Adele Evelina Johnson Tucker (1868-1971): teacher and founder of BUT
In acknowledgement of Black History Month, The Royal Gazette continues the publication of stories throughout February on African-American, Black Bermudian and global African people, events and institutions, and their contributions in history
Adele Tucker, who lived to the ripe old age of 102, was one of the most revered teachers of her era. She taught at a succession of schools, but is mostly closely identified with Paget Glebe School, where she was headmistress for more than 30 years. She also founded, with three other teachers, the Bermuda Union of Teachers, Bermuda’s oldest union, to address Black teachers’ grievances, which included low pay and substandard working conditions.
Tucker was born and raised in Warwick, one of eight children of Thomas and Catherine Tucker. “I was born on the eighth day of the eighth month in the year 1868 when my father was 38 and my mother was 28, being one of eight children,” was how she often memorably described her origins.
For most of her life, she lived in a rambling family home, “Granaway”, on Harbour Road that had a colourful past. The notorious Bermudian privateer Hezekiah Frith had built it for his daughter.
1880: Mother Catherine dies, leaving behind eight children for her father to raise
1881: Leaves school at age 13 and helps out with domestic chores at home
1887: Tires of housekeeping chores and seeks job at a tailor’s shop to get out of the house
1887-1892: Receives first taste of teaching when she becomes an assistant teacher at Jairus Swan’s school
1892: Enrols at the Collegiate Institute for three years of teacher training
1895: Teaches for a year from her home, where her father sets up a schoolroom with desks and maps
1896: Takes over Fred Edmondson’s School in Warwick
1902: Becomes headmistress of Paget Glebe School. Visits schools in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts
1903: Appears before Schools Commission to give her views on education
1919: Establishes, with three other teachers, the Bermuda Union of Teachers
1934: Retires from Paget Glebe after more than 30 years as headmistress and turns to community work
1940s: Helps to raise funds for servicemen during the Second World War as a member of the Bermuda Women’s Auxiliary Force
1951: Appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire
1959: Tucker and Edith Crawford receive awards at the Bermuda Union of Teachers’ 40th convention as surviving founders
November 14, 1965: Honoured at St Paul AME Church’s Women’s Day celebrations as Bermuda’s oldest retired teacher
August 8, 1968: Celebrates with friends, relatives and former students on her 100th birthday and becomes the first person to receive a government pension
January 4, 1971: Dies at age 102
Her immediate forebears were free Blacks. Her father was born four years before slavery ended and his father had been a verger at St Mary’s Anglican Church in Warwick, where Adele Tucker was a lifelong member.
Her father was an enterprising mason who was inspired to purchase “Granaway”, which today is a guesthouse, because his wife’s grandfather, an enslaved person named Caprice, had arrived in Bermuda on a boat that Hezekiah Frith had captured during his exploits at sea.
When Tucker was 12, her mother died. Tucker remained at school for another year, and then came home because her father, who eventually remarried and had a ninth child, wanted his daughters to learn “housewifery”.
She derived no satisfaction from domestic chores that included cooking meals on an open fire and ironing. She even intentionally burnt her fingers in an attempt to demonstrate that she was not competent doing housework. After about six years, she began searching for a means of escape.
She inquired about a position at a tailor’s shop in Hamilton where two cousins were working as apprentices. There were no openings, but she learnt of a vacancy at Jairus Swan’s school. That led to her first position in education. She worked as an assistant teacher at Swan’s school in Hamilton from February 1887 to March 1892.
Tucker initially learnt on the job, which was typical of the times, but received formal training at the Collegiate Institute in Hamilton. The AME Church opened the Collegiate Institute in 1892 as a high school and to train teachers.
George DaCosta was recruited from Jamaica to be its first headmaster, although he later quit and became The Berkeley Institute’s first headmaster. Tucker was at Collegiate Institute studying under DaCosta for three years and then taught from home, where her father set up a schoolroom with desks and maps.
After about a year, she was asked to take over Fred Edmondson’s primary school in Warwick because he was moving to Africa to become a missionary. She was at the Edmondson School between 1896 and 1901. Then Rector Golding, of St Paul’s Anglican Church, offered her a post at Paget Glebe School.
The school, which she took over in January 1902, gained a reputation for excellence, drawing pupils from all over Bermuda.
Like other primary schools dotted throughout the island, Paget Glebe was a schoolhouse. Students were grouped in different classes, each with its own teacher, but all in the same room. Tucker would have presided over her domain, with strap and cane, and with an authority that was absolute.
Teachers’ salaries were based on student headcount — they received a set amount for each student. Chronic lateness and truancy took a bite out of their pay, which was low to begin with.
Each primary school received a government grant and all were administered by a Board of Education and overseen by a Director of Education.
Students had to pay fees, which in 1925, ranged from four pence a week to £16 per year. That year, there were 20 Coloured primary schools and 11 White schools. In 1934, there were 12 White primary schools and 11 Coloured schools, and fees were between six pence per week and £20 per year. Free primary schooling became a right only in 1949, long after Tucker had retired.
