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A charismatic champion of social justice

RG: In Our Opinion

She was uncompromising in her conviction there should be no second-class citizenship for any Bermudians.

For Carol Dowding Hill the rights of all were threatened when the rights of a single individual were curtailed.

She would accept no foot-dragging or prevarication when it came to advancing her fundamental principles — principles predicated on respect for and recognition of the equality of all persons.

She believed, correctly, that the dignity of the individual should be enshrined in the civil and political arrangements of post-Second World War Bermudian society. She believed, again correctly, that freedoms which are preached but not routinely practised are not true freedoms at all.

Ms Hill, who died this week at the age of 89, was many things in her lifetime: an artist, a teacher, a writer, a philanthropist, a theatrical producer and director, a historian, a mentor to hundreds of students who she opened up educational and scholarship opportunities for.

But she may be best remembered as one of Bermuda's quiet revolutionaries, a charismatic, formidably intelligent and effortlessly articulate champion of social justice.

Advocacy was in her blood. Both her father and brother served as Members of Colonial Parliament. One of her grandfathers was a founder of the Berkeley Institute and her aunt, Agnes Ray Robinson, created The Sunshine League.

And Ms Hill spent her professional career channelling her own passion for public service into Bermuda's education system, most particularly at Prospect Secondary School for Girls where she taught for many years.

But it was as one of the organisers of the 1951 Bermudiana Theatre Boycott that Ms Hill most fully lived out the credo of her beloved If, Rudyard Kipling's celebrated valedictory poem to self-reliance, perseverance and patience.

It was a work she identified with and one she taught to generations of her students. And it's one she presumably drew strength from both before and after the boycott of the Bermudiana Theatre Club, a professional company staging summer stock productions — mainly for visitors — at the old hotel of that name.

When the Bermudiana theatre refused to sell tickets to blacks, Ms Hill along with sister-in-law Georgine Hill and a handful of others organised public protests, the first such open challenge to segregation in Bermuda's history.

These actions ultimately succeeded in not only putting an end to the theatre's seating policy but, by winning the support of the British and American actors' unions, drew widespread international attention to the Island's racial conditions. And they helped to set in motion a chain reaction which was to reach critical mass before decade's end.

Carol Hill remained involved in the movement she helped to initiate, helping to articulate both the grievances and aspirations of those whose lives had been blighted by racial separatism in widely circulated booklets which argued the case for urgent reform.

Her activism obviously did not endear her to the white political and business elite of the day. Nor did it make her universally popular in the black community: some blacks had made reluctant accommodations with those segregationist policies introduced to appease the sensibilities of the wealthy East Coast vacationers who then flocked to the Island. Any disturbance in Bermuda's deceptively placid racial conditions particularly ones which might endanger the steady inflow of tourist dollars, were to be avoided.

But throughout the long lag time between the commencement of the struggle to desegregate Bermuda and its eventual success Carol Hill lived out the words of If.

She kept her head while all too many around her were losing theirs.

She learned to wait and not grow tired by waiting, to accept being lied about without dealing in lies and to tolerate hatred without ever hating as Bermuda officialdom spent eight more years dawdling, making excuses and repeatedly postponing the inevitable.

Then, in 1959 the entire rotten edifice of officially sanctioned segregation in public places collapsed shortly after the Progressive Group's boycott of the Island's cinemas was launched.

The petit apartheid in Bermuda's theatres, hotels and restaurants was gone almost literally overnight.

And the groundwork was laid for the social and political revolution of the 1960s which saw the barriers of more pernicious and deeply entrenched forms of racial discrimination in Bermuda begin to be gradually dismantled.

Ultimately, as Shadow Immigration Minister Walton Brown said, Carol Hill was “a strong, quiet yet committed activist. She played an important role in the campaign for a more just Bermuda alongside a dedicated group of Bermudians.

“. . . We have lost an elegant and graceful treasure.”

She brought an artist's eye for the truth to some of Bermuda's darker realities and an unsparing instinct for justice to bear on the platitudes and pieties of this community.

By continuing to trust herself when some doubted her, Carol Hill helped to ensure Bermuda became a society in which all were free to pursue their highest potential and the artificial limitations imposed by second-class citizenship were dispensed with forever.

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Published March 26, 2015 at 9:00 am (Updated March 26, 2015 at 2:10 am)

A charismatic champion of social justice

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