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The importance of preserving heritage

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The Royal Gazette article written by Jonathan Bell and published on May 27, 2022 stated “preserving histories of schools facing closure under public education reforms is to go ahead with the selection of members for a history and legacy committee”. It further stated that on Friday the Minister of Education updated the House of Assembly on the progress of this committee. Let me mention up front that I was asked to join this committee, but respectfully declined.

West End Primary School Alumni and supporters in the Sandys community protest the closure of the school at City Hall (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

A few months ago, several members of the Somerset community were invited by the Minister of Education to a Zoom meeting to discuss our feelings about the proposed changes centred around the removal of the West End Primary School and the retaining of the Somerset Primary School. Some were in agreement, others were not. Nevertheless, we were free to voice our concerns. At the end of the meeting, we were provided with some options for the future use of the West End school building, as it was no longer “fit for purpose”.

We were presented with a list of ways the building could be used and several options were presented for our opinions: a senior care facility, a community senior wellness centre, government offices or a fitness centre. It was evident that the decision had already been made — their decision was a foregone conclusion. Shortly thereafter, I received an e-mail followed by a phone call inviting me to be part of a team recording the history of school to be closed.

I describe this request as writing obituaries for schools they believe are breathing their last breath. My suggestion is that this committee begin with the history of Sandys Grammar/Somerset Primary School. Since it has been chosen to remain and you feel so elated by your choice, share with us its history. Possibly, this will help us to comprehend why one should die while the other be spared.

Why does the Minister of Education believe that schools have no written history? Why are they so incompetent and inept that such history has to be written for them? I sincerely hope that this is not a ploy to silence those who dare to question.

Since the 13th century, Griots in the West African Mandé empire became living archives of the oral history of their people. This practice continues today in both its oral and written form within the Sandys community.

West End Primary School, Sandys Secondary Middle School, Allen Temple AME Church and Somerset Cricket Club form an integral part of the history of this parish. Remove one and the community becomes destabilised. When Maude Bassett, the oldest living student and teacher of West End school died a few months ago at 102, she insisted the history of the school be passed on and recorded. It was barely two weeks after she completed her recollections that she moved on to glory.

Esteemed journalist Ira Philip, a past student, recorded his knowledge of our history and fortunately I have the diaries of my father, Charles C. Snaith, who wrote of the humiliating treatment and deprivation by the government of his era. It is insulting that you would assume this school needs a committee to write about it.

Will you record the students who walked, lifting discarded desks from Sandys Grammar School to West End because the truck delivering the new ones refused to help them? Will you record the world maps torn from the walls and sent along with the discarded books? Will you record the lack of an assembly hall, resulting in each child walking one behind the other carrying a chair to the Masonic Hall on Somerset Road for the Christmas concert because the lodge did not have sufficient chairs to accommodate the hundreds who attended? Will you record the sadness of the late Leroy Riley, who remembered until the day he died the humiliation he felt as a little boy, standing outside St James Church on Ash Wednesday, awaiting the arrival of the White students from Sandys Grammar/Somerset Primary. The sticking out of the tongues, the smirking and unpleasant remarks. Only after bearing the brunt of this were the West End students seated.

What you have planned for schools in Somerset is disrupting this community.

In Somerset, despite our horrendous educational past, we live in a semblance of racial harmony. This government’s decision has caused the resurfacing of the long but not forgotten years of deprivation and segregation. You are facing this fight because, after more than 100 years of grovelling for a book, a map or a desk, West End students developed resilience. They learnt that nothing in life comes easy, and that you often have to make do just to get through. It has never been the chosen school and the desire of the past to crush it is being fulfilled by this government.

While other countries are removing citadels and monuments of racism, this government is embracing them. You are a disappointment to the elders of the Progressive Labour Party. And to the men and women whose mortgages were called in because of party affiliation. To those who lost their businesses. To those who lost jobs. There you are, riding on the coat-tails of those who sacrificed to put you where you are today.

You want books written on the history of schools. Once again, I am imploring you to begin by reading the history of your party and, if you can humble yourselves, speak with the few elders who remain.

Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons SRN, SCM is a retired nurse, writer and historian

Two of our finance ministers began their early education at the West End school. One was Eugene Cox, who originally represented Sandys South. The north was represented by the United Bermuda Party.

In 1976, Mr Cox discussed with the Sandys branch his desire to challenge the seat in Sandys North. He believed the PLP should gain more seats and eventually win the government. He sacrificed his safe seat to make the challenge. He believed that winning more seats would afford the PLP the power to be more sympathetic to the labour movement, to provide more job opportunities, to provide better educational opportunities, to be more understanding to the plight of the working class and to be more respectful of the history of the Black people of Bermuda. He did not win a seat in the next election, but he and the Sandys branch continued to work tirelessly to educate the community on the importance of the PLP winning that seat.

Their efforts were rewarded in September 1976 when Mr Cox won the seat in a by-election. In 1980, the fourth seat was won. Sandys became the first parish to win all four seats for the Progressive Labour Party

More recently, another highly qualified finance minister and former student of the West End school, Curtis Dickinson, rose with confidence and dignity to explain to the residents of Bermuda and to the House of Assembly the reasons for his resignation as finance minister. He knew there would be a backlash, but he was man enough take it and so there he sat enduring the criticism of those far less qualified than he.

These two parliamentarians are examples of men educated in a school with inadequate facilities. They grew up in caring families, in a caring community and in a school with devoted teachers. Teachers who impressed upon them the benefits of education and self-control.

Suddenly there is the belief that new school buildings are the answer to all our educational and socials ills.

Closing a school with a rich community heritage tends only to marginalise communities. For some among us, the school is one of their few positive memories. Our community is so small that life experiences in a particular school loom large in a child’s life. Erasing that building with its history and individual childhood social heritage is to wipe it out and relegate it to the lost.

Cup Match this year will be celebrated at Somerset Cricket Club. When you, as government officials who support the Somerset team arrive, draped in red and blue, I want you to remember the reason why you are there and why you wear those specific colours. I want you to remember the men and women of Somerset, past students of the West End school who had the foresight to purchase the land and build that magnificent clubhouse. I want you to remember the numerous Cup Match captains who have guided teams for 120 years to provided generations of Bermudians with an entertaining and often riveting game. They were all past students of the West End school.

This is the premier event in the celebration of our emancipation. I want you to remember the significance and ask yourselves: am I wearing red and blue because I respect its historical significance or am I wearing red and blue because I like the colour combination? Heritage and legacy must never be forgotten. Your decision to close the West End Primary School is flawed simply because you and your foreign consultants failed to consider history and its effects on the community.

Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons SRN, SCM is a retired nurse, writer and historian

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Published June 02, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated June 01, 2022 at 4:03 pm)

The importance of preserving heritage

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