Theatre Boycott 60 years on: We achieved a lot’
Bermuda should have an annual celebration of the anniversary of the Theatre Boycott, one of the activists who ended segregation in cinemas and other public places 60 years ago said yesterday.
Vera Commissiong, one of the quiet heroes who campaigned as part of the secret Progressive Group with her husband, Rudolph, said: “We should have a holiday to commemorate it.
“What we achieved has lasted. Nobody has to put up with the things we did. We are really free now.”
She was speaking on the eve of the anniversary of the day Bermuda’s cinemas reopened as integrated establishments in 1959 after two weeks of anti-segregation picketing.
Hotels and restaurants followed soon afterwards.
Ms Commissiong and fellow activists Leroy Looby and the Reverend Erskine Simmons joined Glenn Fubler, of community group Imagine Bermuda, to talk about the day that began the island’s slow march to equal rights.
Mr Looby said he was inspired by the speeches of the late Richard “Doc” Lynch, better known as “Comrade Lynch”
He added: “People were looking for progress, put it that way. ‘Doc’ Lynch and Kingsley Tweed said we were going to do it without any violence.”
Mr Looby said he heard James Pearman, the head of the Bermuda General Theatre Company, dismiss the protests outside his businesses. He added: “He said ‘all those black hooligans will soon be back’. That was right before the final phase.”
Segregation was complete in Bermuda, from theatres to schools to the Civil Service, at the time protests started with placards on June 15, 1959.
Mr Looby said he held a sign that read “all closed, thank you” outside one of the cinemas.
He added: “That was when the theatres decided to close. But people did not give up.”
Mr Simmons said: “Did we get everything we hoped for? We achieved a lot.
“Jobs in the Civil Service opened up for black people. The hotels opened up. A lot of barriers came down.”
Mr Simmons added: “Sometimes for the young people it’s ancient history.
“I was asked to talk to primary school children about it, and I thought that young people cannot really comprehend the type of community that we had.
“They can’t imagine it. It was total segregation.
“Business opportunities for black people were limited and banks did not give black people amortised mortgages. That was the way it was.”
Ms Commissiong, then a teacher at Elliot School, said: “It was terrible.
“I went to school in the American South and I used to brag about Bermuda being so open minded in comparison.
“But I didn’t really know, because I was so young.”
She studied in Virginia, where black cinema patrons had to sit upstairs.
Ms Commissiong said: “I came back to Bermuda and black people had to sit downstairs.
“I made a joke that segregation here wasn’t even done right. Those were the types of things black folks had to deal with.”
She added: “Just because of the colour of your skin, there was so much frustration you had to put up with. It was so unfair. We changed that.”
She admitted she had felt “sort of scared” as she put up posters with her husband to publicise the protest. Ms Commissiong said: “They would rip them down and we would put them back up. I saw something in the newspaper saying they would take you to court if they found you putting them up.”
She added her family had to get special permission for her son, Rolfe Commissiong, now a Progressive Labour Party MP, to attend the traditionally white Mount St Agnes private school in Hamilton.
Ms Commissiong said: “Life is so completely different now. We had a good group with the Progressive Group. At the beginning some of the people were afraid, but we stood together.”
The activists remained anonymous for decades but were given public recognition in 1999.
Mr Simmons said: “Everything changed, but people’s own children didn’t know about it.”
Mr Fubler added the example of the Progressive Group continued to inspire. He said: “They did what they did and they did it quietly. They didn’t have any victory celebration.”
Mr Fubler added that civil rights campaigner Roosevelt Brown, who led to drive for universal adult suffrage in the 1960s, “would never have been able to do what he did had it not been for the Theatre Boycott”.
He said: “His movement collaborated with some of the Progressive Group without even knowing it. That’s the genius of it.”
Mr Fubler earlier called for members of the public to drive with their headlights on today as a mark of respect to the quiet heroes who helped to change Bermuda.
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