Lost but not forgotten
My husband and I grew up in homes where our parents were deeply involved in making education available and a priority for Black children on this island. My father’s involvement is well known, but I felt it was timely to revisited the often-forgotten Howard Academy where my mother-in-law, Lucille Simmons, was a board member.
Today, as the Ministry of Education grapples with what it perceives is best for the modern child, there was always involvement from concerned parents, teachers and members of this community. They knew that a superior education was the key for their children to succeed, and they did all they could to make their dreams a reality.
My husband and all but one of his five siblings were students of Howard Academy, a school whose many successes and examples should not be forgotten in the quest to modernise our educational system.
Skinner’s School was formed in 1947 when Canadian-born Edwin P. Skinner began teaching a small group of students in the dining room of his home in Devonshire. He had taught at the Dockyard and had been headteacher of Cavendish Hall School in Devonshire until his retirement in 1945.
By 1949, the student numbers had increased and Mr Skinner became a controversial figure in segregated Bermuda because he taught children of all races and because his assistant, Braxton Burgess, was a Black man. This was an unusual situation.
When the student numbers outgrew his home, he was forced to move into the vacant Old Elliott School building on Jubilee Road.
The Old Elliott School was a one-room building measuring 25 feet from north to south and 35 feet from east to west, with an outside toilet and no running water. It had been built in the 1840s by 12 Black men who felt that the children of Devonshire deserved an education. It was completed in 1848 and named for the Governor, Captain Charles Elliott, who had supported their efforts with encouragement, advice and finances. By 1926, the school was overcrowded and severely damaged in a hurricane. This prompted Elliott School to move further along Jubilee Road. Today, it is located on Hermitage Road.
Lynn Tucker-Alban recalls attending this building in the late 1940s when it was called Skinner’s School. Some of her classmates were Sir John Swan and Roosevelt Brown, now known as Pauulu Kamarakafego, and his sister, Irene Brown-Maybury. I was surprised to know that students travelled from Somerset to Skinner’s School and that a bus system was available after 1945, which made it possible for Irene and her sister, Blanche, to travel from Somerset to Hamilton then on to Devonshire. Howard Academy attracted many siblings and related families.
Irene Brown-Maybury recalled the kindness of neighbour May Ming who provided water and an area to play and eat their lunch on her property. She recalled the enjoyment of simple pleasures such as searching for four-leaf clovers among the grass. It was a happy time with no student conflict. In this humble building, they sat according to age groups to tables on wooden benches.
It was during this era that there began a search to rename the school. The students considered “Howard”, after Howard University in America, but then they decided that since most of the boys in the school were named Howard they chose the name Howard Academy.
Placement at The Berkeley Institute, founded in 1897, was oversubscribed as often 140 children applied but only 50 could be accepted. Others were accepted by Sandys Secondary School, founded in 1927, but this left many capable students without further educational possibilities and no alternative but to seek low-level employment. This concerning situation also contributed to the importance of maintaining Howard Academy.
Mr Skinner died in May 1951, leaving Braxton Burgess to continue the running of the school until the parents unanimously appointed Canadian Edward deJean, who had studied at McGill University and Queen’s University. His wife, Marion Seager-Trott, was a Bermudian. Under his administration, the school began to flourish and by July 1952 the number of students had increased to almost 100, and the school had no space to accommodate them.
In 1953, they approached the Board of Education for assistance. They were offered a building and land in Prospect, which they had no plans to use, and were offered a grant of £1,000. This offer was later rescinded by the decision to construct the Bermuda Technical Institute on that site — and once again they had to move. By 1958, the Bermuda Technical Institute was completed.
The board found yet another location on Roberts Avenue. One of the buildings had been a family home, which was rented at a nominal fee. The other two buildings were purchased from Dockyard by the school’s governing body and were transported in 35 loads by Harold Smith’s truck. There was an additional cost because the colonial government also charged duty for these buildings.
Students and parents dismantled and rebuilt them, laying floors and removing partitions in the old house.
In an interview with The Royal Gazette, Mr de Jean, who had served in the Canadian Army, felt the struggle had been of value as a character-building project for the young people. They developed leadership, initiative and a sense of responsibility, with many of the boys working over the Christmas holidays. “It’s more than a reward,” he said, “to see the emergence of leadership. If you take children seriously, show them respect, a lot of the difficulties disappear.”
The school uniform consisted of grey pants for boys and grey skirts for girls. They all wore white shirts with green ties and socks, with green, V-necked sweaters in winter.
It was a tradition for the Simmons boys to collect the daily newspaper from Royal’s Grocery Shop on Court Street and deliver it to school in adequate time for morning assembly. My husband recalled the morning he was late: he had a puncture and had to push his bike. He knew he was being depended upon, as Mr deJean always read local and foreign news, and discussed it during assembly. When he arrived, a teacher instructed him to deliver the paper past the waiting students to Mr deJean, who did not question the reason for his tardiness but gave him a proper dressing-down for his lack of punctuality and lack of respect by keeping others waiting. I can tell you that more than 60 years later, whenever we’re late, blame it on me — Lionel Simmons is always on time.
Mr deJean believed in discipline and emphasised the need for the co-operation of parents in his methods so that the school could operate with maximum efficiency.
The Prospect School had a tuck shop which supported the funding of the school, but there was no space at Roberts Avenue. As a result, other fundraisers had to be considered. My husband recalled that with the loss of the tuck shop, the students often went to Mr Johnson’s shop near Border Lane Grocery, where he was first introduced to the joy of the Jamaican beef patty.
Classrooms were divided by moveable partitions, which were opened for morning assembly and fundraising record hops. There were various fundraising methods as the government grant of £1,000 annually was totally inadequate. Teachers, utilities and other expenses had to be paid, and record hops became extremely successful fundraisers.
