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Appreciation for bringing Freedom Square in from the margins of the Bermuda Story

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Charles Gosling, the Mayor of Hamilton, greets the surviving members of the Progressive Group as the Freedom Square plaque is unveiled at City Hall. Pictured from left are Edouard Williams, Florenz Maxwell, Gerald Harvey, Izola Harvey, Eugene Woods, the Mayor and Erskine Simmons (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Dear Sir,

In light of the July 2 launch of Freedom Square by the Corporation of Hamilton, we wish to take this opportunity to express appreciation to all involved in campaigning for this project.

James Gilbert explains what freedom means to him during Freedom Square celebrations outside City Hall (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

This process formally began on July 14, 2020 when a representative group — including Dennis Lister as co-chairman of the Community Planning Team, a representative from Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda, Social Justice Bermuda and myself representing Imagine Bermuda and serving as spokesman — made the formal proposal to the corporation’s Infrastructure Committee.

Layla Kurt explains what freedom means to her during Freedom Square celebrations outside City Hall (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

The introductory text of the proposal follows:

Proposal — Naming of Freedom Square

The Theatre Boycott, which began on June 15, 1959, possesses all the qualities of a good story. There was mystery, as the organisers, the Progressive Group, successfully maintained anonymity, having sparked a movement that directly challenged a status quo — segregation — which had been the norm for Bermuda’s 350 years of settlement.

Of course, with any challenge, there is always drama.

In the tradition familiar to many, there was the call provided by leaflets tacked on poles and signs posted on walls. The response would have led to near universal support by those affected — a period of suspended animation. But there was no stage direction for this play. A small number of hardy types, with home-made signs urging nonviolence, gathered near the cinemas bordering the carcass of the once prominent Hamilton Hotel, which had become the building site of the new City Hall. They were much like the scouts sent by a warrior band in one of those movies.

As days passed, more people began to gather, observing the drama unfolding before them. The call for creativity soon produced a pop-up rally on that site, with little to no resources. The audience became participants in that most engaging storyline, involving some tension, some joy, and learning about their society and themselves.

Freedom Square plaque unveiled (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Segregation was a practice that formally marginalised in order to maintain a status quo. For two short weeks, the conductors offered guidance and the orchestra responded in harmony. This was done so subtly that many, perhaps most, were discovering the conductor within themselves. However, the music that they made gave those rallying — as well as those spectating from a distance — a glimpse of what was possible.

The success of this non-violent movement owed much to the efforts of many, some whose names we will never know. The opening of the island on July 2 leveraged the dominoes for the renaissance of a regressive society not only removing barriers of race, but also providing an unstoppable momentum in establishing democracy.

Honouring all involved in making this success by naming the footprint of the Hamilton Hotel as Freedom Square helps to ensure that this pivotal chapter is brought from the margins of our society to the centre of the Bermuda Story.

This proposal was supported by a diverse representation from across the island, which included:

A letter to John Harvey, the chairman of City Hall’s Infrastructure Committee, making a case for the proposal from Helena “Molly” Burgess on behalf of the executive board of the Bermuda Industrial Union. This support was significant, given the connections between the union and boycott movement.

Progressive Group members Eugene Woods and Erskine Simmons had served on the BIU executive subsequent to the boycott. Additionally, Kingsley Tweed, who served as a key voice of the boycott, later served as an officer of the BIU. Additionally, another key figure on the ground for the boycott was comrade Richard Lynch, also a champion of unionism.

In addition, there was the support provided by a wide cross-section of local personalities on their own behalf. This included eight past and present presidents of the Bermuda Union of Teachers. The significance is that one third of the membership of the Progressive Group were BUT members and two of them Clifford Maxwell and Erskine Simmons served as union presidents.

There was also input from eight of the island’s faith leaders, which spoke to half of the Progressive Group members having found specific inspiration from the faith communities with which they were engaged at the time of the boycott. Also note that Freedom Square contains the site of Zion Chapel, the first church in Bermuda to open to all, regardless of race.

In light of Freedom Square already offering a significant platform for the arts on the Island, ten personalities and longtime champions of culture contributed their passionate support for the proposal. It would be remiss not to mention that this list included Ruth Thomas, Chesley Trott and Gene Steede.

Last, but by no means least, the proposal was also supported in alphabetical order by Joan Dillas-Wright, the President of the Senate, Diana Kempe, W. Alex Scott, Ottiwell Simmons, Sir John W. Swan and David Wingate.

In thanking these supporters, we offer appreciation to the Corporation of Hamilton for this significant step in our history.


Imagine Bermuda

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Published July 12, 2021 at 7:59 am (Updated July 12, 2021 at 7:11 am)

Appreciation for bringing Freedom Square in from the margins of the Bermuda Story

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