West End’s traditions too valued to be made a footnote in history
It is with sadness and a heavy heart that I present this submission regarding the proposed closure of West End Primary School.
I am disappointed that the Ministry of Education believes it can provide the best of education for our children without truly understanding the feelings created by our segregated past. Without this understanding we cannot simply close schools and expect to move forward in harmony.
The earliest recorded history of the West End Primary School dates as far back as 1869. It has survived because the people of Somerset have always known that education is important to the successful future of the Black child.
In this submission, I will carry you through some of its disappointments, its struggles, the strength of the community and its 88-year-old Parent Teachers Association, which is the oldest continuous PTA on the island. It has remained strong because the challenges to this school are never-ending. The continuous fight for justice and equality have strengthened its will.
Removing the West End Primary School from the Somerset community can be compared only to removing Somerset Cricket Club or the Allen Temple AME Church. These institutions have survived throughout the years by the sheer determination of this community.
My father, Charles C. Snaith was, its principal for 33 years. He has been dead for 43 years; however, he left behind documented evidence of this school’s struggles. It is as though he knew this day would come.
To see that Somerset Primary School is slated to remain clearly tells me, and many others within the Somerset community, that the past has been forgotten. Like history, it is important to know the past in order to make wise future decisions that enable us to live in harmony.
In 1942, the House of Assembly granted £6,000 to renovate and construct additional buildings to Sandys Grammar School, now known as Somerset Primary School. The question naturally arose as to why this school should have priority over the long-overdue building of a new West End school for Coloured children. Sandys Grammar was not in dire need of improvement compared to the Coloured school. The excuse was that there was a lack of steel because of the war.
At that time, there were two government schools for Coloured children — Huntley and West End. Huntley School had been condemned by both the Board of Works and Board of Health. At West End, the children could not attend school when it rained as the desks and flooring became saturated. These conditions were totally ignored and Sandys Grammar, the school for White children, was to gain renovated facilities and new buildings.
In 1943, the Parent Teachers Association lamented the primitive school conditions, describing the infant school as an “eyesore and an insult”. They were incensed by the lethargy of the Board of Education. They prepared a petition and, as they were about to deliver it, preparations were made to amalgamate Huntley School with West End.
Once again, there was a protest. The Board of Education converted a hallway to accommodate the new students. The organisation protested yet again over the “make-do” atmosphere and the “take that and be satisfied” attitude of the Government.
They demanded a new school.
By 1944, a new school was completed under the direction of Somerset builder Algernon Sinclair Harford.
In 1945, a large crowd attended a meeting with John Cox, chairman of the Board of Education, and area representative Eustace Cann. The Government was proposing to penalise parents who did not send their children to school because they could not pay the school fee. The Government proposed to pay 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the cost of education, leaving the parents to pay the rest. After all, they said these were their children and they must bear some responsibility.
After that meeting, an even larger and more determined group met and refused to pay. That motion in the House of Assembly was defeated 12-8.
The Board of Education report of 1960 stated that the school lacked standard facilities for teachers. There was no staff room. The headmaster and all 18 teachers were obliged to use whatever toilets happened to be available in the pupils’ block.
There was the recommendation that an assembly hall be constructed with a stage large enough to accommodate a classroom. When new desks were requested, Somerset Primary received the new ones and their cast-offs sent to West End.
There was a shameless effort on the part of the Government to provide the White students with the best, and the Somerset community resented this blatant scorn inflicted upon Black children.
By 1962, the overflow of the school was housed in a temporary wooden structure obtained from the Kindley Air Force Base. Eventually, an assembly hall was added and six additional classrooms.
The Houghton Report of 1963 reminded the Government that schools for Black children were provided with inadequate buildings, instructional material and financial support compared with schools for White children. Thankfully, the Education Act of 1971 made segregated schools illegal.
Some years later, when the numbers of students decreased at Somerset Primary, the Minister of Education, William Cox, met with the PTA of West End School. He laid out a plan to reduce the school to one form entry with the overflow attending Somerset Primary. He suggested that the alternative would be far more suitable, as the facilities “were better”.
The parents were well aware of why they “were better” and they were infuriated. Suddenly, it became a better alternative for Black children. They resented the implication and fought against it.
If the removal of the West End Primary is owing to its present physical plant, then the above shows the reason. If this be the reason, then the treatment of a dreadful era of segregation is a cruel reminder that the past has won in the end. We cannot and we will not accept this and we expect our four Progressive Labour Party representatives to stand with us in this challenge.
The West End Primary School has a rich and rewarding history. To remove it is to erase the rewards of 150 years of a determined community effort.
When children from West End see Curtis Dickinson, it fills them with pride — he attended their school. He is the second finance minister to have attended the West End Primary School, the late C. Eugene Cox being the first.
When a child from West End looks at the present pictures of Members of Parliament, they also see former students Crystal Caesar, Jamahl Simmons, both MPs, and Marcus Jones, a senator. Walter Lister and the late Quinton Edness were also students.
Watching police press conferences, students see former students Superintendent Na’imah Astwood and Detective Sergeant Jason Smith. Their grandparents would remember they were at school with the late police commissioner Frederick “Penny” Bean.
The retired Bishop of Bermuda, the Right Reverend Ewen Ratteray, and the former Speaker of the House of Assembly, school principal and sportsman K. Randolph Horton, both completed their primary education at West End.
It is the home of the world-famous footballing trailblazer Clyde Best, marathon runner Jay Donawa and Carifta Games medal-winner Sonia Smith.
There is Cheryl Martins, pharmacist and owner of Caesar’s Pharmacy. Next door is Telford Electric established by Lloyd Telford. There is Fiona Ross, the family physician as well as Kenneth Caesar, principal of CedarBridge Academy, and noted author Randolf Williams.
These are past students whose early education began at West End Primary School. Many others, too numerous to mention, continue to contribute to this country. The students of West End Primary School have role models and heroes that walk among them. They visualise what they can achieve.
Today, every student wears a jacket on which is inscribed “West End Warrior”. For those of us who have passed though its walls and through its dedicated teachers, the word “warrior” is inscribed in our minds and in our hearts.
We are fighters and we refuse to let this school be erased and abandoned as a footnote in the history of Somerset. We understand and appreciate the effort to provide the best for our children, but in doing this you must not erase our valued and important history.
• Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons, the mother of MP Jamahl Simmons, is a former student of West End Primary School and the recent winner in the Adult section of the Dr Stanley Ratteray Memorial Christmas Short Story Contest. This opinion was drafted also in letter form to David Burt, the Premier of Bermuda