Dr EF Gordon - fought tirelessly for equal rights for black Bermudians

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Dr Edgar Fitzgerald Gordon championed the cause of Bermudian workers and fought tirelessly for equal rights for black Bermudians - laying the groundwork for much of the political and social change that came about after his death.

He received his early education in Trinidad and in 1912, he entered the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to study medicine and met his future wife Clara Christian in medical school.

Clara and Dr Gordon got married, but then his father's business suffered a downturn - around the time of the First World War. When Clara became pregnant with their first child, the couple decided that she would drop out of medical school to have the baby.

Clara gave birth to three daughters in Scotland, Barbara in 1918 and twins Joyce and Evelyn, 18 months later. Dr Gordon qualified in 1918 and took a medical position in Inverness.

In 1921, the family sailed home to the Caribbean and their ship made a brief stopover in Bermuda. Dr Gordon was impressed by Bermuda's physical beauty, but was surprised to encounter segregation. He worked in Trinidad briefly, then moved on to Dominica, where he became chief medical supervisor.

He arrived in Bermuda in 1924 to fill a gap in medical service and soon established a busy practice - although the first hurdle for Dr Gordon was the medical exam. He passed it, but believed it had been made intentionally difficult so that he could fail.

One of the first causes he took up was on behalf of black nurses and in a series of letters to The Royal Gazette, beginning in 1929, he criticised the Bermuda Welfare Society for its refusal to hire blacks to be district nurses.

There was no stated bar to blacks becoming district nurses, but the requirement that they had to be a Queen's Nurse, a British qualification, automatically disqualified black Bermudian nurses because they were being trained in the US

It would take decades for Dr Gordon's lobbying on behalf of black nurses to bear fruit. The first black district nurse, Leonie Harford, was not hired until 1963.

Dr Gordon turned his attention to Parliament. His first two attempts to win a seat in 1933 and 1943 were unsuccessful, but then in 1946, he was declared the winner of a controversial by-election in St. George's.

Two other black candidates mysteriously withdrew, one the night before the by-election, leaving him as the sole candidate, and raising questions about his role in the 11th-hour withdrawals.

Gordon took his seat as a Member of Colonial Parliament (MCP), but the Bermuda Workers Association (BWA) would become his true political platform.

In 1944, when a group of workers employed at the US Base in Southampton were forced to take a pay cut, they founded the Bermuda Workers Association (BWA) and turned to Dr Gordon to become president. He had by now a reputation for taking on the white establishment.

Within a year, the BWA had purchased property in Hamilton for a headquarters and by 1946, Dr Gordon had signed up nearly 5,000 BWA members.

In 1946 Dr Gordon drew up a landmark petition calling on British authorities to investigate practices that left black and working-class Bermudians on the margins of society with little political and economic power.

When the petition was debated in Parliament in 1947, placard-bearing BWA supporters gathered in the grounds of the House of Assembly.

A parliamentary committee, with a majority of white members, was set up to investigate, but the only tangible result was free primary school education, which came about following the passage of a law in 1949.

The birth of the BWA led to the Bermuda's first trade union legislation, the Trade Union and Disputes Act in 1946. The law was designed to clip the wings of the fledgling BWA, making it illegal for a union to have a newspaper or operate a business. When the bill was debated in Parliament, Dr Gordon led efforts to have the offending clauses dropped, receiving support from two white parliamentarians as well, but was outvoted by the more reactionary MCPs.

While an MCP, Dr Gordon pressed for the abolition of the property vote which in 1946, meant only 2,482 men and women out of a population of nearly 35,000 could vote.

After losing his seat in 1948 he was re-elected in 1953, an election that saw the largest number of blacks to date taking their seats in Parliament, nine out of a total of 36.

When it was announced that Bermuda would be the first stop on tour of the British Commonwealth by the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II, and details of the visit were made public, Dr Gordon said that of 1,200 people invited to a Government House garden party, only 60 were black and not one black person had merited an invitation to a state dinner for 30 guests.

The snub made the front page of three British newspapers.

Gordon's troubled personal life left him open to criticism. He and Clara never divorced. Both were Roman Catholic, a denomination which does not allow divorce, but their split was permanent.

He formed other relationships and had two more sets of children. The youngest of his children, Pamela Gordon, was born six months after his death in September, 1955. Pamela would ultimately rise to political prominence, becoming Bermuda's first female premier in 1997. Her mother, Mildred Lucille Layne, was Dr Gordon's long-time partner.

Dr Gordon died on April 20, 1955, of a heart attack at age 60. Sir Henry Tucker was the only white parliamentarian who paid tribute to him in Parliament and thousands turned out for his funeral at St Theresa's Cathedral, Hamilton.

His supporters called themselves Gordonites and some of them went on to form Bermuda's first political party, the Progressive Labour Party in 1963.

Dr Gordon was, in the words of author and anti-racism activist Dr Eva Hodgson, “dynamic”, “arrogant”, “brilliant” and “imperfect”, but who more than any other man succeeded in “awakening a political consciousness among the labouring classes".

When he died, the Bermuda Recorder wrote that “no man had so fired the imagination and alerted the inarticulate masses as he did.”

* With many thanks to Bermuda Biographies. For more go to: www.bermudabiographies.bm

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Published Jun 16, 2011 at 12:01 am (Updated Jun 14, 2011 at 2:57 pm)

Dr EF Gordon - fought tirelessly for equal rights for black Bermudians

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