Why Freedom Square matters
Last week, the City of Hamilton unveiled “Freedom Square”, a formally sanctioned safe space on the grounds of City Hall where people can come to express themselves regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, national origin and beliefs; a space for people to reflect on and celebrate freedoms won and freedoms still to come.
The boundaries of the square stretch from Washington Street to Wesley Street; Victoria Street to Church Street; and a plaque at the City Hall steps commemorates the area.
But why now? Why does it “matter”? And what difference will the naming of an area make to the lived reality of our daily lives?
Sixty-two years ago, the brave men and women of the Progressive Group said “no more” to racial segregation in Bermuda and staged a successful boycott of Hamilton’s movie theatres — a watershed move, within a non-violent two-week period of protest that would bring about the collapse of public, racial segregation.
Freedom Square is a way to honour those Progressive Group members, as well as all those others who paved the way for the civil liberties we enjoy today. It is important that we teach our children to be thankful of their efforts and appreciative of the real impact the movement has had on our society.
As well as paying tribute to individuals, Freedom Square also honours the legacy of the space itself, which has, over the years, been a pivotal platform for promoting social justice and community-building. For example, Zion Chapel — Bermuda’s first Methodist church and the first church where Black and White people could sit and worship together — was also located along Freedom Square.
City Hall itself has become a venue for progressive social justice events, including the 1969 Black Power Conference co-ordinated by human rights campaigner Roosevelt Brown, who in later years took on the name, Pauulu Kamarakafego.
A space for reflection
In the words of Maya Angelou, “You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.”
It is widely stated across academia that by learning about our past, we are better positioned to see patterns that might be otherwise invisible in the present — thus providing a crucial perspective for understanding both present and future problems. To learn about the movements that took place along Freedom Square, such as the 1959 Theatre Boycott, is to learn how to recognise injustice, as well as how to understand the transformative role played by individuals for collective change.
Our wish is for Freedom Square to become a safe space where people can go for a quiet moment of reflection — whether it be historical, societal or self-reflection. We invite members of the public to reflect on what freedom means to them. For example, does it mean racial and gender equality, freedom of expression, economic empowerment, freedom of association, freedom to be yourself? Or something else entirely?
Is anyone ever truly free? What do you think our ancestors would say about the freedoms that we enjoy in Bermuda today? We would like Freedom Square to be a space in which to contemplate those kinds of questions and introspective thinking.
A City for All
The City of Hamilton believes in fostering a “City for All”. This is one of the reasons we have established Freedom Square — to formally commit to nurturing a city where everyone feels welcome and safe.
In recent years, Hamilton has played host to a number of significant events and rallies which honour one of our own core values as an organisation — that of inclusivity. Only one year ago, in June 2020, Bermuda celebrated the global Black Lives Matter movement with a protest followed by a march through the streets of Hamilton. It was a show of unity and support for necessary change. And a year before that, Hamilton hosted Bermuda’s first Pride parade to recognise the rights of the LGBTQ community and to mark the work of those who campaigned for decriminalisation of homosexuality. The City was extremely proud to be able support these two events.
Our Bermuda Constitution, written a few years after the Theatre Boycott, sets out our freedoms — which should, by now, more than half a century later, be the core of who we are, enshrining these rights on all. We should expect these freedoms for ourselves, our family and friends, but so much more importantly, for those we do not know; those with whom we have little in common except these rights.
Listening to our community partners
At the City of Hamilton, we recognise the importance of fostering strong community partnerships and listening to the people.
Last year we were approached by Glenn Fubler, of Imagine Bermuda, who presented a concept that would both mark the location of the Theatre Boycott and also create a pathway for Bermuda’s civil rights history to be recognised and celebrated. From those fruitful discussions, the idea of Freedom Square was born. We would like to thank Mr Fubler as well as other community groups and social justice advocates who encouraged us to turn this idea into a reality.
Creating a Smart City
Freedom Square will also be the foundation for a “learning City”, merging oral and written traditions with technology to create a unique interactive and cultural learning experience using QR codes.
With the City of Hamilton’s new Scan and Learn: City of Hamilton Smartphone Tour, you simply swipe your phone over the QR Code, and a brief informative video will pop up right to your device about that location and its historical significance, voiced by our Town Crier, Ed Christopher.
Already the City has installed five of these QR codes, which are located at points along Freedom Square. There is one at the corner of Wesley Street and Church Street to tell the history of the Theatre Boycott; there is another right across from there to mark the former location of Zion Chapel; there is a third QR code plaque installed along Dismont Drive to recognise Hamilton’s first Black mayor, Cecil Dismont; and a fourth just a few feet away on Nellie’s Walk to honour Helen “Nellie” Rees, who was a staunch advocate for women’s rights in the early 20th century.
The final QR code of this batch is located on the Church Street side of the City Hall car park, to mark the site of the former Hamilton Hotel, which launched Bermuda’s tourism industry and provided an opportunity for employment for many Black Bermudians who were excluded from other professions at the time because of their race. It is also where Joseph Rainey worked as bartender and barber before migrating back to the United States, and in the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War became America’s first Black congressman
The City will install more of these QR codes across Hamilton in the coming months and we hope you will enjoy this dynamic learning experience.
More to come
The unveiling of Freedom Square last week is not the end of our plans for Freedom Square.
Our long-term wish is to erect a fountain or sculpture along the grassy semicircle area in front of City Hall, which further represents the concept of freedom. This will be an outreach exercise that will have the input of public and community groups to find the most appropriate symbol.
The City of Hamilton; Fostering a City for All.
• Charles Gosling, is the Mayor of Hamilton