Plan to revitalise friendly societies in Bermuda
An optimistic plan aimed at keeping alive the rich legacy and to revitalise the remnants of the Island's once burgeoning friendly societies movement was outlined when the Bermuda Friendly Societies Association (FSA) celebrated its tenth anniversary a week ago.
The Manchester Unity Lodge on the corner of Union Square and Victoria Streets in Hamilton was packed to capacity with one of the largest gatherings seen in recent years at a single lodge event.
Keynote speaker Independent Senator Joan Dillas-Wright, along with the FSA's president, Dr Michael Bradshaw, historian Joy Wilson Tucker and former president Boyd Smith gave factual accounts of how friendlysocieties or black lodges had declined from no fewer than 80-odd when the movement was in its heyday to a mere eight lodges today.
Friendly societies, or unions, were conceived by the slaves for their own welfare when Emancipation Act came into force in 1834. At that time the emancipated black slaves had nothing but the clothes on their backs; no infrastructure, churches, or shops. They clubbed together and built their own infrastructure, homes, schools, churches and other institutions to provide sick aid, bury their dead, educate orphans and for other social and cultural needs.
The eight remaining lodges are rooted in the UK-based Independent Order of Oddfellows, Manchester Unity, the American Grand United Order of Oddfellows and the Princess Royal Union Lodge of the Independent Order of Good Samaritans and Daughters of Samaria. They each own and maintain landmark properties in the Island.
Four of the leaders from those lodges who helped form the FSA have since passed on. They were Bros Shane Kelly, Calvin Christopher, Earlston Tuzo and Donald Rhoda. An invitation was extended to their surviving kinfolk to be wined and dined as guests of honour of the FSA at the tenth anniversary celebration. Their response was overwhelming.
In her speech, Sen Dillas-Wright was able to confirm from personal experience the ethos of the lodges of giving educational support, particularly to female. When she was studying nursing in England she received a gift of £100. At the time she was not certain if the gift was a function of the fact that both her grandparents, Adolphous Dillas and his wife Marian Dillas, were members of the Manchester Lodge and Mayflower Lodge respectively.
However, she was informed by Bro Boyd Smith it was a gift from the Bermuda Nursing Association the friendly societies formed in the more than 100 years ago, and has helped educate countless nurses right up to this day. Members of Mayflower Lodge are trustees of the nursing association.
Sen Dillas-Wright said the picture that emerges from the foregoing is the extent to which, institutionally, the black lodges were central points in the life of Bermuda's black community. For apart from their economic, social and cultural actives, they were also the repository for political meetings as the political associations, which for some 50 years before the advent of party politics, served to educate the black community on political and civic matters.
“But sadly, and for a variety of reasons the black lodges declined in significance both to and for the black community, such that only eight are in existence today. Whatever the reasons many in the country and in islands in the Caribbean owe something to such societies,” said Sen Dillas-Wright.
She went on to outline revitalisation programmes similar to one in Trinidad and Tobago, which like Barbados and other Caribbean countries as well as Bermuda saw a decline both in numbers and significance over time. She committed herself in advancing plans to inject “new life” for the eight remaining black lodges and encourage their growth, which among other things included a campaign for inclusion of the role of black lodges in the school curriculum.
Sen Dillas-Wright focused on a continuation process in Trinidad and Tobago which began in 1984 with a one-day seminar organised by the Friendly Societies Division of the twin-island republic's Ministry of Labour, Small and Micro Enterprises, when attendees were urged to adopt modern techniques, including more use of mass media and information technology.
At the most recent, 27th National Annual Friendly Societies Conference, a two-day event in June, Trinidad's Minister of Labour and spokespersons from the Friendly Societies concentrated on the theme of “Creating New Products and Services for Youth Involvement in Friendly Societies”.