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Forces for good ignited by Theatre Boycott

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The 1959 Theatre Boycott was pivotal in the lives of George Cook and Ottiwell Simmons. The men were in their twenties when black Bermudians began protests against segregation here.

Dr Cook, who was in university in Canada, read about the efforts in the newspapers relatives sent; Mr Simmons, who was here, got involved. In the 60 years since, both men have carried on the spirit in their own way: Dr Cook helped widen educational opportunities; Mr Simmons joined the Bermuda Industrial Union and fought to improve work conditions for its members.

Complete strangers often come up to Ottiwell Simmons and thank him for his efforts as president of the BIU.

“That's a good feeling,” said the 85-year-old who retired from the post in 1996. “But there was a time when many people considered me to be the enemy of the people.”

Discrimination was Bermuda's way of life when he was growing up.

“That was brought on by legislation and investments of the people who had money,” he said. “The only people who had money were the whites — mainly men. The only people who really had authority in Parliament were white men.”

Mr Simmons was raised in North Village, Pembroke near Government Gate, one of seven children of Olaf and Audrey Simmons. His father and grandfather, Ambrose Simmons, ran a painting business together.

In the evenings, men from the neighbourhood would often gather in Ambrose's shop to shoot the breeze. From the age of 10, Mr Simmons loved listening to them.

“They would fuss and argue and debate about world affairs,” he said. “They would talk about the war. The world was at war fighting for world domination.”

The things they said inspired him to start reading everything he could about racism and world events.

Then one day Dr E.F. Gordon, who was then president of the BIU, gave a speech at Bernard Park.

“That settled with me in my heart and soul,” Mr Simmons said.

At 20, while a waiter at Coral Island Club, he tried to stage a walkout because of the hotel's treatment of black customers. The attempt ultimately tanked — his colleagues bailed at the last minute — but he'd stood up against injustice for the first time.

He remembered how, at 17, he tried to take a girlfriend to the Island Theatre on Wesley Street. There was a long queue outside with only a few seats left inside. It started raining.

“A guy came out and pointed to two people behind me,” Mr Simmons said. “They were white. Everyone else standing there was black.”

The theatre employee left everyone else out in the rain. The injustice stayed with Mr Simmons.

“This was unfair,” he said. “I thought, ‘I can't take this. It is not right. Things should be fair for all people.'”

When the theatres were eventually desegregated on July 2, 1959, he refused to support them.

He was wholeheartedly behind BIU plans to start its own cinema and was on the committee that helped build the Liberty Theatre on Union Street.

He insists, however, that segregation made him thoughtful and constructive rather than angry.

“It educated me on how man can be so inhumane to men,” he said. “It is these real-life experiences that caused me to try to get people organised and do something for people.”

He joined the BIU at 25 and was elected president in 1974.

Mr Simmons also joined the Progressive Labour Party and in 1978 successfully ran for Pembroke East with the late Nelson Bascome.

“I simply worked to make things better, as a union man,” he said. “I wanted to advance the working class and give them benefits that they were entitled to.”

George Cook's motto is “always be a little unusual”.

Every morning the 81-year-old dons a blue floppy hat and threadbare shoulder bag and walks his Flatts neighbourhood picking up trash.

“People stop in their cars and say, ‘But you shouldn't be doing that! You're a former president of the Bermuda College.' I say, ‘If not me, who?'”

He considers it his contribution to the community. Plus, he says, his “Mama” would approve if she were still alive.

Muriel Irene Nelmes Cook was a strong influence, teaching Dr Cook and his eight siblings to treat everyone with respect. “She said what goes around comes around,” he said.

She also encouraged all her children to get an education even though they weren't a family with a lot of money. Dr Cook's father John, an electrician, was well known as “Cookie the Clown”.

“So my father was a little unusual, too,” he laughed.

That he grew up in Spanish Point was a formative part of his upbringing, he believes.

“Spanish Point was a very mixed area,” he said. “Black and white children in the neighbourhood went off to separate schools and came back and played together.”

He remembers taking segregation for granted, never questioning the status quo.

“You just didn't in those days,” he said.

He went off to university two years before the 1959 Theatre Boycott began.

“I would read about the Theatre Boycott,” he said. “You would say, ‘Why are we doing this? Why did we have this upstairs/downstairs business?' It all collapsed. There was no rationale that anyone could point to to give a substantial reason.”

He initially went to Dalhousie University in Halifax to study accounting. He did well, but towards the end of the programme realised history was his true passion.

To pay for his studies he borrowed from the Rotary Club in Bermuda and joined Frontier College, a Canadian programme that paid students to do hard labour as part of railway gangs during the day and teach in the evenings. The workers were mostly European migrants whose English was limited.

“They were grateful for whatever you could do for them,” Dr Cook said, adding that it helped open his eyes to the inequalities in society.

“I remember the train would go by sometimes,” he said. “There would be passengers inside. They'd look out at you and you'd look in at them, but they weren't really seeing you.”

Dr Cook received a PhD in history from the University of Oxford in England. On June 27, 1966 he married Josephine and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia where he taught history at Simon Fraser University.

“It was a brand new university,” he said. “Even the constituents of the degree hadn't been determined yet because they hadn't graduated anyone. I was present at a very formative stage. I learnt how to put courses and programmes together.”

By 1975 he had tenure and was headed for promotion but gave it all up to join the Bermuda College, only a year old at the time.

He worked his way up over the years and was president from 1992 until he retired in 2001.

“I confess to having a sense of mission,” he said. “This institution was critically important because it meant children didn't have to do what I did, which was beg and borrow to go to university.

“The Bermuda College was a liberating exercise. It enabled people to achieve some of their goals. They could do it locally and use that foundation to go to the next thing. I always argued that the Bermuda College was the single most important social institution. It provided that means for upward mobility.”

He is proud to have created an arts and science programme that allowed Bermuda students to enter overseas institutions with two years of credit. He continues to serve the community through the Hamilton Rotary Club. He is a member of the St George's Lyme Regis Twinning Association.

The 60th anniversary celebration of the Theatre Boycott will take place on Friday at City Hall from 12.30pm until 1.30pm. Lifestyle profiles the island's senior citizens every Tuesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com with their full name, contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

George Cook, right and Ottiwell Simmons, left, sitting together on Wesley Street in Hamilton on the spot of the former Island Theatre whose racist policies triggered the 1959 Theatre Boycott (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
Ottiwell Simmons, the former president of the Bermuda Industrial Union, during the island's epic strike of 1981 (File photograph)
George Cook working on the rails in Canada in 1960 with Frontier College (Photograph supplied)
George Cook picks up trash in his Flatts neighbourhood on a daily basis (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

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Published June 11, 2019 at 9:00 am (Updated June 10, 2019 at 8:05 pm)

Forces for good ignited by Theatre Boycott

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