The late great Joseph Husurell Lake Sr. (1925-1976
He started the Windward Islands Opinion on July 1st, 1959, just a few months before I started working at the Post office in the old Court House in Philipsburg.
It was a weekly newspaper and had a number of subscribers abroad, especially on Aruba where many Windward Islanders lived. And so I came into early contact with him as he was constantly coming to mail out letters and newspapers and I was in charge of the only window on the whole island where one could buy stamps.
After he saw my interest in politics he encouraged me to write for his paper. I had a column ‘News and Views’. Of course the political establishment did not appreciate either my news or my views printed in the opposition newspaper.
Mr. Lake was always impeccably dressed and always had on a white shirt and a necktie. I can not remember him ever dressed in an informal way. We discussed many issues and over the years that I knew him we were nearly always on opposite parties. In the early nineteen sixties when I supported Claude he was in opposition. However I continued to write for his paper and we were always friends. I was with Claude and Clem at the St.John’s Ranch at a bullfight when Claude asked me to call over Lake as he wanted to speak to him. That was in 1966 and the following day an advertisement for the Shell represented by Claude at the time appeared in the Windward Islands Opinion. There was an outcry from the opposition. However Mr. Lake, always hard pressed financially, did not get the support in the opposition which he deserved. I remember interviewing him at the time at the Pasangrahan Hotel, which interview was used in his newspaper to justify his joining up with the Democratic Party. Around that same time I was about to slip the cable with the party myself . When there were no elections in 1967, which I myself helped to engineer on a trip with Claude to Saba and St.Eustatius, I decided to prepare myself to go into the opposition. I did this in 1969 with the URA party while Mr. Lake remained with the D.P.
We later ran together on the WIPM ticket in 1973 after he had become disillusioned with the way things were going with the Democrat party.
I look back fondly on the years that I knew him. He gave me the inspiration to write for which I am thankful to him.
I remember once that his son Lasana was looking for some of the old newspapers which his father published. In the box in which I had a number of the old issues I came across a postcard from Mr. Lake.
A few months before this, I was staying at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. During the night I had a dream about him. In the dream I was at the airport on St.Maarten, the very first airport building, and I saw him coming towards me with newspapers under his arm. He was dressed as usual with his white shirt and tie. I asked him how things were. He looked upbeat and said to me that he was feeling great and was happy. This was sometime in 1978. He was dead two years already. I awoke with a start. The next morning I told my wife about the dream as it was so vivid on my mind.
The postcard I found in the box was from 1966, I think, and he was telling me to get my column ready and that he would be back on Thursday. He wrote that;”I am staying at this hotel.”’ When I turned over the postcard it was the Roosevelt Hotel and I remembered the dream. Perhaps he may have even stayed in the very same room where I stayed.
The 1969 election was not easy. We were rough on him and Carl Anslijn. I was not allowed to use the radio and could not get permission for a public meeting, so the whole campaign was run on pamphlets. Someone on Aruba was sending me some pamphlets to distribute which were hot, hot, and hotter. After the elections were over I was informed that it was the teacher Loysie Bruce. We used to distribute the pamphlets on the Backstreet and Frontstreet and they would form the basis of counter attack from the Democratic Party. When I met my friend Mr. Lake he simply would shake his head and ask me if I was not ashamed of the pamphlets. Yeah but what is a man to do.
On April 8th, 1994 on my recommendation a postal stamp was issued by the Netherlands Antilles Postal Services to honour Mr. Lake. It was in the denomination of 65 cents. He was in good company as the 75 cents stamp in that same issue was none other than Dr. Efrain Jonckheer.
In doing research on his life story we were assisted also by his son the poet Lasana (Harold Lake).
Joseph Husurell Lake Sr. like many St.Martiners of his generation was born in the Dominican Republic on September 4th, 1925 and died on St.Maarten on February 28th, 1976.
At the age of five, he returned to his “home” island, where he lived with his family in his mother’s native village of Middle Region. He attended St. Joseph School. In his late teens, already a member of the Philipsburg Mutual Improvement Association and Universal Negro Improvement Association, he sailed to Aruba in search of a higher education and work.
He started his political career on Aruba. In 1955, he was elected to Aruba’s Island Council on the PPA. A founding member of the WIWA (“St.Maarten Club”) in 1944, and later of PPA’s “autonomous” Windward Islands section, Lake was one of the prime social and political movers among the Windward Islands community in Aruba. At the American-owned LAGO oil refinery where he worked in the Storehouse Department, Lake was a key member of the LAGO employee council (LEC), and assistant editor of LAGO Employee Council News (an English/Papiamentoe newspaper). In 1957, Island Councilmember Lake was accepted to Cornel University’s School of Industrial and Labour Relations, and granted a Teagle Foundation Scholarship. He was denied a US visa because of a previous fls. 50.- court fine for writing an article in LEC news defending a worker suspended by an American LAGO “administrator.” In the article the “Administrator” was referred to as “the big Chief with the intelligence of a 12 year old boy scout.” Lake’s contemporaries believed there was a conspiracy to keep the 32 year old St.Martiner from studying labor relations, particularly after his run in with “Big Chief” and his not hiding his intentions to “go to America to study labor relations and come back to organize the LAGO workers.”
