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How the idea for the 1959 theatre boycott came about

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Musician and Progressive Group member Rudolph Commissiong in Bermuda with his now deceased sister, June Dupres, circa 2009 (Photograph supplied)

Dear Sir,

I read with keen interest Glenn Fubler’s piece in the paper that covered the event that Dale Butler’s Atlantic House Publishing organised to honour the Reverend Kingsley Tweed a few weeks ago. Once again Dale Butler delivered -- consistent with the tremendous work he has expended on the cultural front in Bermuda for decades. Who shall honour him?

As to the Op-ed by Mr Fubler, who has been a valuable contributor in disseminating the history of the Progressive Group. He also has a knack of providing a back story and context to the events that unfolded back in 1959 while bringing them to life. I commend him. Future generations need to know this story.

So I am sure that he will not mind me saying that it was not quite as he wrote that the “…Progressive Group members thought up the idea of a boycott to transform a segregated Bermuda and took steps to launch that unprecedented campaign, against the odds”.

Realistically, in fact, rightly put, it was the Progressive Group members who endorsed by way of resolution the idea first put forth by my father Rudolph Commissiong, to utilise the tool of an economic boycott to achieve their objective of dismantling the rigid racial segregation that so characterised Bermuda then. In other words, there was no divine lightning bolt that hit the room in which they were deliberating as a result of which they suddenly all came up with this seminal idea. Life does not work that way. And this was the seminal idea, as subsequent events proved.

None of the members of the Progressive Group sought fame and certainly not fortune in doing what they did. In fact most of their children would not even know of their parents’ involvement until decades later. In my case, I was a young adult. My father also did not even share the above with respect to the economic boycott idea until I was in my mid-fifties. And let me say this; if his fellow members had voted or by consensus opposed the idea that particular action of a boycott would not have occurred. Similarly, the Harveys’ idea to solicit support from their guests to assist in getting the copier would not have occurred either without the group’s buy-in. All decisions taken were collective, as I understand it.

As to how he came up with the idea of the boycott, he related that Dame Lois Browne-Evans, who was a very close friend of my family, provided the genesis of the idea. When asked by him some time prior to the events of 1959 why she never attended the cinema, she replied that she would not attend any theatre were people were subjected to having things thrown at them or worse from those who sat in the glorified air of the upper level seats at the theatre. Of course, those people committing the acts she described to my father and mother were the Whites who had the privilege of sitting in that upper level section of the theatre. Back then the Black patrons were restricted to seats at the ground level of the theatre.

In 2004, the members of the once-secret Progressive Group and their families gathered to watch Bermudian filmmaker Errol Williams' documentary about their organisational efforts to end segregation in Bermuda in the late 1950s. Educator Dr Clifford Maxwell died last week after a career of teaching maths and as principal of The Berkeley Institute. Like the other members of the Progressive Group, Dr Maxwell had returned to Bermuda from university abroad to rigid segregation and used their organisational skills to lead the 1959 Theatre Boycott often with the help of a smuggled printing press. Its members did not step forward to identify themselves for more than 40 years. Shown are Mr Williams (left) and from left Progressive Group members Florenz Maxwell, William Francis, Izola Harvey, Eugene Woods, Gerald Harvey, Dr Stanley Ratteray, Patricia Ratteray, Marva Phillips and Dr Clifford Maxwell. Not shown are Rudolph and Vera Commissiong.

In other words, Lois Browne-Evans had already started her own personal boycott of the theatre. That was his light bulb moment. The rest is history.

The work executed by the Progressive Group and key activists like Reverend Tweed that to wield another blow against an ideology of White supremacy in Bermuda that had afforded extreme privilege to a dominant White minority at the expense of the many is not over. That work is still necessary today in order to achieve a more equitable and healthier Bermuda.

My father produced a memoir close to a decade ago while in his eighties. It remains unpublished but includes the above story and I have circulated it widely over the last few weeks. If you happen to get a copy, consider it a holiday gift from the Commissiong family.



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Published December 28, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated December 27, 2022 at 5:10 pm)

How the idea for the 1959 theatre boycott came about

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