Witness to history
Brownlow Place, who turns 106 tomorrow, did not just see Bermuda change from a rigidly segregated community to a modern democracy, he was at the centre of many of the changes through his family’s newspaper, The Recorder. This week he shared his memories with historian Kristy Warren
In November, 1928, 12-year-old Lefroy Brownlow Place stood on the corner of Reid and Parliament Streets as a crowd gathered. He had rushed there after getting word from his father, Alfred Brownlow Place, that Marcus Garvey’s ship had arrived.
Mr Place recalled: “The ship landed at Number Six Shed, I stood there by the old Post Office and I could look down on the ship and I could see Marcus Garvey in the stern of the ship.”
This was as close as anyone waiting on shore that day was able to get to Garvey, the founder of the Pan-African movement, which helped to end racial segregation around the world.
“The Marcus Garvey movement got so strong in the United States that Bermudian businessmen … got very concerned about him. They didn’t want him to come to Bermuda to impress more Bermudians [to join] his movement. They knew what it would cost. … So, they would not allow him to land,” Mr Place remembered.
In his article BermudaLooks to the East: Marcus Garvey, the UNIA, and Bermuda, 1920–1931, Dr Quito Swan explains that Garvey, who had established the United Negro Improvement Association, refused to sign an agreement to not make any speeches if allowed to land. Thus, the planned festivities had to cancelled.
“The Church [of God on Angle Street] had planned a field day for Marcus Garvey at Deepdale, and because he couldn’t land it didn’t happen.”
Mr Place explained the attraction of Garveyism to Black Bermudians at the time: “We were looking for leadership… because we didn’t have any Black leadership. So, we followed the Marcus Garvey movement. In doing so, the movement in Bermuda grew quite rapidly.
“We as Black people needed something to follow that would guide us and that was it. My father and a lot of other Bermudians joined the Marcus Garvey movement and that’s what got me into it.”
Mr Place remains a Garveyite. He suspects he's among the last ones in Bermuda, musing: “There’s not too many of us around now.”
He is almost certainly among the oldest. For tomorrow, he will celebrate his 106th birthday. “I thank God for seeing it fit for me to see 106 years of age.”
This comes on the heels of the 108th birthday of his long-time friend Myrtle Edness (neé DeShield), whom he called to wish a happy birthday on Sunday. The two have been friends since the mid-1930s. It was then that Mr Place joined The Recorder newspaper in the newly built Recorder building, where Mrs Edness was already working.
The newspaper was firmly rooted in the UNIA: “I’m a Garveyite. Proud to be a Garveyite, because out of that Garvey movement came The Recorder.”
Mr Place stated that The Recorder newspaper was started in 1925 by his father and “four … other men” who were inspired by Garvey’s message that Black people should “do something for themselves”. His father became the paper’s managing editor.
Mr Place shared a newspaper clipping concerning the history of The Recorder. The article was printed as part of a Black History Month special in the Bermuda Times in February 1995. Written by Arnold Francis, it explored the role of Black people in Bermudian media, highlighting The Recorder and the Capital Broadcasting Company. Mr Francis interviewed Mr Place, who at the time was 89, concerning the newspaper’s history.
The Bermuda Times article shows that the other men were who started the Union Printery with A B Place in 1925 were Henry Hughes, David Augustus, Joaquin Martin and James Rubaine. The men pooled together £750 to buy the Aeolian Hall on Angle Street from Teddy Robinson. Robinson had a small building constructed next door to house the Union Printery. The men later built the Recorder Building on Court Street.
Mr Place explained that The Recorder was the first time that Black Bermudians ”had news of themselves”.
When he left school at 13, Mr Place was sent to learn the plumbing trade. He then joined The Recorder in his late teens. For more than 40 years, Mr Place said he was the “right hand of my father”. He became The Recorder’s managing director, but left the paper in 1979, soon after his father retired, stating: “I wasn’t too happy with the administration of The Recorder after my father died.”
After leaving The Recorder, Mr Place worked for the Corporation of Hamilton for 30 years, retiring when he was 85 years old.
Brownlow Place met his wife, Marguerite (neé Bassett) at the Recorder Building soon after it was built.
“Her father (John Bassett) opened up a restaurant and she was working there. Because I was working in the same building, we got to know one another. I admired her style of thinking and her style of living. She was a Sunday School teacher at the Wesleyan Methodist church. So, I decided I was going to marry her.”
