Skip to main content

Turnbull, Charles Wesley

Charles Wesley Turnbull


Governor, educator

Dr. Charles Wesley Turnbull served two terms as governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI). Prior to his election Turnbull was Commissioner of Education and a history professor. As governor of the Caribbean territory—populated by approximately 110,000 people of diverse ethnic backgrounds—Turnbull faced perpetual financial crises. He repeatedly proposed tax increases in an attempt to stabilize the islands' faltering economy and rebuild its dilapidated schools and infrastructure

Attended Hampton University

Charles Wesley Turnbull was born on February 5, 1935, in the USVI capital of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas Island. His parents, Ruth Ann Eliza Skelton and John Wesley Turnbull, were poor immigrants from Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. Turnbull attended public schools, graduating from Charlotte Amalie High School in 1952.

Turnbull won a Ford Foundation Scholarship to attend Hampton University, a historically black school in Hampton, Virginia. There he served as vice president of his freshman class and president of both his sophomore and senior classes. He was also chief justice of the student court. Turnbull earned a bachelor's degree in history with honors in 1958 and a master's degree in secondary education in 1959.

Returning home to St. Thomas, Turnbull taught elementary school and high school, eventually becoming principal of Charlotte Amalie High School. In 1967 he was named Assistant Commissioner of Education. He returned to the mainland to earn his doctorate in educational administration from the University of Minnesota in 1976.

Appointed Education Commissioner

Turnbull served as Commissioner of Education from 1979 until 1987. He was responsible for the construction of new schools, eliminating the double sessions that had plagued the system. He instituted vocational and technical programs, as well as alternative education, and encouraged the involvement of volunteers. Notably, Turnbull established the Cultural Education Division to promote awareness of the history and culture of the Virgin Islands and the greater Caribbean region.

In 1987 with the advent of a new administration, Turnbull lost his position. He joined the faculty of the University of the Virgin Islands as a history professor. Over the decades Turnbull had stayed politically involved. He was a longtime member of the Territorial Committee of the Virgin Islands Democratic Party and, beginning in 1964, he served as a delegate to each of the Islands' first four Constitutional Conventions. He also served on the Board of Elections.

Elected Governor

In 1998 Turnbull defeated the incumbent Republican Governor Roy Schneider, garnering 59% of the vote. He was the sixth elected USVI governor, since prior to 1970 the governor had been appointed by the U.S. president. During his campaign Turnbull promised to boost the islands' deficit-ridden economy by promoting tourism through advertising and air travel improvements and by encouraging businesses to relocate to the USVI. He told Success magazine: "Under my administration, we will not only do our best to make people aware of the opportunities in the Virgin Islands, but we'll also make it easier for them to do business once they get here."

However the problems confronting the new governor were immense. He faced a budget deficit of $100 million. In November of 1999 the Virgin Islands sustained nearly $32 million in damage from Hurricane Lenny. By the end of 1999 Turnbull's government was an estimated $1 billion in debt. Turnbull managed to shrink the government workforce, which had previously accounted for one-third of the territory's employees. However he was criticized for putting his friends and relatives on the government payroll and for giving them substantial raises.

Turnbull's tourism campaign got off to a rocky start. Between January of 1999 and March of 2000 he hired and fired four tourism directors. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, further hurt tourism, the mainstay of the USVI economy. In 2002 Carnival Cruise Line and others pulled out of St. Croix, USVI, because of crimes against passengers and crew. However by 2004 most of the cruise ships had returned, due in part to Turnbull's aggressive advertising campaign that promoted the USVI as a safe American territory, in contrast to foreign Caribbean destinations. Major new tourism projects were initiated including a $75-million expansion of the Ritz-Carlton on St. Thomas, a theme park, and a mega-resort with casino and golf course on St. Croix.

Defeated Seven Challengers for Reelection

With the territory in crisis and increasing concerns about Turnbull's managerial skills, he faced seven challengers in the 2002 election, including his lieutenant governor and former running mate. Nevertheless Turnbull was reelected with 50.5% of the vote.

In 2003 a week-long storm caused more than $5 million in damage and Turnbull declared a state of emergency. The public works department had no money to repair damaged sewers, roads, and culverts. By 2004 failure to upgrade sewer systems had cost the territory more than $25 million in fines. However Turnbull was successful in getting the federal government to forgive hurricane-related loans.

At a Glance …

Born Charles Wesley Turnbull on February 5, 1935, in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Education: Hampton University, BA, history, 1958, MA, secondary education, 1959; University of Minnesota, PhD, educational administration, 1976. Religion: Methodist. Politics: Democrat.

Career: Virgin Islands Department of Education, St. Thomas, USVI, social-studies teacher, 1959-61, Charlotte Amalie High School, assistant principal, 1961-65, principal, 1965-67, assistant commissioner of education, 1967-79, commissioner of education, 1979-87; University of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas, USVI, professor of history, 1988-99, professor emeritus, 1999-; Governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, 1999-2007.

