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Island life: 32 square miles of food, music and culture

Pat Williams grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, giving her a unique perspective on being a black American.

Editor’s note: Denver Water celebrates and embraces the cultures around us that shape who we are today.

February is Black History Month, an opportunity to recognize and honor the contributions of Black people to our nation. Just like our customers, Denver Water employees have diverse backgrounds, and we’re proud of our rich cultural diversity that reflects the 1.5 million people we serve.

Pat Williams has worked as an executive assistant at Denver Water for 28 years. Photo credit: Denver Water.


For Pat Williams, an executive assistant at Denver Water for 28 years, being black is less about her skin color and more about her Caribbean culture.

Williams, the fourth of eight children, was born and raised on Saint Thomas, one of the four main islands that make up the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Williams’s “island life” upbringing was heavily influenced by the people living on the 32-square-mile island.

The island’s unique culture — it’s food, music and celebrations — is a fusion of European and African traditions.

The island’s history as a Danish trading post dates back to the mid-1600s. Starting in the late 1600s, enslaved people were brought from Africa to work in the sugar cane fields. They brought their own traditions to the island. Today, 76% of people living in the U.S. Virgin Islands are black. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Williams was a child, she was surrounded by a community that shared the same values, traditions and skin color.

“I grew up seeing black people as role models all around me — they held prestigious positions like lawyers, doctors, governors and senators. Race just wasn’t even a thought for me because there weren’t really many other races of people on the island,” Williams said.

Pat Williams and her siblings at her mother’s 85th birthday celebration on May 13, 2018. Pictured in front is her mother Berneza (Myza) Williams with seven of her children (pictured from left, youngest to oldest) Ronald, Lynda, Lavonne, Pat, Nora, Yasha and Golda. Not pictured: Rueben. Photo credit: Pat Williams.


Growing up

One of Williams’s fondest childhood memories are of attending the colorful, joyful festivities associated with Carnival with her brothers and sisters.

Carnival has been an annual event on Saint Thomas since 1952. Today, it’s a monthlong celebration that includes pageants, dancing, food, elaborate costumes, parades, fireworks and live music with competitions of calypso singers and brass and steel bands.

“When I was young, it was a shorter, two-week celebration. With eight of us, we didn’t participate much in the festivities, but we did enjoy the parades. I remember everything sounding so lively. There was music all the time, even throughout the night. Musicians would parade down the streets, converging from different directions until they all met in the ‘clash of the bands,’” said Williams.

Street vendors gather in “the village” to sell Caribbean-style foods like deep-fried meat pies, salt fish, Johnny cakes and lots of desserts.

Williams’ mother worked in an elementary school cafeteria and her father was a bus driver.

“When I think back, I just don’t know how they did it. My mom was amazing. She had eight children, yet she worked, she sewed, she cooked, she took care of us. She did it all,” said Williams.

For Carnival each year, Williams’s mother sewed matching clothing for all eight children. The three boys wore patterned shirts and the five sisters wore matching shift dresses with pockets.

“We were all steppingstones in age, some of us were a little more than a year apart. I suppose she made us these ‘uniforms’ so she could keep track of all of us at the events,” joked Williams.

Williams with some of her siblings in the mid-1960s wearing the shirts and shift dresses their mother made for Carnival. Back row (from left): Nora, Yasha and Pat. Front row (from left): Rueben, Lavonne and Lynda. Photo credit: Pat Williams.


Farewell to the island

After high school, Williams graduated from the College of the Virgin Islands with an associate degree in executive secretarial sciences, landing jobs in the public and private sectors.

After having two daughters, Williams decided she was ready for a change and headed for California, leaving the island she’d called home for more than 25 years.

The transition was hard.

“I was a single mother with two young children. I had no car, little family nearby and California was expensive. It was a distressing time in my life. I relied on neighbors to help me out with my girls; I remember crying a lot,” said Williams.

Williams in her early 20s, about the time she decided to leave Saint Thomas for California. Photo credit: Pat Williams.


Determined to build a prosperous life for her and her daughters, Williams left California for Colorado, where her sister lived.

Williams believes her experience growing up on Saint Thomas gave her a different perspective on being black.

“Growing up, I heard about racism, but I never really experienced it. I was raised seeing strong black role models all around me. I was never made to feel bad about my race, so I guess I never really thought about being black as any different from anyone else,” she said.

Williams has been back to Saint Thomas several times over the years to see her family and to enjoy the sights and sounds of Carnival.

Now a grandmother with four grandchildren ranging from 6 to 19 years in age, Williams enjoys sharing memories of her childhood in Saint Thomas.

“I have so many wonderful memories. I am glad I can share them.”

Williams’s niece Shanelle dressed in a colorful costume to celebrate Carnival as part of a troupe in 2018. Photo credit: Pat Williams.