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Juneteenth holiday a golden opportunity for lasting cultural ties

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The Emperial Group of Companies is spearheading the restoration of the historic Somers Playhouse in St George’s as part of a trailblazing strategy to align Bermuda's Cup Match holiday with the newly minted United States federal holiday, Juneteenth National Independence Day, dedicated to celebrating the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans after the civil war.

The historic Somers Playhouse, on Wellington Street in St George’s (File photograph)

It has been a year since the US introduced the new federal holiday, arising from the celebrations that first started in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865 when the final state of the confederacy accepted the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation that was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863.

Eugene Dean is a social entrepreneur at the Emperial Group of Companies

Bermuda’s usual focus on Heroes Day Weekend, the Queen’s Birthday and the Newport Bermuda Race can now be broadened to include the mainstream media’s new-found focus on African-American culture.

Emperial has taken the view that the Biden Administration has blessed America — and Bermuda — with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that is just as significant to future generations as the unprecedented global pandemic.

America is our closest neighbour.

America is our closest ally.

America is our biggest trading partner.

This is our opportunity to be part of a new chapter in federal history that will inevitably globalise the Juneteenth experience — if it is on CNN, Bermudians will be watching.

As part of the British Empire, Bermuda began its own emancipation journey in 1834, which grew into the public holiday known as “Cup Match” in 1947 — 75 years before America. One might ask, what took America so long? Others may just be grateful that both Cup Match and Juneteenth are finally being officially upgraded.

Emperial sees the Juneteenth holiday as more than just a blessing in disguise. We see this as a second chance for Bermuda to actually make a first impression with America — using Cup Match as the proof that we can actually help America to navigate a new frontier in cultural emancipation. We are now mobilising for Juneteenth as if it is our own freedom that is at stake.

No matter what the reason may be for the granting of this holiday at this point in time, Emperial feels that the question Bermuda faces is this, “Now that we’ve found love, what are we gonna do with it?”

To answer that question, we have to reflect on the things that Bermuda has come through, bringing us to this critical place far beyond the ravages of our dark history with slavery, racism and bigotry.

We cannot afford to take for granted the work of those visionaries who came before us — both Black and White.

With all due respect to the progress that we have enjoyed since emancipation, we nevertheless have to take into account the many institutions that have fallen into organisational disarray and physical disrepair — especially including the friendly societies, churches, schools, workingmen’s clubs and sports clubs that were once the backbone of the reconstruction process.

We entered into the integration era enjoying a tourism industry with America that was the envy of the world at that time. As far back as 1981, our tourism industry was the main pillar of our economy. We once enjoyed in excess of 600,000 people coming in annually by air.

We left the tourism industry to enter into the international business arena during the 1990s, catapulting our economy to the upper echelons in global wealth. Nevertheless, at present Bermuda is in the midst of one of the most profoundly uncertain economic transitions in living memory.

How do we address this crisis of confidence?

Transitions from one stage in life to another are never as simple or as obvious as they might appear. It is not always what you say, it’s how you say it. And, likewise, it is not always what you do, it’s how you do it.

We now have the obligation to meet our extraordinary challenges with exceptional care and attention. We hear time and time again that we need to get back to our roots — there is literally no time like the present to be in “the moment” as a unified country.

It is in this spirit that we are now undertaking to reinvent the Somers Playhouse in St George’s as a world-calibre cultural centre that celebrates our global emancipation heritage. The Somers Playhouse is the historical “mother lodge” for the Grand United Order of Oddfellows, which created the initial island-wide conditions during the 19th century to establish the 20th-century Cup Match tradition between the St George’s and Somerset cricket clubs.

The seeds of collaboration emerged during slavery as Black freedmen began to assume property rights, then accelerated after the abolition of slavery, forming the apprenticeship and reconstruction economy with the British admiralty. Together with other similar lodges and friendly societies across the island, these early civil institutions were the cultural equivalents to today’s insurance industry. Their cultural influence became the bedrock for the Black middle class that we inherited during integration in the 1950s.

The Juneteenth holiday provides us with the perfect opportunity to join hands across the Atlantic — and also here at home. Together, we can legitimately celebrate the unrivalled leadership status that Bermuda enjoys as the first community in the British Empire to experience emancipation — albeit simply by virtue of our privileged mid-Atlantic time zone.

In the era of “Black Lives Matter”, we can finally address Bermuda’s approach to racism — the perpetual “elephant in the room” — with the necessary wisdom not to repeat the mistakes from the past. Now is the time for Bermuda to bring our emancipation story into the global spotlight and broaden our economy beyond financial services to include the business of cultural transformation and innovation.

Bermuda cannot expect to navigate the unprecedented global shock waves that are on the horizon without a new social contract that is fit for purpose.

Thanks to President Joe Biden — whether wittingly or not — Bermuda has been gifted with a new emancipation framework that deals with both the “roots and the fruits” of the American Dream. We are pleased to be able to bring the Somers Playhouse into the global spotlight as part of this process.

We welcome the opportunity to partner with those who value the Juneteenth legacy and are ready to reimagine this narrative from a Bermuda perspective for the 21st century.

• Eugene Dean is a social entrepreneur at the Emperial Group of Companies

Additional references:

Built Heritage: Somers Pride of India Lodge (The Bermuda National Trust)

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Published June 30, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated June 29, 2022 at 1:05 pm)

Juneteenth holiday a golden opportunity for lasting cultural ties

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