Young essayist with a sense of racial pride

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  • History man: Ira Philip covered Bermuda’s march to civil rights (File photograph)

    History man: Ira Philip covered Bermuda’s march to civil rights (File photograph)


Journalist and writer Ira Philip, born in 1925, set out as a reporter in the 1940s in an era of rigid segregation.

He covered Bermuda’s march to civil rights and democracy, along with daily life, right into a new century.

But his first published work in the daily press, an essay on patriotism, was printed in 1937 when he was 11.

Mr Philip wrote that his mother, Marie Antoinette Philip, motivated him to become a writer.

He was influenced from childhood by the black nationalist Marcus Garvey and said his mother instilled in him “a profound sense of racial pride”.

Another thinker whose influence pervaded the household was the Right Reverend Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Mr Philip got his start at the black-owned Bermuda Recorder, which he called “an outcrop of the Garvey movement”, and served as its parliamentary reporter from 1948 to 1962.

In a 1999 interview for the Mid-Ocean News, Mr Philip looked back on the newspaper, which closed in 1975, as “a one-man show as far as reporting was concerned — getting out there, getting the news, and being where the action was”.

In 1962, he joined new station Capitol Broadcasting Company and was news director and station manager until 1981.

Mr Philip credited its founder, Montague Sheppard, for taking him on and running “an irreplaceable institution in Bermuda’s history”.

Mr Philip was chairman of the Progressive Labour Party from 1985 to 1991 and a PLP senator during that period.

His literary works included Freedom Fighters: From Monk to Mazumbo, Hakim: Son of Mazumbo, Heroines in the Medical Field, The History of the Bermuda Industrial Union, and Champ, the One and Only Champ Hunt.

Mr Philip provided much of the on-camera commentary for Errol Williams’s 2002 film about the 1959 Theatre Boycott, When Voices Rise ...

He covered that event for the Recorder and captured for posterity theatre owner J.E. Pearman’s description of the boycott as “a storm in a teacup”.

Mr Philip wrote for local and overseas publications, and served as a public relations officer for the Bermuda Resort Association, which represented black guesthouse owners during segregation.

He and his late wife, Ismay, who was a singer, raised seven children, and he was recognised in 1999 with an MBE.

Bill Zuill, former editor of The Royal Gazette and now executive director of the Bermuda National Trust, highlighted Mr Philip’s many causes, from freemasonry to trade unionism.

Mr Zuill said: “But he kept returning to the profession of journalism for more than 70 years, and it is that longevity, and the historic events he covered, that I will always remember and commend Ira for.

“Ira wore his political heart on his sleeve, and that may have confused some whose ideal of a journalist is someone who tries to report only the facts.

“But today, as we observe The New York Times and The Washington Post take on President Trump, we are reminded that a journalist’s first job is to speak truth to power. Ira Philip did that.”

Mr Zuill added Mr Philip’s “Island Notebook” column for the Mid-Ocean News and The Royal Gazette “covered people and events who would not normally get coverage”.

He said: “Ira did not agree with every editorial position that the Gazette took when I was editor, but we were able to debate and disagree in a civil and tolerant manner, and that in itself is a mark of how far Bermuda progressed in Ira’s lifetime.”

Veteran local journalist Meredith Ebbin added it was “remarkable” that Mr Philip earned his living through his writing and that he witnessed “the pivotal events of 20th-century Bermuda”.

Ms Ebbin said: “That is unusual for any Bermudian, and for a black Bermudian in particular.

“Most journalists switch to more lucrative careers in corporate communications or public relations. Mr Philip had journalism in his blood.”

She added that Mr Philip was “out and about, mobile phone in pocket, gathering material for his weekly column” until recent times. Ms Ebbin said Mr Philip had been an “old-style reporter” and “largely unappreciated”.

Mr Philip wrote in 2004 that his career had spanned “most if not all of the momentous times that have rocked Bermuda, to say nothing about the world”.

He added: “In a unique way I have been in the midst of the riots, curfews, social and political revolutions, and a great many happier events, socially, culturally and in the sphere of sports.”

He also met international figures ranging from Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X, to the Queen and Margaret Thatcher, and Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Mr Philip made a point of receiving his MBE in 1999 on behalf of the colleagues and mentors with whom he had worked.

He said: “All I could do was write the news.”

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Published Apr 10, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated Apr 10, 2018 at 6:54 am)

Young essayist with a sense of racial pride

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