Selected memberships: Roy Lester Schneider Hospital, board member; University of the Virgin Islands, trustee; Virgin Islands Board of Education, chair; Virgin Islands Historical Society, president; West Indian Company, Ltd., director.

Selected awards: Iota Phi Lambda Sorority, Citation for Excellence, Leadership and Service in the Field of Education, 1989; Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Theta Epsilon Lambda Chapter, Citation for Excellence in the Service of Humanity, 1992; Turner Broadcasting System, Trumpet Award for outstanding contributions to public service and education, 2001; Virgin Islands Humanities Council, Humanist Award, 2005; All Saints Cathedral, Diakonia Award for Community Service, 2006.

Addresses: Home—PO Box 2265, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, VI 00803.

The USVI's fiscal crisis continued unabated. As chairman of the Public Finance Authority, Turnbull was criticized for chronic fiscal mismanagement. He responded by commissioning new software to streamline government operations. In 2003 the federal government took over the territory's Housing Authority because of poor accounting and failure to repay federal loans. Turnbull's administration sometimes had difficulty meeting its payroll, paying vendors, and refunding taxes. In 2004 Turnbull vetoed raises and spending increases passed by the senate. His repeated proposals to raise hotel and rental-car taxes met with vehement opposition from both the tourism industry and the senate. Increasingly Turnbull was seen as anti-business.

Threatened with Financial Oversight

The USVI's nonvoting U.S. congressional representative repeatedly called for the appointment of a chief financial officer (CFO) with veto power over all government spending, a proposal that enraged Turnbull. The Virgin Islands Daily News of February 1, 2005, quoted from his State of the Territory address: "Our success in 2004 in growing our revenues, holding the line on spending, reducing the size of the government and eliminating 20 percent of our total debt simply tells truth to the lie that Virgin Islanders are incapable of governing themselves, especially in the area of financial management. It would be a good thing if our delegate to Congress withdraws her recently re-introduced bill to impose a CFO on the Virgin Islands. We really do not need it!" Turnbull testified against the bill before the U.S. Senate.

By the end of 2005 private-sector investment had led the USVI into a period of economic expansion. In his 2006 State of the Territory address Turnbull promised to establish a stock exchange in the territory, to develop new resorts and casinos, and to lobby the U.S. Congress for more help. However some senators credited the improved economy to the threat of a CFO.

Turnbull did not push for statehood for the USVI but did advocate for more local authority. In 2004 he signed a bill creating a supreme court, a significant step toward self-governance. He also signed a bill convening the territory's fifth convention to draft a constitution that would give the islands greater self-governance.

Faced Crime Wave and Crumbling Schools

Many senators were critical of Turnbull's failure to address education and crime. Under the self-declared "education governor" three public schools lost their accreditation. Schools were closing because of severe mold and lack of maintenance. In 2005 Turnbull declared a public exigency to supply millions of dollars to keep the buildings from collapsing. The territory was also experiencing a large increase in gun-related crime, while allegations of police brutality and corruption abounded.

Turnbull's administration was also tainted by scandal. In 2006 his former special assistant pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit theft and bribery, wire fraud, and conflict of interest in a case involving a multimillion-dollar sewer-repair contract to Global Resources Management, a company that Turnbull had served as president of for one month. Turnbull was accused of improperly declaring a state of emergency to award the contract without competitive bidding. He later canceled the contract and cooperated with prosecutors.

Turnbull left office in January of 2007, having served his allowable two terms. He had spent much of the past eight years at odds with the senate, even though Democrats held the majority. His vetoes were frequently overridden by the legislators. In one of his last acts as governor Turnbull pardoned or commuted the sentences of four murderers, six sex offenders, and three armed robbers.



Success, November 1998, p. 37.

Virgin Islands Daily News, February 1, 2005; August 8, 2005; January 31, 2006; February 4, 2006; May 8, 2006; October 3, 2006; October 21, 2006.


"Charles Wesley Turnbull," Biography Resource Center, (February 24, 2007).

"Governor's Information," National Governors Association, (March 6, 2007).

"Turnbull's State Address Receives Lukewarm Senate Response," St. Thomas Source, March 6, 2007).

"US Virgin Islands State of the Territory," Council of State Governments-Eastern Regional Conference, (March 6, 2007).

"USVI in a Campaign Mode," Revista INTERFORUM, (March 7, 2007).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Turnbull, Charles Wesley." Contemporary Black Biography. . 25 Apr. 2019 <>.

"Turnbull, Charles Wesley." Contemporary Black Biography. . (April 25, 2019).

"Turnbull, Charles Wesley." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved April 25, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.