A record hop was a supervised dance event for teenagers which featured popular music.
The work schedule was lighter on Fridays and school closed earlier so that the students could move the partitions, sprinkle the floor with water to keep down the dust and sweep — all in preparation for the evening dancing. Bake sales were held under the veranda of my in-laws’ home on Dundonald Street, and once there was a bazaar at the sports arena that ran for the entire week. Students and parents were always involved in helping around the school, which created a family atmosphere.
Cynthia Thomas-Stovell attended Howard Academy in the Roberts Avenue location and taught there for a year after graduation. She recalled taking part in fundraising fashion shows put on by Maude Jackson, who owned Jackson’s Fashion House, a well-known dress shop in Hamilton. Mrs Stovell vividly remembered Mr deJean telling the students that, despite the Government’s discouraging attitude and lack of sufficient funding, they were entitled to a good education, and so they were to buckle down and do what was expected of them to be successful.
When it became evident that the school needed two more teachers, the board requested additional funds from the Government. The Department of Education suggested that to justify this request, students must pass the Senior Cambridge Examination, which was to be taken at The Berkeley Institute. The students were prepared and sat the exam. The teachers queried the final results and were advised that if they wanted, they could pay for an investigation. Funds were raised and the results of the investigation were indeed troubling. The examination papers had never been received by the examiners; in fact, they had never left Bermuda. The Director of Education was confronted with this damning evidence and funds immediately became available for the addition of two more teachers. In the mid-Fifties, Willa Denbrook-Tucker and Donald “Dick” Dane became the first students to pass the Senior Cambridge Examination.
There were no facilities to teach science at Howard Academy, but Mr deJean was aware that in preparing students for further education they would need the sciences and higher mathematics. Towards this end, he sought professional assistance. Frank Darnley, principal of the neighbouring Bermuda Technical Institute, tutored the senior students in chemistry and Clifford Maxwell tutored the maths requirements necessary for university acceptance. As a result, several students went on to university.
There were many dedicated teachers, but Eva Robinson’s name always comes to the fore. She began her career in 1953 at the one-room Jubilee School, where she taught 29 girls from age 8 to 18. When she retired in 1965, she was not granted a government pension because she had spent her teaching career in a private school.
Mr deJean was a keen sportsman who knew the value of sport. He was familiar with athletics, but as he had not played cricket or football in Canada, he aimed to make himself knowledgeable. My husband recalls taking part in a cricket match to select a school team. Lee Raynor was the bowler and by the third ball he was out. The problem, as he described, was that the balls passed him at such speed that he had not seen any of them. He then and there made the wise decision that cricket was not for him, especially when Lee Raynor was bowling.
Mr deJean studied football tactics and passed the examination to become a Football Association coach. He knew that sport would encourage teamwork and increase concentration, which would develop better academic performance. He worked along with Braxton Burgess to form a highly successful football team. The team trained in Prospect on Police Field, which had been used to exercise police dogs.
The late Kenneth Richardson, who later in his career became Bermuda’s first Black Cabinet Secretary, was a founding member of the team that morphed out of the school team to become Devonshire Colts. Seven of the team were made up of Howard Academy students, while the remaining four were students of The Berkeley Institute.
The team crest was designed by Kenneth Richardson, but there was some difficulty in selecting the team colours as other teams had already selected colours. It was around the Hallowe'en season and Cecil “Junks” Durham suggested orange and black. By 1958, the club was fully established and a saving plan arranged to support their needs.
In an effort to support Black businesses, the administrative group joined Kirkland Savings & Loans on Ewing Street and the Atlantic Western Insurance on Tills Hill.
In 1958, the Government did not approve the annual grant to Howard Academy, but this was challenged by Arnold Francis, a Member of the Colonial Parliament, who vehemently protested and the decision was reversed. The next year there was another attempt with the reasoning that since the other secondary schools for Coloured children were accepting more students, Howard Academy was no longer needed. In 1964, the Director of Education, D.J. Williams, sent a letter with stipulations requiring the permanent closure of the school as there would be no further funding.
In the early 1960s, Edward deJean joined with Wilfred “Mose” Allen and five other politically minded men in Hugh “Rio” Richardson’s garage business on Bakery Lane to form the Progressive Labour Party. By 1963, Bermuda’s first political party was formed.
Hugh Richardson became the first chairman of the PLP. He was appointed to the legislative council, now known as the Senate. In 1969, and served as the President of the Senate from 1980 until 1987.
Interestingly enough, as a young person, Mr Richardson had taken night classes with Mr Skinner when he was still teaching from his home.
In 1964, Mr deJean and his wife, Marion, returned to Canada to further their education and Edwardson Hill was appointed the new principal.
By 1965, this school, which had struggled for so many years with a mere annual pittance from the Government, was gone — except in the hearts and minds of those who courageously fought for its existence, and the students who benefited from the opportunity.
Total racial integration of Bermuda schools did not occur until 1971.
Edward deJean always reminded his students “not to go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”.
In 1980, he was appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for service to education.
Twenty-one years ago, Bermuda bade farewell to one of its most dynamic and memorable leaders in sports, politics and education.
Many influential Bermudian men and women, too numerous to mention individually, benefited from this humble pillar of learning named the Howard Academy.
• Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons is a retired nurse, historian, writer and author of The Bermuda Cookbook. With special thanks to all who assisted with this writing, especially Donald “Dick” Dane
The Bermudian Heritage Museum
The Bermuda National Trust Architectural Heritage Series Devonshire (1995)
Me One (Pauulu Kamarakafego, 2002)
The Bermudian Magazine (2011)