small commercial center at the time, was only accessible by land over a steep and rugged path. It was much easier for East Enders to row or sail to Coral Bay, and visits there were generally made by boat.

Roadtown, Tortola was another common destination for East Enders who would often sail there to trade, shop or see doctors and dentists. Roadtown was less than ten miles to the north by sea and, as the trade winds came from the east, it was a relatively easy sail in both directions. East Enders would visit Roadtown so regularly that Saturdays became known as “St. John Day” on Tortola.

In 1863 the citizens of East End built and maintained a school which was run by Moravians and supported by the Danish government. Since then schooling and education have always been given a high priority in the East End community.

In the 1920’s Guy Benjamin, an East End native, was one of twenty four students in attendance at the East End School. He became the first St. Johnian to graduate from the Charlotte Amalie High School in St. Thomas and later received a B.A. from Howard University and a Master’s Degree from New York University.

Guy Benjamin returned to St. John where he taught first at Bethany and then at the Benjamin Franklin School in Coral Bay. He taught sixth, seventh and eighth grades at Benjamin Franklin and was unofficially in charge of that school as well as the East End School. (The school was later renamed the Guy H. Benjamin School in his honor.)

The population of East End was then declining and fewer children went to the school. When one of the teachers at East End, Mrs. Fernandez, left the school, there were only eight children left and, rather than find a new teacher, it was decided that the school would be closed and the East End children would attend classes in Coral Bay.

True to East End tradition the children were taken to school by boat. The East End native, Ivan George, was hired for this purpose. Every morning Ivan rowed the schoolchildren, five of whom were his or his wife’s, from Salt Well Bay in East End to Coral Bay, and when school was dismissed, Ivan met the children and rowed them back to East End.

The small, open row boat was a less than ideal method of transportation. Adverse weather conditions often made it impossible for the children to get to school and, more importantly, the school could not get insurance for a rowing boat.

There was, however, a man named Kendell Anthony who would routinely negotiate the road to East End in his truck. Guy Benjamin, sensing a solution to the transportation problem, lobbied successfully to get Mr. Anthony the contract as school bus driver.

Mr. Anthony then installed sides and seats on his truck, and when the necessary insurance was granted, the children of East End became some of the first children on St. John to ride to school in a real school bus.

The easterly trade winds blowing in from Africa first meet St. John over the long and narrow peninsula appropriately called East End. When these winds meet the higher elevations further west, the cool air currents rising from mountain slopes cause rain. Over East End, however, the trades often dry out the earth and erode the exposed hillsides. Consequently, East End is arid, rocky and rugged and cultivation of the land is difficult and unrewarding.

The first settlers on East End were poor white farmers who owned small tracts of land and had few, if any, slaves.

In 1733, the slaves on St. John revolted and took over the island. Most East End farmers abandoned their holdings and escaped by boat to St. Thomas and Tortola. Their farms reverted to bush.

After the slave revolt was put down by French troops, St. John plantations were reestablished, but this was not the case at the barren East End where the land remained vacant and was put up for sale.

Thus, slaves who had been freed by their masters and people of mixed race (known as free coloreds) could, after years of hard work and saving, afford to buy small tracts of land there.

So it came to pass that a free community was established at East End some fifty years before slavery was finally abolished on St. John.

East End had abundant marine resources, and a strong tradition of seafaring developed among the people. There were numerous protected bays from which boats could be launched or moored and where nets could be set to catch turtles and fish. Whelk could be picked along the rocky shoreline and conch harvested from shallow undersea grasslands.

The seafaring tradition was further strengthened by the quality and popularity of the boats built by East End craftsmen and by the area’s unique geographical location, which made travel by sea the most convenient method of transportation.

Coral Bay, a small commercial center at the time, was accessible by land but only over a steep and rugged path. It was much easier for East Enders to row or sail to Coral Bay, and most visits there were made by boat.

Roadtown, Tortola was another common destination for East Enders who would often sail there to trade, shop or see doctors and dentists. Roadtown was less than ten miles to the north by sea, and, as the tradewinds came from the east, it was a relatively easy sail in both directions. East Enders would visit Roadtown so regularly that Saturdays became known as “St. John Day” on Tortola.

In 1863, the citizens of East End built and maintained a school that was run by the Moravian Church and supported by the Danish government. Since then, schooling and education have always been given a high priority in the East End community.

In the 1920s, Guy Benjamin, an East End native, was one of twenty-four students in attendance at the East End School. He became the first St. Johnian to graduate from the Charlotte Amalie High School in St. Thomas and later received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Howard University and a Master’s degree from New York University.

Guy Benjamin returned to St. John, where he taught first at Bethany and then at the Benjamin Franklin School in Coral Bay. He taught sixth, seventh and eighth grades at Benjamin Franklin and was unofficially in charge of that school as well as the East End School. (The school was later renamed the Guy H. Benjamin School in his honor.)

The population of East End was then declining and fewer children went to the school. When one of the teachers at East End, Mrs. Fernandez, left the school, there were only eight children left. Rather than find a new teacher, it was decided that the school would be closed and the East End children would attend classes in Coral Bay.

True to East End tradition, the children were taken to school by boat. Another East Ender, Ivan George, was hired for this purpose. Every morning, Ivan rowed the schoolchildren, five of whom were his and his wife’s, from Salt Well Bay in East End to Coral Bay. Then, when school was dismissed, Ivan met the children and rowed them back to East End.

The small, open rowboat was a less-than-ideal method of transportation. Adverse weather conditions often made it impossible for the children to get to school, and, most importantly, the school could not get insurance for a rowing boat.

There was, however, a man named Kendell Anthony, who would routinely negotiate the road to East End in his four-wheel-drive water truck. Guy Benjamin, sensing a solution to the transportation problem, lobbied successfully to get Mr. Anthony the contract as school bus driver.

Mr. Anthony dismantled the water tank, installed sides and seats. When the necessary insurance was granted, the eight children of isolated East End became some of the first children on St. John to ride to school in a real school bus.

Note: Guy Benjamin is the author of the book Me and My Beloved Virgin, which contain his memoirs of the days before tourism came to St. John. It's a delightful book, well written and most enjoyable - worth every penny.