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Marva Phillips (1935-2021): civil rights hero and teacher

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Activist and teacher: Marva Phillips (File photograph)

A civil rights champion and teacher was remembered yesterday for carrying on a family legacy of fighting for social justice as a leading member of the Progressive Group.

Marva Phillips taught at primary schools and at what is now Sandys Secondary Middle School before she was principal of Somerset Primary School from 1977 to 1982.

But her work with the Progressive Group, responsible for the 1959 Theatre Boycott that started the demolition of segregation in Bermuda, put her career on the line.

Glenn Fubler, an activist with the group Imagine Bermuda, said that Ms Phillips had continued a family tradition of activism.

He said that her father, Wycliffe Stovell, worked alongside the late civil rights leader E F Gordon at the start of the Bermuda Workers Association, a trailblazing trades union.

The BWA, founded in 1944, was a forerunner to the Bermuda Industrial Union.

The association petitioned the British Parliament in 1946 and asked it to examine the social, political and economic injustices in Bermuda.

Mr Fubler said: “Her grandfather, the Reverend Rufus Stovell, was one of the founders of the Bermuda Union of Teachers, the first union, in 1919.

“I always drew that connection, that sense of independent thinking and of community, right up to the Progressive Group.

“That’s the context she came from.”

Ms Phillips was a veteran teacher.

She became a teaching apprentice at Harrington Sound School after she left the Berkeley Institute in 1954 and later attended Brighton Teachers’ College in the UK on a scholarship.

She returned to the island to teach at the former Prospect Secondary School for Girls.

Her career included a stint as principal at Southampton Glebe School — now Dalton E Tucker Primary School — and became a senior education official for IT in later years.

Ms Phillips, originally from Pembroke, married Lionel Phillips from Somerset in 1961.

Lionel and Marva Phillips (File photograph)

Both were part of the Progressive Group, which challenged segregation in 1950s Bermuda by organising and recruiting members, then taking on segregated theatres.

The Reverend Erskine Simmons, another member of the group, said that Ms Phillips’ activism was sparked when she returned from college in Britain.

Mr Simmons said: “She had not experienced the segregation that was rampant in Bermuda, which she found totally unjustified.

“Many of the people in the group had returned from school and had these same experiences.

“At least you might be respected in other places and you didn’t experience that level of injustice you found in Bermuda.”

But Progressive Group members knew that they faced retribution from the island’s business and political establishment if they were identified.

Florenz Maxwell, an author and fellow member of the group, knew Ms Phillips from childhood when she attended St Paul AME Church in Hamilton.

Ms Maxwell said that she was dating her future husband, Clifford, who at the time was meeting undercover with the Progressive Group.

She added: “He had to keep it secret but I got suspicious.

“He was constantly bringing up my name in the group, and Marva realised we were dating.

“She knew my interest in social justice — I used to write letters to the editor complaining about segregation.

“She immediately seconded my name, which I only found out much later.

“I would not have become a member if she had not. She vouched for the fact I would be a valuable member.

“She was very active in speaking out against segregation.”

Wendy McDonnell, a former commissioner of education, said at Ms Phillips’ funeral yesterday that she was a role model who was “loved and respected as a family member, public figure and activist”.

Ms Phillips studied over her summer holidays for a master’s degree at Queen’s University in Canada while she was at Sandys Secondary School and graduated in 1974.

She studied at the University of Georgia in the US in the 1980s to achieve a master’s degree in computer technology education.

Ms Phillips was part of the first team of education officials to bring computers into the public school system.

She retired in 2000 but stayed active with work for the Bermuda Bible Society and the Bermuda Diabetes Association.

Ms Phillips was also closely involved with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Mr Phillips died in 2010. The couple are survived by their daughter, Christine Harrell, son Andrew and daughter Marva Vanessa Phillips-Williams.

· Marva Vorice Phillips, a former principal of Somerset Primary School and an activist with the Progressive Group, was born on October 10, 1935. She died on December 11, 2021, aged 86.

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Published December 21, 2021 at 9:31 am (Updated December 21, 2021 at 9:33 am)

Marva Phillips (1935-2021): civil rights hero and teacher

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