The University of the Virgin Islands’ main athletics facility on its St. Thomas campus has now been renamed to honor a Virgin Islander whose athletics and academic achievements in the territory span decades.
In a Friday morning ceremony, university officials renamed UVI’s Sports and Fitness Center for Elridge Blake, a St. Thomas native who helped develop the Historically Black College and University’s athletics program in the mid-1970s.
“I’m proud to be here,” Blake said. “Humbled, you know, by all the kind words. … I can never hate this university because they let me get my foot in the door. I told my students over the years, what you’ve got to do to elevate is get your foot in the door, and then you prove your word.
“Last night, it hit me – this honor is not for me, it’s for the younger generation in the community. Because they don’t know that you could come — I came out of a one-parent home. All the stigmas; you’re not supposed to accomplish anything out of the projects, and look at what I did?”
The 64,000 square foot complex — now named the Elridge Wilburn Blake Sports and Fitness Center — houses a 3,500-seat multi-sports arena as well as classrooms and offices for UVI’s athletics department, and is considered one of the premier athletic facilities of its type in the Caribbean.
The premier events hosted by the Sports and Fitness Center are the annual Paradise Jam men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments in late November, as well as all home games by the Buccaneers’ basketball teams.
“He is an athletic pioneer, outstanding coach, outstanding contributor to the University of the Virgin Islands and to this territory,” UVI President David Hall said in opening the ceremony.
Blake, born on St. Thomas in 1947, had already established himself as one of the territory’s top young scholar-athletes when he graduated from Charlotte Amalie High School in 1965.
However, it wasn’t until Blake attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., that his name became known away from the islands. A three-sport athlete — baseball, basketball and track and field — with the Bulldogs, he became the first Virgin Islander to be picked while still in college in Major League Baseball’s annual draft. He was taken in the fifth round (99th overall) by the Chicago Cubs.
But Blake didn’t turn to playing in the major leagues — instead of heading off to spring training, he stayed at Fisk and finished his studies, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree with honors in health and physical education.
The reason? According to Blake, to fulfill an obligation to the US Virgin Islands. “My first year at Fisk was paid for from the money I borrowed from the Virgin Islands government. The stipulation on the loan was you must come back home and give one year,” he said.
Blake became an instructor at UVI beginning in 1974; two years later, he helped get UVI’s athletics program off the ground with the formation of men’s and women’s volleyball teams. He was also an assistant coach on the Buccaneers’ women’s basketball team.
Over the years, Blake — who earned his master’s degree in 1989 — either taught or coached swimming, softball, football, basketball, volleyball, badminton, racquetball, tennis, bowling, physical fitness, track and field, Calypsocise, table tennis, and other table games.
Blake also started a mentorship program for local high school students while at UVI, which inducted him into the university’s Hall of Fame in 2001. He eventually retired as an associate professor from UVI in 2005.
The efforts to rename UVI’s Sports and Fitness Center in Blake’s honor began in 2021 when the VI Legislature approved and Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. signed into law Act 8510, appropriating $10,000 to cover the cost and upkeep of the new signage.
However, it wasn’t until the Legislature approved a bill (since signed into law by Bryan) earlier this year exempting UVI from legislative approval before naming property and buildings on school campuses that school officials could move forward.
Sen. Dwayne DeGraff, the main sponsor of Act 8510, said during the ceremony that “I wanted the young generation to know that this is a historical event. Mr. Blake is second-to-none.”