On January 17, 1903, Tucker appeared before a Schools Commission. Her testimony opened a window on education at the turn of the 20th century when there were more farms than hotels, Bermuda was a major supplier of vegetables to the US East Coast, and when children were often kept out of school to work on farms.
Tucker told the commission her average annual enrolment was 51, but she could have as many as 71 students. Some students turned up late, others left early, or did not bother to show up at all.
She said funds should be set aside for police officers to go into rural areas “to seize any schoolchild who is out knocking about the streets or in the fields during the hours in which the schools are open”.
She argued against blanket prosecution of parents who did not send their children to school because not everyone could afford fees. She singled out farmers “who after working the whole year, he takes his crops into town and gets nothing for them".
Of her own workload, she said she found it difficult to carry out her duties because she was running the school with the help of two monitors or junior teachers, but no assistant teacher.
She spread herself thin, teaching older children in the morning, and the younger ones in the afternoon. With such a schedule, she told the commission she was unable to offer sewing instruction to the older students. She said she had been promised an assistant teacher when a second classroom was built.
She also told the commission she had been a schoolteacher for six years and nine months, had a fourth-class certificate and had visited schools in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, the previous year.
Based on her testimony to the commission, she considered herself a fully qualified teacher after she completed her time at the Collegiate Institute.
In newspaper interviews given long after her retirement, Tucker spoke of her love of teaching, but left no doubt as to the effort it involved.
She rode to school on a pedal bike, garden fork in hand, presumably to teach agriculture. She organised concerts to raise money to buy netballs, swings and cricket gear. She attributed much of her success to the support she received from her younger sister, Ida, who also taught at Paget Glebe from 1903 to 1944.
Tucker famously formed the BUT in February 1919 in the graveyard of St John’s Church, Pembroke, at the funeral of a teacher, who was the third colleague to die in quick succession under financially straitened circumstances.
The others were Rufus Stovell and cousins Matilda and Edith Crawford. Tucker was the BUT’s first treasurer. The BUT struggled for years, but it kept going, becoming the first union to register in February 1947 under a new trade union law.
In April 1959, she and Edith Crawford were honoured as surviving founders of the BUT at the union’s 40th anniversary banquet.
Tucker retired in 1934, forced out by a new law that required teachers to quit the classroom at age 65. She left “with tears”, she later said, but was given a big sendoff, that was reported on the front page of the Bermuda Recorder.
By then, Paget Glebe had long moved from its original location at the foot of Longford Road where it meets Middle Road, to the corner of Chapel Road and Middle Road.
Her roster of students included Charles Simons, Bermuda’s first police detective, writer Geraldine Johnson, Bermuda Industrial Union leader Martin Wilson and builder Rufus Astwood.
She busied herself with community work after her retirement. “If I did not have that to occupy my mind, I would have gone to pieces, “ she told Fame magazine in 1965.
At the time of her retirement, she had been a member of the Berkeley Educational Society for six years. In June 1933, she was one of four women who cracked the "glass ceiling" when they were elected to the society’s management committee.
She was president of the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home Auxiliary for 12 years and during the Second World War helped to raise funds for servicemen as a member of the Bermuda Women’s Auxiliary Force. She also helped to form Heron Bay Girl Guide Company and with her sister, Ida, served on the executive committee of the Sunshine League children’s home for years, beginning from its founding in 1919. In 1951, she was appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
Tucker never married. She lived in the family home for about 62 years with her unmarried sisters. When a cousin, Edgar Tucker, died at an early age, she and her sisters raised two of his three children, David and Ida Tucker.
David studied in the United States and London, and returned home to fight for the cause of Black Bermudians as Editor of the Black newspaper, the Bermuda Recorder.
In her later years, Tucker’s longevity made her something of a celebrity. On November 14, 1965 she was honoured at St Paul AME Church’s Women’s Day celebrations as Bermuda’s oldest retired teacher. Newspaper reporters routinely interviewed her for milestone birthdays.
On two occasions, thank-you letters she wrote after her birthday celebrations were reprinted on the front page of The Royal Gazette, with the media marvelling at her penmanship and command of grammar.
She became the first person to receive a government pension when she turned 100 on August 8, 1968. Her 100th birthday celebration made headlines, along with her death nearly three years later. Government Leader Sir Henry Tucker led dignitaries who attended her funeral.
At the time of her death, she was living at “Adelida” on Keith Hall Road, Warwick, with sister Ida. Tucker and her siblings had sold the family home years earlier. Ida, the sole survivor of the original eight Tucker siblings, died 11 months later in December of the same year.
Tucker was a conservative, who despite her accomplishments and leadership abilities was opposed to women getting the vote, according to her great-niece, retired teacher Enith King.
But her pioneering contribution as an educator and a founder of the BUT cannot be overstated.
On February 15, 2007, the Bermuda Post Office launched a “Pioneers of Progress” stamp issue to recognise Tucker and five fellow teachers, including BUT cofounders Edith and Matilda Crawford. Her image now graces a 35 cent stamp.
In July 2015, she was one of several Bermudians honoured by the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs’ Emancipation Committee at a ceremony at Ruth Seaton James Auditorium.
• Courtesy of Meredith Ebbin and bermudabiographies.bm
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