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A coming together of races and ages to honour legacy of the 1959 Theatre Boycott

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Touching monument: Two-and-a-half year-old Kush Butler reaches out and touches the statue unveiled last night at the opening of Wesley Square. The statue by Chesley Trott commemorates the 1959 Theatre Boycott, which resulted in desegregation.

A huge crowd of all ages and races gathered at the new Wesley Square park yesterday evening to celebrate 50 years of desegregation – and to pay tribute to the Progressive Group, who spearheaded the theatre boycott in 1959.

The event saw the unveiling of local artist Chesley Trott's tribute sculpture 'When Voices Rise' in the new public space, which was officially opened in the south-west corner of City Hall car park.

Hamilton Mayor Sutherland Madeiros welcomed a crowd of about 700 that included the surviving members of the Progressive Group, as well as politicians, dignitaries, locals and visitors. He was joined by the Corporation of Hamilton's Parks Superintendent Steven DeSilva, who thanked Mr. Trott for his artistic contribution to the new square and noted the contribution of the Corporation's workers in transforming the space.

Organiser Glenn Fubler of community group Imagine Bermuda spoke of the event's diverse turnout during his speech. "It says our community is moving forward," he said.

Mr. Fubler described how far Bermuda has come since the time of slavery and its remnant, segregation. He told the crowd of the events that unfolded 50 years ago this week, calling July 2 1959 – the day theatres and public buildings desegregated – "a time to praise, a time to celebrate."

"We are now 50 years later," he said. "We see that we are creatures of habit, but habits can change."

He led the entire crowd in a singalong to the lyrics of two Bob Marley songs, calling on Bermudians to heed the words of the "master poet": "Let's get together and feel all right."

Eugene Woods, an original member of the Progressive Group that masterminded the successful theatre boycott, took to the podium and started by voicing his support of the Bermuda Constitution. "We are supporters of good governance," he said. "We urge all Bermudians to work towards preserving our heritage, which is enshrined in our Constitution."

He spoke of his fellow Progressive Group members, saying: "It was not in our wildest dreams that some day we would witness this event today."

Mr. Woods talked of black Bermudians' resilience to the unjust policies of the past. "We as a race have succeeded under the most adverse conditions," he said.

He called on Bermuda's leaders to deal with the Island's racial, political and social issues "objectively and factually". "Resist the temptation to use the race card unjustly for personal advantage," he said.

After a moment's silence for those Progressive Group members and other civil rights agitators who have passed on, Mr. Trott's bronze statue was unveiled to applause and many flashbulbs.

It was then that the entertainment portion of the celebration commenced, with hundreds gathering around a stage erected in City Hall car park to watch a variety of local acts, from African drumming to Bermudian dance troupes.

Representatives from both the PLP Government and the Opposition were on hand to commemorate the theatre boycott's 50 year anniversary.

UBP Leader Kim Swan congratulated the Progressive Group in a statement yesterday, saying: "Their challenge to segregation in Bermuda's movie theatres was a watershed moment in the struggle against racism in Bermuda. So successful was it, that you could say the Progressive Group are the grandparents, as it were, of every step we have taken to move Bermuda away from the legacy of segregation ever since. They performed a great service for Bermuda, and for the moral progress our population has made during the last 50 years."

A PLP spokesman saluted the bravery of the Progressive Group in a statement, which read: "Today marks the 50th anniversary of the theatre boycott when masses of black people, frustrated by rampant discrimination, decided the despicable practice must end," he said.

"The organisers, not willing to endure brutal retaliation, cloaked themselves in anonymity for 40 years. Their efforts however, achieved the desired goal and emboldened others to pursue social and political justice in these Islands. Today protests can and do take place without the fears that were prevalent half a century ago."

Members of the Progressive Group pose for photos in front of the statue unveiled at the opening of Wesley Square last night