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Historian, teacher and athlete dies aged 82

A history teacher and author of a groundbreaking book that helped lift the lid on slavery in Bermuda has died.

James E Smith was 82.

The Department of Community and Cultural Affairs said Mr Smith wrote “extensively about slavery and the fight for Black equality”.

Mr Smith was also Clerk to the House of Assembly throughout the 1990s and became Assistant Cabinet Secretary when he retired as clerk in 1996.

He remained as a consultant to the Cabinet after he stepped down from the Assistant Secretary’s post.

Mr Smith taught history in schools as well as at Bermuda College, where he was an Honorary Fellow.

He was also active in the Bermuda National Trust, the Board of the Archives and the Educators’ Council Exemption Committee.

Mr Smith’s 1976 book Slavery in Bermuda came just a year after Cyril Packwood’s milestone history Chained on the Rock.

The two books were part of a wave of publications in the 1970s that turned the spotlight on the hidden history of slavery and how it shaped Bermuda.

Mr Smith other works included Echoes of Bermuda’s Past: from Slavery to Emancipation and Beyond.

He documented the history of voting rights for the Government’s website and wrote a paper, The History of the Bermuda Legislature and How the Legislature Functions.

Meredith Ebbin, a retired journalist, said she worked with Mr Smith on the Bermudian Heartbeats Committee on the production of heritage and history lectures.

The two also worked on the 400th anniversary book Bermuda 1609-2009: 400 Years – 400 profiles.

Ms Ebbin said: “His quiet and unassuming nature belied his extensive knowledge of Bermuda history and Government.

“His keen interest in history never wavered even as he worked his way up the ladder of the Civil Service. In fact, it informed his work in Government.”

She added: “His contribution to black Bermudian history was unappreciated by many.

“It is important that it be recognised. I extend my condolences to his family.”

Ernest Peets, the Minister of Youth, Culture and Sport, said Mr Smith’s paper A New Dawn: An Analysis of the Emancipation Experience in Bermuda helped to fill “significant gaps in the historical record in ways that will undoubtedly stand the test of time".

Dr Peets added Mr Smith’s volunteer role at the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs had been “invaluable”.

Mr Smith was born in Somerset, but grew up near North Hamilton, George Cook, a childhood friend and a former president of Bermuda College, said.

Both attended Dellwood School and Saltus Grammar School, where Mr Smith studied on a government scholarship.

Dr Cook said: “Both of us came from humble backgrounds, and this sense of responsibility to give something back was bred in both of us.

“If you look at his work, it was there for all to see.”

Mr Smith was notable as a White writer who tackled the subject of slavery and Mr Packwood was a prominent Black scholar, as well as the chief librarian at the Bermuda National Library.

Dr Cook said: “Jim’s book tended to be a bit overlooked. There wasn’t a profound difference, but by writing his book he made a contribution to our understanding of the past.

“Jim was a salt of the earth individual. Whatever he set out to do, he did.”

Mr Smith mixed academic life with sport – played on the Saltus football team and twice won the Bermuda Junior Tennis title.

He also won the Junior Table Tennis Championship.

He attended the University of North Wales on another government scholarship, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history in 1963 after a brief stint as a book-keeper.

He was also awarded a first class honours degree in physical education at Loughborough University in Leicestershire.

Mr Smith earned a teaching certificate in 1964 and returned to Bermuda to head Dellwood’s English department.

He was later head of English at Warwick Academy.

He worked as tennis pro at the Belmont Hotel and, along with Cromwell Manders, organised the junior tennis programme.

Mr Smith earned his Master of Arts degree at the University of Wales in 1972.

Slavery in Bermuda came from his thesis and took five years of research to compile.

Mr Smith became a head lecturer in history at the Bermuda College in the late 1970s, and taught there for a decade before he took up the job in the House.

Dr Cook said: “That was work that required attention to detail.

“I am a historian myself. I have great respect for evidence – he was the same.”

John Barritt, a former MP who sat in the House for 18 years, said Mr Smith was clerk when he was first elected.

Mr Barritt said: “He was exacting and helpful, whatever party you were in. There was a very affable way about him.

“He treated everybody equally and fairly, with a memorably wry smile. He had patience – those speeches could go for long hours.”

Mr Smith is survived by Helen, his wife of 53 years, and their two sons Andrew and Graham.

James Ernest Smith, historian, and former Clerk to the Legislature, was born on December 19, 1938. He died in January 2021. Mr Smith was 82.

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Published February 12, 2021 at 2:27 pm (Updated February 12, 2021 at 2:27 pm)

Historian, teacher and athlete dies aged 82

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