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Theatre Boycott to break segregation recalled

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Survivors: David Burt, the Premier, centre, with seven members of the Progressive Group and organisers of the 1959 Theatre Boycott. Pictured from left: Vera Commissiong, Mava Stovell-Phillips, Gerald Harvey, Izola Harvey, Florenz Maxwell, William Francis and Erskine Simmons (Photograph by Sekou Hendrickson)

Organisers of the boycott that paved the way for racial equality on the island were honoured yesterday on the eve of its 60th anniversary.

Students, advocates and government figures congregated at the Earl Cameron Theatre in City Hall for the Freedom Friday celebration.

Attendees gave speeches, performances, and words of thanks to seven members of the Progressive Group who helped organise the historic Theatre Boycott of 1959.

In attendance were Izola and Gerald Harvey, William Francis, Florenz Maxwell, Mava Stovell-Phillips, Erskine Simmons and Vera Commissiong.

David Burt, the Premier, acknowledged the bravery of the protesters and “everyday people” who supported the actions that eventually lead to Bermuda’s desegregation.

Mr Burt said: “Though we still have a way to go here in Bermuda, the reason I could stand here today in front of all of you as a young black man is because of the sacrifices that you made 60 years ago.

“To the members of the Progressive Group here today, I thank you for your contribution, your fight for equality and for challenging the status quo.

Craig Cannonier, the Opposition leader, said that the efforts of the protesters were evident in the racially integrated audience.

He added: “They say that the 60th anniversary should be gifted with a diamond, and for the Progressive Group the gift of those diamonds is behind you in these young people.

“It is important that we realise that the time that we share today was cultivated by a group called the Progressive Group.”

During the 1959 Theatre Boycott, the Progressive Group orchestrated a protest against the six segregated movie theatres on the island.

The protest, which ran from June 15, forced the theatres to close down from lack of revenue, and not reopen until July 2 when they integrated their seats.

Other segregated establishments soon followed suit out of fear of closure until the island was effectively desegregated by the end of the year.

Glenn Fubler, the organiser of Freedom Friday, said that the celebration had the theme of “busy being born”, which highlighted the need to actively partake in civic matters.

He explained: “Every society is dependent on a sense of civic engagement of its citizens, and the Progressive Group demonstrated that in 1959.

“Today we have a measure of it, but the more people we have involved in that civic engagement the better that society can be.”

The celebration’s theme was also reflected in the five schools that attended, as well as performances from Dellwood Middle School and 12-year-old Indigo Adamson from Bermuda High School.

A Health and Wellness Fair was also held alongside the celebrations, allowing attendees to receive screenings for blood sugar and blood pressure as well as healthy living advice.

Mr Fubler said that this was an aspect of community engagement, explaining: “You need to have a healthy ‘me’ to have a healthy ‘we’.”

Sixty years in the making: four members of the Progressive Group with students from East End Primary School (Photograph by Sekou Hendrickson)
Members of the Bermuda Health Council offering nutritional advice for passers-by (Photograph by Sekou Hendrickson)
“Busy Being Born”: Dellwood Middle School M1 students after performing a routine about the efforts surrounding the Theatre Boycott (Photograph by Sekou Hendrickson)
Indigo Adamson, 12, performing Dream a Dream at the Freeom Friday celebration (Photograph by Sekou Hendrickson)