On this day in Bermuda
Two Bermudians, born in Somerset, albeit a generation apart and separated by segregation. Both had an impact on our regressive society during the first half of the 20th century. Both were children of fathers who were parliamentarians. Their “out of the box” life journeys crucially intersected on April 21, 1944, a day in our history that proved essential in what became a renaissance shifting Bermuda forward.
The elder of these two was a White woman, Gladys Misick Morrell, who — with the support of her mother — ignored her father’s opposition to her going to college. Gladys took advantage of a university education in Britain, where she became immersed in the Women’s Suffragette Movement.
Eustace Cann, a Black man, also proved to be a progressive when compared with his father. He completed medical school in the United States during a time when that country was experiencing what was called the “Harlem Renaissance”.
Gladys first returned home in 1914, excited about her experiences in London with the suffragette movement and hoped to replicate that in Bermuda. However, her enthusiasm was dampened in the face of Bermuda’s apathy regarding the rights of women. She was inspired to return to Britain to assist with the onset of the First World War, and she eventually assisted the Red Cross in France.
In 1918, she personally experienced the first election in Britain in which women could vote — albeit only those owning land. She returned home and in 1923 helped to organise the Bermuda Woman’s Suffrage Society, launching a campaign that persevered for two decades despite facing the intransigence of the power elite.
Dr Cann returned home in 1934 and organised a family practice in his beloved Somerset. He quickly engaged in his community addressing matters of health and social issues. Ira Philip, in the book The History of the Bermuda Industrial Union, points out that Dr Cann played a “seminal role” in the formation of the Dockyard Workman’s Association and the evolution of the labour movement.
Gladys Morrell also played a critical role in the broader community. She was one of the founders of the Bermuda Welfare Society, establishing the district nursing services across the island. Given the lack of a social safety net offered by the Government, this proved literally to be a life-saver, especially for young children. A downside in this story was the insistence that the nurses be British-trained, which militated against Black nurses.
Gladys inspired most with her willingness to be jailed while supporting women’s suffrage.
Dr Cann successfully threw his hat in the ring for the 1938 General Election and became a parliamentarian representing Sandys, trying to make a difference from that angle. However, his passion remained the community and he placed much energy in sustaining Sandys Secondary School, which because of segregation was one of only two secondary schools available for the hundreds of Black children.
The question of morality was placed in sharp contrast on the global stage during Second World War. Fascism weaponised practices such as segregation — and other antidemocratic policies — which were the norm in Bermuda and the Americas. Most of the world was deeply depressed as the Nazis ran amok in the early 1940s. Their first defeat by the Russians at Stalingrad in 1943 brought great relief and a sense globally that progress was possible.
It was in that “spirit of hope” that Dr Cann reflected on the planned parliamentary vote on the Women’s Voting Rights Bill in April 1944. Henry Tucker had flipped his position after consistently voting against this matter and instead was tabling the Bill. Dr Cann, like his fellow Black parliamentarians, had been opposed to the women’s vote, with the view that it undercut the issue of universal suffrage — the vote for all adults.
That Somerset “bie”, a former Cup Match cricketer, decided to shift “out of the box” rather than continue a strategy that had brought no progress over two decades. He voted for the measure and women’s voting rights were secured on April 21, 1944.
It is arguable this same “spirit of hope” served the group of local workers at the US Naval Base in Southampton, in June 1944 when they sought the advice of Eustace Cann.
But that’s another story. Stay tuned!
• Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda
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