They were married for 59 years before her death in 1999. They had three children: Brownlow Tucker-Smith Place, Glenda Walker and Charlene Tyrrell. Tucker and Glenda passed away at 56 and 67 years old respectively. He explains that he does not know where he would be now without his daughter Charlene.
Longevity runs in Mr Place’s family. He explained that his father and two of his sisters, Ms Hilda Place and Mrs Rhoda Burrows, lived to their mid-90s, adding that: “My grandmother lived a little longer. She lived until she was 102.”
Over the last year Mr Place has spent most of his time at home. He gave up driving, stating it was ‘too much pressure for me. Sometimes I would see bikes coming behind me and when I looked again, they were overtaking on both sides of me.”
He also used to do a lot of walking, explaining that he “comes from a walking family". He also notes that his family were ”churchgoing people“. He doesn’t go to church much these days but is looking forward to attending services tomorrow on his birthday.
In addition to speaking about Garveyism and The Recorder, Mr Place also provided observations on Bermudian society more generally. He expressed a desire for young Bermudians to learn “about their history [and] how we have come along”. He lamented the continued divisions in society fuelled by racism and “class distinction”.
These issues were very evident when Mr Place was growing up in a segregated society.
As a child, he attended the Salvation Army, an organisation to which his paternal grandmother belonged. He also went to an Anglican Church Sunday School for a time. He explained: “The boys and girls in the neighbourhood all went to the Anglican Church and I went along with them.
“After a while, I joined a Black choir. I kept hearing the words second division choir. So, I went home and [asked] my mother, ‘What is the second division choir?’ She looked at me and she smiled and said: ‘You’re in it’.”
As a result, Mr Place said he “stopped going to Sunday School”.
He said: “When I did go back to church, I went to St Paul AME church.”
He also noted that when the Princess Hotel opened in Hamilton “no one of colour could go there. Blacks, Portuguese and Jews couldn’t go there.“ He also explained that ”there were businesses in town that Black people didn’t go to because half the time they didn’t get served”.
He recalled an incident that happened when he was a child. “I remember my mother sent me to a store on Queen Street, HA&E Smith, to get some sewing threads. I went up to the counter and the two clerks were talking and I stood there for a little while.” He explains the one clerk indicated to the other that he was waiting, but they continued talking to each other.
“I was still standing there, I didn’t know what to do. Then two White ladies came in the door. As soon as [the clerks] saw the White ladies they stopped talking and went up to them and asked ‘can I help you’. The women didn’t buy anything. Then he came to me. I waited for that and then I walked out.”
Of that period of Bermuda’s history he noted: “Those were the ugly days, ungodly days.”
Prejudice also existed among Black people in Bermuda. Mr Place said that although in many ways Black Bermudians were more close-knit when he was young, there were divisions based on skin colour, place of origin and family status.
He explained the emphasis on skin colour by Bermudians of all backgrounds noting that: ‘The light skinned person was hired before the dark-skinned person. Even though sometimes the dark-skinned person was their sister or brother. That’s what kept us [from] coming together.”
He also gave an example of when he joined the Abercorn Lodge, which showed how family status worked to elevate some people.
“That’s where class came in again. My father was a past member there and because of my father as soon as I joined, they wanted to put me way up at the head. I know most of the chaps in the lodge and some of them were my friends. For me to come in and for them to put me way ahead of them, I didn’t care for that. Prejudice again, based on who you are. So, I left the lodge.”
Mr Place expressed a desire to see stronger bonds between Bermudians.
“Until we become a people, we can’t become a nation. We talk about independence but … nations come out of people.”
Brownlow Place loves Cup Match!
“I started my birthday celebrating my team. I’ve always been a Somerset fan because my mother came from Somerset.”
Mr Place has only missed a few games since he started attending as a child.
“I’ve been going to Cup Match by myself since I was about 10 years old. I caught the Corona ferry that was taking men to work in Dockyard. I used to walk from there or take a horse drawn bus.”
He also explained a bit about what Cup Match was like when he was young:
“In those days people went to Cup Match well dressed. It was not just the match they were going for; it was the freedom that they had through the lodges. It was the lodges that Cup Match came out of. One was in St George’s and one in Somerset and they wanted to know each other more so they got together to have a picnic from which the match came.”