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The evolution of 20th-century Bermuda

Twentieth-century Bermuda began as a new diversity. We have the presence of the British and their bases, which invariably meant the residual fallout from many of their global conflicts would end up on our shores.

James “Dick” Richards, one of the original “Bully Roosters”

The “Bully Roosters”, who had active service in Africa and were rewarded for their sterling services, were brought to Bermuda as just one example of that. James “Dick” Richards, a Bully Rooster who served active duty in Africa, became a prominent West Indian businessman in Bermuda, owning the Canadian Hotel and many other properties.

Bermuda's military significance would have an overarching impact on the country throughout the majority of this century, albeit subtle and not overt. Meanwhile, the social struggles predicated by racial inequalities with glaring disparities in wealth, education and inadequate school facilities and educational resources gave cause for very early struggles and voices. There was also the property vote, which meant the vast majority of the population were disenfranchised from the voting process.

The death of a schoolteacher and the impact of her loss sparked a conversation at her gravesite, and soon thereafter a formal meeting was held and the Bermuda Union of Teachers was formed primarily as a force to assist and help to generate educational resources. This was not a protest movement; it was an action that gave birth to the first union of its type in the hemisphere. It was not uncommon in those days for teachers to have classes of 150 students and more. So the loss of one teacher was traumatic.

During the same period, particularly in Jamaica and the West Indies in general, given their large populations and the massive illiteracy issue faced by the islands — what was called the “White man’s burden” — the British resorted to creating teacher training colleges to better facilitate a resolution on the issues of literacy and general education. They created the colleges to avoid having to send hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers from England.

Bermuda benefited with a combined push from the newly formed union and government co-operation, as a number of locals — men and women — went to these teacher training colleges in Jamaica and started a fresh cadre of teachers in Bermuda. Some of them, such as Arnold Francis, went on beyond teaching to become a prominent lawyer. As an MP, he was very active, along with others such as W.L. Tucker and Eustace Cann in the battle in Parliament for extending the voter franchise.

While not a fraternity, Bermuda's first educated class of persons all in their own way collaborated on a level to bring more progressive legislation with the aim of creating a real democracy. Although not particularly successful, they did raise their voices in Parliament. The Progressive Group a little later, and during the mid to late 1950s, were primarily university students who worked incognito because many of their parents were affluent, middle-class Black Bermudians and they did not want to bring harm to their families.

There was more etiquette in those days to allow those who either had nothing to lose or temporary residents such as AME ministers or others to be those who rabble-rouse. This feature caused some in later generations to believe that those of that merchant ilk were passive. However, I take the view they were more pragmatic determinists and as a reference they were more Booker T. Washington in attitude. They knew what they had from an economic perspective and knew where they were going — and that was their focus.

The development of the US Naval Base created an open labour issue, given the pay rate in America then was ahead of Bermuda’s. The issue of ameliorating what should be an appropriate exchange for Bermudian labour caused some consternation. When there is trouble, there is nothing like a voice that can rise to the occasion. While there was the likes of Mr Bascome who was then holding the BIU organisationally, E.F. Gordon, a charismatic and new doctor, rose as the leader of what would become a powerful labour force and movement.

In those days, there was no such thing as pay scales; employers paid their employees whatever they felt they were worth to them. It would not be uncommon for workers doing the same level of work getting paid different rates. Benefits were also random and for the majority non-existent.

Overall, after the Second World War, Bermuda's economy slowly recovered and, while segregation was the status, all the communities were showing progress. The West Indian community had found its niche aside from the many tradesmen working for the Government; and the Corporation of Hamilton, they had thriving little businesses in areas such as Parson's Road, Pond Hill, Angle Street and Curving Avenue. The Black native Bermudians tended more to own business nearer to Court Street and Victoria Street, moving south towards Front Street.

The Portuguese community had also grown; they were still very dominant in agriculture, as evidenced then by the many travelling vegetable carts that would go from neighbourhood to neighbourhood — often with their horse-drawn vegetable carts. But also throughout the island there would be small grocers owned by Portuguese merchants. The Portuguese’s role in construction was near non-existent in the mid-1900s. The Piggly Wiggly was a major breakthrough within the City of Hamilton by a Portuguese merchant named Fernance Perry. There were no Portuguese sports clubs; they had their teams but no specific field was owned by them and they were not allowed to play at BAA Field.

The White community were dominant politically and economically. It was an unabashed oligarchy totally disinterested in the social changes occurring around the world. Not even Mother England, through the advice of its governors, could appeal to the political senses of the local governments in the 1950s and 1960s.

Politically, the Black population were of one accord in that they all wanted political representation. The construct then was that all parliamentarians sat as independents. There were political organisations then, not parties. These organisations often fostered and supported the efforts of many who would become candidates to run. The effects of a century and a half of merchantry left an indelible mark on the community, with well-established churches, sports clubs, lodges and every industry from movie theatres to petrol stations, bowling alleys, dry cleaners to grocers in the neighbourhood.

The only thing missing was political power.

The 1959 Theatre Boycott was pivotal in reversing segregation, which up until then was rigid. Bermuda catered to the racist southern states of America. There would be no Black persons selling stamps at the post office. Unless you were a doorman, you would not go through the entrance of a major hotel or sit in their restaurants. The boycott would see a gradual but complete change of that. Not without consequences because on the second day of the boycott, a Black-owned block plant in Southampton was blown to naught.

It became an awareness that life would forever change and it's my belief that this was the beginning, not just of desegregation but also a deliberate, covert action to systematically destroy the longtime cofactor of the White establishment — the historic Black businessman.

The construction industry, although dominated by Blacks, began to shift after the war as a result of major foreign construction companies brought in to work on the naval bases. Those companies remained and began to compete for local business.

The prospects during the late 1950s and early 1960s from all appearances seemed healthy for each community as far as having the ability to grow. In fact, upon analysis, aside from the issue of segregation and racism, there was no visible reason why all of society did not move uniformly forward. The mid-1960s will turn those prospects anticlockwise.

Enters the politics of the 1960s.

To be continued ...

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Published April 21, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated April 20, 2021 at 7:50 pm)

The evolution of 20th-century Bermuda

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