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Theatre Boycott organisers proud of the peaceful change they instigated in 1959

Photo by Mark TatemProgressive: Dr. Clifford Maxwell, Florenz Maxwell, Izola Harvey, and Gerald Harvey members of the Progressive Group which organised the Theatre Boycott which resulted in the de-segregation of much of Bermuda.

For 40 years nobody knew who was behind the series of demonstrations which shattered segregated Bermuda. As the Island celebrates the theatre boycott's 50-year anniversary, TIM SMITH spoke to four of its organisers about the enforced secrecy behind their trailblazing efforts.

Gerald Harvey's task was to spread a huge pile of posters around City Hall car park, telling everyone about the peaceful protest which was due to take place outside Bermuda's segregated theatres.

The difficult bit was that he had to make sure nobody saw him do it — and the car park was full of people.

So Mr. Harvey rolled up the posters under his coat and walked into the crowd, subtly dropped them to his feet and slipped away.

He then watched as the posters were picked up and shared around, spreading the word about the proposed theatre boycott demonstrations that were to rock the Island and lead to desegregation in theatres and later, as a knock-on effect, restaurants, hotels, schools and churches.

If anyone had spotted Mr. Harvey's poster drop-off, the game would have been up not just for himself, but possibly the whole Progressive Group, who had been meeting in secret in the summer of 1959, plotting to mobilise the Island to rise against white privilege.

In the face of animosity from whites who liked things the way they were, the Progressive Group's identity had to remain unknown, otherwise they may have found it impossible to get jobs and their parents risked losing their mortgages.

Each of the group's members — 19 young men and women — were only allowed to join after a careful vetting process; they were even banned from telling their spouses what was discussed at their meetings in Rosalind Williams' house in Flatts.

When the time came to putting the word out about the theatre boycott, no chance was taken. Members were posted at different locations with synchronised watches, collectively plastering the Island with their posters at 10.30 p.m. on June 11.

Within minutes, the whole of Bermuda seemed to be covered in flyers and the people who had put them up had all disappeared out of sight. It would prove impossible to track them down because the posters had been stuck up with paste and water so nobody could trace whomever had bought any glue.

Hundreds of people responded to the call by gathering outside theatres over the next two weeks; some carried placards, others climbed onto soapboxes and gave inspirational speeches.

But still nobody knew who the Progressive Group was. Some members didn't attend the protest — they'd done their job by getting everyone else to go. Those that did turn out ensured they didn't arouse suspicion by hanging around as a group.

Amazingly, the mystery surrounding the Progressive Group lasted 40 years, until they finally revealed their identities in 1999.

Yesterday, Mr. Harvey reminisced about his City Hall poster-drop when he joined fellow members — his wife Izola Harvey, and Clifford and Florenz Maxwell — in an interview with The Royal Gazette.

"I just dropped them to my feet and let the people spread them around," recalled the 86-year-old. "The public did everything.

"During the boycott, I remember hearing one person say: 'I don't know who these people are, but they are certainly galvanising the Island.'"

Dr. Maxwell explained the secrecy: "There could have been repercussions. As far as we were concerned, we didn't own property, but our parents did. They would have been able to stop their mortgage, that sort of thing."

But there was also a key tactical reason.

"Many of us had just come from school," he said. "Who is going to listen to a bunch of smart alecs who are trying to tell you what to do?

"Stan (Ratteray) thought if they didn't know who we were, they would take our advice. If we said 'no violence', then there would be no violence. They thought we were linked to the States."

They maintained anonymity for four more decades because they weren't seeking personal publicity, said Dr. Maxwell.

Activist Glenn Fubler eventually convinced them that by telling their stories they could be held up as a shining light to generations of young Bermudians.

"His idea was that the young people should know that this movement which changed the whole Island was done locally. It was done by young people. It wasn't Americans; this was a local action," said Dr. Maxwell.

At the time they had no idea what long-term consequences their protests would yield.

"You are just doing what you have to do," said Dr. Maxwell. "We didn't know it was going to open all this up.

"The theatre wasn't the main objective for what we wanted to do. The main reason was to improve racial relations on the political side, and universal suffrage.

"When we used to meet, Stan arranged for each of us to have different departments. We were practising for Government.

"Rudi Commissiong mentioned a boycott of theatres may be a way of influencing people. He said people don't understand franchise or governance, but they can understand they can't sit where they want in the theatre.

"It went bigger than we expected: hotels and everything."

Mrs. Maxwell said: "We felt it was wrong for segregation. We were going to stand up for it. We didn't realise the repercussions. The special branch was brought in to find out who we were. They couldn't, because we were so secretive.

"I marvel at the fact that we emphasised no violence, and people believed us. My American friends can't believe we turned over a country with not a drop of blood.

"We as a group were not out for power. We were not out to push ourselves in front. Our most important objective was for the place to become desegregated."

Mrs. Harvey told how the whole thing got started: "A friend of ours used to frequent our home on Sundays. We used to talk about segregation on the Island.

"One Sunday he came back and he told us they were forming a group they were hoping would bring about change. Theatres, hotels, jobs — various things were just for white people.

"A lot of the kids were educated abroad where you could go just about anywhere. Then you would come back home and you couldn't sit where you want in the theatre.

"I would like to think we have made some contribution to the Island, and that a lot of young people are benefiting from what we did."

l The Progressive Group members are listed elsewhere on this page.