It is ironic that in 1969 when I was offered a scholarship by the Inter American Press Association to take a course in journalism at Yale University I was denied a visa. Lake was one of those accused of writing a letter against me to the American Consul stating that I was a communist. Years later when I was a Senator, the American Consul shared the file with me as he was amazed at the reasons why the Consul had conducted an investigation against me and had only accepted letters from those whom I opposed. There was a letter from Mr. Lake indeed in the file, but with nothing but praise of my person and for the articles I had written for his paper.
On Emancipation Day, July 1st, 1959, Jose Lake as he was widely known, founded the weekly newspaper the Windward Islands Opinion of which he wrote that its purpose was “ a means of helping to improve the social, economic, educational, and political conditions of the Windward Islands by advocating against the causes of Injustice and Oppression.”
As a result of his writings on behalf of the workers and people of St. Martin, exposing government corruption, down-crying what he called “slave wages” in the public and private sector, advancing new ideas about self pride and democracy, and because of independent political organizing, Lake came into immediate conflict with the establishment. He was to becom one of the leading vocal opposition members to the rule of Claude Wathey and his Democratic Party Machine
A firm believer in the historical unity of St. Martin and the socio-cultural oneness of her people, Lake wrote and fought against exploitation and discrimination on both the Dutch as well as the French side of the island. In 1960, Lake was declared persona non grata by France , (which for all intents and purposes banned him from traveling to the French side of the island) because he wrote articles condemning the French colonial education system for keeping St. Martin’s children backward. That same year, in a dispatch to St. Croix’s WIVI radio, the intrepid journalist accused Mayor Hubert Petit of attempting to “suppress freedom of press by intimidating the Editor of the Windward Islands Opinion and holding “a mass meeting on Sunday October ninth to incite people to violence against the Editor.”
On October 9th, 1960, Lake received a letter from Lt. Governor J.J. Beaujon that he had been informed by the Mayor that he could not guarantee Lake’s life on the French side.
Things must have changed because I started working on October 10th, 1960 and I remember vividly getting a ride sometime later with Lake in his Volkswagen “Black Beauty” to go to the French side and see how the elections over there were going.
In 1963 Lake took part in the Island Council elections on the opposition Nationale Volkspartij list headed by Mr. Lionel Bernard Scot. He received the Party’s highest number of votes. Throughout the early 1960’s St. Martiners had to hide in the alleys of Great Bay to buy the Opinion, and it was an unwritten political offence to be caught reading, what was then the islands only newspaper.
Wathey and Lake, as popular grassroots politicians, constitute the duality of St. Martin’s post-1963 political culture. Both sons of the soil generated a dialectic dominance in shaping modern politics on St. Martin., which remains influential to this day.
Wathey’s political strength, affected significantly by his family’s wealth, was consolidated through the Democratic Party “machine” system. Lake remained economically disadvantaged, but motivated by his principles, he never stopped appealing to his people with progressive ideals to develop their pride, self-reliance, and their island. Both politicians in their conflict were typically non-conservative and non-elitist. But what Lake cited as Wathey’s retarding paternalism stood in stark contrast to the” people’s
Liberation” philosophy the independent “newspaper man” expounded from the pages of the Opinion and the political platform.
On April 8th, 1994 at the Sea View Hotel in the presence of Minister Leo Chance, Postmaster General Galmeijer, his widow Helen Hazel, his children, and friends such as Camille Baly, Charles Borromeo Hodge Jr. and others, I said among other things:
“For several years now I placed in nomination the name of the person we are honouring today with a Postal Stamp issued to honour him
I knew him well, and it is an honour and a great source of pride for me to be here today in the midst of dignitaries, his friends and family and members of the press, on the occasion of the presentation of this postal stamp bearing his likeness.
All of us at one time or another dream of the things we would like to accomplish and Mr. Lake’s greatest dream was that the Windward Islands should have its own newspaper which could advance the cause of the majority of the population especially here on St. Martin.
He did not have the money or the time to bring his dream of political change to its fulfilment. But looking at St. Martin today, perhaps he never thought that his little beginning back on July 1st 1959 would grow into the lively free press on St. Martin today, but he knew that mighty trees grow from tiny seeds, and if the seed is never planted, the tree will never grow.
Time would not permit me to go into the many details of our friendship since we met in 1960. He encouraged me to write and I had a column “News & Views” in the early sixties in the Windward Islands Opinion. Many are the stories I could tell you of his struggles, conflicts and sorrows, but also of the fun times which I was privileged to share with him.
“Although we were mostly on opposite parties, he and I were on the list of the Windward Islands People’s Movement and the Christian Democratic Party in 1973. Throughout all the years we remained friends.
In my book “For the Love of St. Maarten”, published in 1987, I wrote the following about him:
“Lake’s contributions to St. Maarten were many…His political career did not achieve for him a position where he could help his people. But he did inspire me and others to write and fight… He established a lively free press in the Windward Islands. He made the younger generation aware of the role played by Black People in the history of the world. He also pinpointed many of the ills in the St. Maarten society which were not attended to and which have taken on epidemic proportions in recent years.”
And so we pay tribute to our friend by putting him” Under The Sea Grape Tree”.