The struggle continues
In the mid-1920s, my grandfather, Henry Dowling, and a group of St George’s businessmen approached the Department of Education and demanded a higher standard of education for the Coloured children of St George’s.
They protested and were determined to acquire an experienced headmaster who could prepared these children for the ever-changing Bermuda. My father, Charles Snaith, the respected headmaster of Guy’s Hill School in Jamaica, was recommended by his alma mater, The Mico Teachers College, and arrived here in 1929.
Today, he would be unable to comprehend that 94 years later, the people of St George’s face another challenge inflicted upon them by a government that says it cares. He would look down in disbelief as little children are to be uprooted, rounded up and transported out of their familiar community while they build a temple of vanity to please whom?
An important part of education involves simple things such as walking independently to and from school with your friends and siblings, or being met in the afternoon by a grandparent who can’t wait to hear about your day. Education is far more than what you learn in a book. My father would have been concerned about the many teachers who will be displaced, and of whom nothing has been mentioned, and he would weep for the disruption to the children and people of the St George’s community that welcomed him here almost 100 years ago. The parish where he started Bermuda’s first Parent Teacher Association.
In the 1930s, he was transferred to the West End School where he faced different and more painful challenges. It, too, is in jeopardy. He would certainly feel disappointment in an educational leadership that has disregarded the struggles and sacrifices of Black people in the west and the struggles he endured under a White administration.
Seventy-five years ago, my father placed me in a wicker seat at the back of his bicycle and rode through the wind and rain on a cold January day to deliver me on the first day of school. At that time, the lower classes were housed at “Flat Top”, where Sandys Secondary Middle School is located today.
Of course, my relationship with West End began long before this and so I can honestly say that 80 years of my life have been associated with it. My children went on to become students and, naturally, my granddaughters. He would be proud to know that in this parish his grandson, Jamahl Snaith-Simmons, stands as the only Member of Parliament in this parish who has spoken out publicly on the unfortunate situation that is now presenting itself. At this point in our educational process, I hardly expected a devastating attack on the school that remains as the very foundation of this community. A school that prepared even the student who left at the age of 13 with the skills to be competent enough to find employment.
West End Primary School is fortunate that my father kept diaries during his tenure. As a child, I watched as he carefully recorded his day. He often held a handkerchief, which I assumed was to wipe his brow or to blow his nose; however, when the West End controversy arose, I referred to these diaries and now I realise, the handkerchief he held was to wipe his silent tears. He was weeping for his scholars, their parents and the teachers who were enduring a shameless abandonment by an island that felt it was perfectly normal to neglect the education of its Coloured population.
He wept for the teachers who had not been provided with bathrooms and left to be humiliated by sharing toilets with their students. He wept about the putrid smell endured from the outside pit latrines, the cramped classrooms, stained books and hand-me-down desks “charitably” sent from Sandys Grammar School. He wept for the children who arrived punctually at St James Church on Ash Wednesday only to be left to stand outside awaiting the arrival of the White children, who were encouraged to believe that they were of a superior race and he wept for the days when the leaking, sodden floors and desks made learning impossible.
In 1945, he wept for the parents the Government wanted to penalise — all because they could not afford the school fees and could not send their children to school. Yet, despite the numerous humiliations, he rose every day to meet the challenge. He encouraged every teacher that one day this would all be worth the sacrifice. He reminded the students that despite the blatant segregation they were not put on this earth to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for another race, and that education was the key. He wept for the day he put me on a flight to remove me from the humiliating effects of segregated education. I was still a teenager. Today, he would weep for a government that feels it’s just OK to ignore the requests of the people who voted it into power.
Sandys Grammar School was an aided school, yet it received far more aid than the poorly funded government West End School.
We know this because in 1936, Mr Patterson, a Member of the Colonial Parliament, moved that the Government consider the purchase of a playing field adjoining that school, while the parents of West End students were pleading for a new school. MCP T.F. Fall, of Sandys, questioned why the Board of Education was willing to pay the exorbitant price of £1,200 when they had only recently paid £800 for the same two acres for The Berkeley Institute. He went on to say that “the West End School accommodated 200 scholars and God knows where they put them — they must pack them in like sardines in a can”. Needless to say, the Government purchased the property for Sandys Grammar.
In 1942, the House of Assembly granted £6,000 to renovate and construct additional buildings at Sandys Grammar School. Once again, the West End parents complained but were reminded they could not improve West End because the war resulted in a lack of building supplies. Their determined and unrelenting demands continued and, eventually, Somerset resident Algernon Harford was awarded the contract to begin building the school you see today. It was completed in 1944 by a team of Somerset men, including Eustace Forth, Donald Lapsley and others. It was at last a decent school for the children — the culmination of years of persistent begging. The new school had no assembly hall, so assembly was held in an upper corridor. It did not offer sufficient classrooms and part of one hall accommodated Ms Chomondeley and her class. Nevertheless, it was an improvement.
In 1948, the House of Assembly agreed to buy a house for the headmaster and one acre of land for Sandys Grammar. Additionally, they built new classrooms for this government-aided school. It educated the children of the White elite, the children of the British Navy, the American and Canadian bases, while the Black American children were sent to the West End School. I’m positive these foreign governments ensured their children at Sandys Grammar were not deprived and the school well maintained. The government school remained underfunded and practically abandoned.
The education minister proudly stated recently that he has signed a binding legal agreement — for what and with whom he has not disclosed — but inquiring minds want to know, and I am very inquiring. Our binding agreement is with the people of Sandys who fought for more than 150 years for the survival of this school and the education of its children.
It seems we need a school that is fit for purpose. I wonder why West End with all its physical flaws and poor funding was able to produce students such as Roderick Dixon, a member of the Canadian team that developed the robotic arm for the American space shuttle. He is only one of a long list of West End students who have made and continue to make invaluable contributions to Bermuda and the world. Positive role models for our young people.
Today those in political authority who live without historical knowledge, curiosity or pride are unable see that this school must prevail as a monument to Black pride, a monument to Black excellence and to the accomplishments of Black people who fought and continue to fight with a common goal for the education of their children. The elders did not fight for it to be transformed into the government-suggested senior care facility or government offices or a health clinic or a health spa. Disrespect at an unsurpassed level.
It was unfortunate that Watlington House, built by the enslaved, was recently demolished by this government. It should have remained as a monument and a reminder to both races of the evils of enslavement. Another result of poor and frequently selective understanding of our history. I am confused. Demolish a building that carries memories of slavery, yet retain a school as a monument to years of documented evidence of racism. Yes, you may say, “Forget it, it’s past history”, but you must realise it still sits in the distant memory of many Black people’s minds and resurfaces when we are disrespected and offended — worse still, by people who unbelievably on this occasion look very much like us. For once, let us retain a school that stands as a monument to Black pride and greatness. There is no reason why it cannot be transformed into something reflective of the future you propose. God knows, it is deserving.
I am appalled that I must make this request of a government that sits smug, arrogant and content that it won 30 seats and professes Black pride.
Let me remind you that in the 2012 election, when the Progressive Labour Party had little controversy in this area, your seat in Constituency 36 was won by eight votes. I suggest you think long and hard on this and remember that past students of West End Primary and schools to the east of us vote in every parish on this island.
• Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons is a retired nurse, writer and historian. With thanks to Malikah Sheeheed, of the Department of Libraries and Archives
Royal Gazette and Colonist Daily: August 7 and 13, 1936
The Royal Gazette: January 16, 1960
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