How should we symbolise freedom?

  • Local consciousness: the Will Onions-designed Hamilton City Hall

    Local consciousness: the Will Onions-designed Hamilton City Hall


The recent Black Lives Matters Bermuda march, which was the largest and most comprehensive procession ever witnessed on the streets of Bermuda, was a momentous event. Not to capitalise on that achievement would be a missed opportunity.

Although this march was in syncopation with those held all around the world, prompted by the gruesome murder of George Floyd, it did conjure sentiments felt but not necessarily as defined as the police brutality and racial-profiling situation of black men in America.

The toppling of statues of known racist or otherwise negative historical figures has spurred local consciousness to be mindful of the need for positive expressions and symbols. The thought of renaming the area surrounding City Hall as Freedom Square could almost be seen as an inevitable move.

Let me be quick to say that “Nelly’s Walk” is a name I am very familiar with, but have no idea how that name got attached to the area. I remember all the guys back in the day standing with their doe-skinned daks pants and silk pinstriped shirts with fish-netted undervest and classy brogue shoes, profiling across the street from the Blue Jays restaurant.

I have no other historical reference for the name Nelly. I do recall going to the segregated theatres, usually either the Play House or the Island Theatre.

Then I remember the dramatic change, which affected everything everywhere because before I could not walk through the front door of a hotel. So perhaps Nelly’s Walk can be renamed “Freedom’s Walk”? To memorialise the Theatre Boycott and the events leading to desegregation.

I want to be careful with the word “freedom”, particularly if related to the theatre boycott, because I have two striking and indelible memories of the events of those days of 1959, and not just the one event which everyone celebrates happening in the area near City Hall.

On the second day of the boycott, I was awakened by two mighty blasts that shook me out of my bed. I lived next to the Hilltop block plant, which was blown up and destroyed by two blasts of dynamite that could be heard as far away as Somerset.

This was not just a little plant; it was the busiest and most up-to-date block plant in Bermuda — it even made cement slate for roofing. Researchers should immediately go to The Royal Gazette archives and read the events of both days. You will find it as clear as the nose on your face.

The year 1959 marks the beginning of social integration, but it also marks the beginning of the end of black merchants.

The “First Class Men” whom the late Eva Hodgson wrote so eloquently about, were earmarked and systematically destroyed within ten to 15 years, in what simulated the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the United States in 1921.

The Bermuda travesty is, why is it that no one remembers? Why is it that the protest is celebrated, revered and held up as a reminder when the essence of what supported our communities up to that point could be unceremoniously destroyed without a whimper?

The churches we built and the lodges and workmen’s clubs were in large measure, all the result of our merchants. Even the men whom we celebrate, such as E.F. Gordon and the Reverend Charles Vinton Monk, were all brought in, when you examine the facts, by merchants.

I could say even the first African Methodist Episcopal bishop was brought to Bermuda by merchants, one of them being my great-great-grandfather.

Elliot School and Sandys Secondary, if you do a background check, were all the product of black merchants — some of them building contractors. So why no memory of them?

I mentioned the block plant, but what about the bowling alleys? Why do we celebrate, protest and bury accomplishment, along with all those who sought entrepreneurship as the answer to upward mobility?

It’s for those reasons that I am not to quick to grab the title of freedom, particularly when we apply it to 1959 when, yes, I achieved the right to walk into any shop, but in the process lost my own neighbourhood shop, lost my favourite Blue Jays restaurant, lost my block plant, lost all of my bowling alleys.

Someone misunderstands the meaning of freedom when you celebrate protest, but your means of livelihood are taken away and become dependent on the goodwill of others, if at all.

I am prepared to embrace the notion that the 1959 episode was a step in the right direction, but only a small step without the economic component meant to support further steps.

I remember, so vividly, commentaries by my seniors talking 50 years ago about a place called Freedom Hall in Trinidad, where, in the past, there was lots of talk about freedom. I remember, too, they said how so many people did not understand what that freedom meant.

Some were thinking things would just come their way easily without any work, and that it was now supposed to happen as an entitlement.

However, as they were soon to discover, freedom was only the beginning of the road. If you want true freedom, one has to develop the means, then protect those means; otherwise, one will become the victim of someone else’s freedom.

If I were to symbolise freedom, given my experience with life, who should I draw as a statue to symbolise it? I was thoroughly impressed with the industry created by Edward Simons. The huge stone crushers and block machines, the trucks coming in and out all captured my imagination and inspired me.

Should I, given that experience, do a statue of Mr Simons, whose business was blown up on the second day of the 1959 Theatre Boycott or one of Kingsley Tweed?

That was not meant as a binary question or a put-down; it’s not an either or, the point being both are as important. At the moment, the public have been given only one observation of relevance, and I am trying to show another side of the same story.

I knew personally the men who created the Provident Bank also Kirkland’s Bank (later renamed Bermuda National Bank), my first thousand dollar savings was in that Provident bank.

The thing for us to consider is, how do you want freedom to be symbolised?

We should not get preoccupied with being pseudo participants of the broad subject of freedom. We need a comprehensive approach with a material agenda that visualises what the end game looks like.

Even our ancestors when they sang songs like “We’re Marching upward to Zion beautiful, beautiful Zion, the City of God”, the point being they had an idea where they were going.

In life, there seems to be indeed a binary question, which is episodic. The choice as is portrayed in biblical terms, is as between a Barabbas or a Jesus.

The beleaguered people of Israel who were seeking emancipation from the Romans choice was the rabble-rouser insurrectionist Barabbas, the crowd infamously yelling “free Barabbas and crucify Jesus”.

Could it be that in our modern conflict, we too as beleaguered people will prefer honouring protesters over the “First Class men” who were destroyed (Crucified)?

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Published Jul 7, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated Jul 7, 2020 at 10:42 am)

How should we symbolise freedom?

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