Eleven unsung heroes who should not be forgotten
Bermuda observed National Heroes Day last week, honouring the contributions of eight distinguished Bermudians.
It is no disrespect to their accomplishments to state the obvious. There are numerous unsung heroes and heroines who have given much to Bermuda, but who are largely forgotten. High on the list would be 11 men who met at Wantley on Princess Street in Hamilton on October 9, 1879 to discuss the feasibility of starting a non-segregated high school.
Today, Samuel David Robinson, a highly successful baker, businessman and property developer, is the most recognisable name among the 11. Wantley was his new home — he and wife Elmira had not long moved in.
According to Berkeley historian Kenneth Robinson, all 11 men were “Coloured persons of importance”. The other ten were: Joseph Henry Thomas, a schoolmaster and leading lodge man, and Samuel David Robinson’s father-in-law; William Henry Joell, a carpenter who would become Bermuda’s first MP; John Henry Jackson, a carpenter, who succeeded Joell as the island’s second Black MP; lawyer Eugenius Charles Jackson; physician Charles William Thomas Smith; dentist William Orlando Jackson; Samuel Parker, Sr and Jr, publishers of the island’s first Black newspaper The Times and Advocate; Richard Henry Duerden, a dry goods merchant and auctioneer; and finally Henry Dyer, a boatman.
Their vision became a reality 18 years later when the Berkeley Institute opened at Samaritans' Lodge on Court Street on September 6, 1897, with 27 students. Historian Robinson writes that the 11 founders “were militant proponents of racially integrated schooling”. There was one White boy in the first class, and White men served on its management committee in its early years, most notably soft-drinks owner John Barritt. Still, to all intents and purposes, Berkeley was and remains a Black school.
That it managed to survive to become a leading educational institution for well over a century is in itself something of a miracle. It was the third high school for Black Bermudians. The two earlier ones, St Paul’s, which opened in 1853, and the Bermuda Collegiate Institute, which the AME Church opened in 1892, were short-lived. Racially integrated St Paul’s closed after four short years. Fervent opposition from conservative White Bermudians sealed its fate. That history likely weighed heavily on the minds of the 11 men.
Like most Bermuda high schools, Black and White, Berkeley operated with a combination of a government grant and student fees, as up until the late 1960s, high school education was neither free nor compulsory.
Wantley is a tangible reminder of the vision of those 11 men, their personal achievements, and Berkeley’s singular legacy. It was the school where Black Bermudians could be assured of obtaining a standard of education equal to that of Saltus and BHS, the two schools, which headmaster F.S. Furbert tended to measure Berkeley against, at least during my time there, and especially when Cambridge School Certificate results arrived.
Samaritans’ Lodge, where Berkeley opened, no longer exists, sadly and ironically a victim of the 1977 riots. Which makes Wantley even more worthy of restoration.
In the Bermuda National Trust’s Architectural Heritage Series book Hamilton Town and City Wantley is described as “a fine example of Victorian domestic architecture” Its wooden veranda is “its most prominent feature”, but “other typical 19th-century features are the enclosed eaves, the prominent keystones above the windows and the side lights at the side of both doors”.
There is much that Wantley’s history evokes: the importance of education, the trades and entrepreneurship, topics that continue to dominate the national conversation to this day. It is a reminder of the merits of culture and public service. Samuel David and Elmira Robinson hosted concerts and play readings at Wantley. It is where they raised their ten children, among them Wenona Robinson, teacher, Girl Guide leader and elocutionist, and Agnes May Robinson, founder of the Sunshine League.
Wantley may very well be headed for the wrecking ball, but if by some miracle it can be rescued from that fate, it would be a worthy tribute to 11 far-sighted men who held fast to their vision of education and racial equality, against all the odds.
• Meredith Ebbin is the editor of bermudabiographies.bm and a former Berkeleyite. For more on other endangered historical buildings, see the BNT series, written by Margie Lloyd and Linda Abend, at https://www.bnt.bm/