Photos & Videos: Freedom Square Unveiled

July 3, 2021 | 0 Comments

‘Freedom Square’ was officially unveiled at City Hall, serving to commemorate the 1959 Theatre Boycott and serve as “a central location where the public can come to reflect on and celebrate the freedoms that have been fought for, freedoms that have been realized and those still to come.”

Speaking at the unveiling, Mayor Charles Gosling said, “Today is a historic day. 62 years ago, the area to my right played host to a movement that would forever change Bermuda’s social landscape; an event that would pave the way for a better Bermuda. I am, of course, talking about the 1959 Theatre Boycott.

“Historian and Author Florenz Maxwell [who has graciously joined us here today] has written an extremely compelling book about these events called ‘Girlcott’ which charts a narrative of a young girl’s growing awareness and resistance, of hope, and the importance of fighting for change. I encourage you all to read it if you haven’t done so already. Ms Maxwell will read an excerpt from her book for us shortly.

“I will now outline briefly what happened during that pivotal occasion in 1959 as background for why we are assembled here today.

“Bermuda in the 1950s was a different place. Schools, churches and social spaces were ensnared in racial segregation and many hotels and restaurants discriminated against black people as a matter of policy. Even public and private places of leisure were segregated, including movie theatres, tennis courts and beaches.

“In early 1959, a group was formed with the goal of breaking down racial segregation in Bermuda. They called themselves ‘The Progressive Group’ and held their meetings in secret, out of fear that they and their families would be ostracized should their identities be revealed. Additionally, as I took from Ms Maxwell’s book, the concern was that “if Bermudians knew who they were, the focus would be on the messenger, not the message itself.”

“By June, the Progressive Group had devised a plan to boycott Bermuda’s movie theatres, as movies were a popular pastime for most of us back then. A theatre boycott would make a significant statement and impact. The Progressives were clear that their protest would be free of violence or even hints thereof.

“Letters, outlining plans for a boycott, were anonymously placed one evening on the steps of the black-owned newspaper The Recorder, who published the information the next day.

Progressive Group members Florenz Maxwell, Gerald Harvey, Izola Harvey, Rev. Dr. Erskine Simmons, Eugene Woods, Edouard Williams

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“At the same time, posters were secretly glued with details and instructions for the proposed boycott to as many telephone poles as possible. Flour and water used instead of commercial glue to further conceal their identity.

“Throughout the week of June 15th, crowds began to gather where the City Hall car park is today [which was a hub for three surrounding movie theatres] holding placards denouncing segregation. The number of those assembled grew and grew each day.

“By the second week, the boycott forced the theatre owners to close their doors. By the end of June, the island’s hotels, who had received similar protests, accepted the change in the status quo and announced that the patrons of their nightclubs and restaurants would no longer be segregated or discriminated against based on the colour of their skin. Bermuda’s theatres, with little or no public support, felt they had no choice but to follow suit and conceded to the call for change.

“The efforts of the Progressive Group and the support of the boycotters marked the first major defeat of segregation, all within two weeks, without any disturbance or violence.

“62 years later, to this day 2nd July 2021, we stand here now to reflect on and commemorate the legacy of the Theatre Boycott – a victorious watershed challenge to segregation in Bermuda, so much of the social, economic, political progress and enrichment of our society can be linked to this very day

“In 2009, local artist Chesley Trott was commissioned by the Corporation of Hamilton to create “When Voices Rise”, to honour the anonymous men and women who altered the course of Bermuda history. This statue was unveiled on July 2, 2009, on the event’s 50th anniversary.

“The following year I had the honour of unveiling the statue “We Arrive” at Barr’s Bay along with the artist Chesley Trott and Premier Dr Ewart Brown, commemorating the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the Enterprise and the freeing of 72 of the enslaved people stowed on board.

“Over the years, City Hall has become a venue for progressive social justice events, including the 1969 Black Power Conference coordinated by human rights campaigner Dr Roosevelt Brown [who took on the name of Pauulu Kamarakafego]. Our City streets also host the annual Labor Day Parade whereby the members of Bermuda’s Trade Union Congress can march through the City voicing their support of Freedom of Association.

“Indeed, Hamilton, as we have deliberately become an evolving organization, has played host to a number of significant events and rallies which honour one of our own core values – that of Inclusivity…

“Only one year ago, in June 2020, Bermuda celebrated the global Black Lives Matter movement with a protest followed within days by a march through the streets of Hamilton. Those participating showed it was a demonstration of island-wide unity and support for change, not only in the U.S. but also in this island.

“The year before, Hamilton hosted Bermuda’s first-ever Pride parade to recognize the rights of the LGBTQ community and to mark the work of those who campaigned for decriminalization of homosexuality.

“The City was extremely proud to be able to support these three events because [unless you believe the core section of our Constitution to be merely an ineffectual pre-amble] our human rights are enshrined, rather than aspired to, within this document and as much as we expect these rights for ourselves as well as for our mother, father, brothers, sisters, and children – we must, if we believe in universal freedom and liberty – ensure these rights are equally given to all Bermudians and the guests of our island.

“Then, following last year’s BLM March we were approached by Mr Glenn Fubler of Imagine Bermuda who presented a new approach that would better highlight the Theatre Boycott as well as recognizing some of the paths others have taken in the development of Bermuda’s Civil Rights.

“Therefore, first and foremost, inspired both by the actions of the Progressive Group and the 1959 Theatre Boycott, supported by the actions of Bermuda’s suffragettes, the later protests of BLM, OUT Bermuda, other key organisations and at the suggestion of Mr Fubler, supported by an alliance of Churches, Unions and other socially aware organizations, it is my absolute honour to be here today to formally announce the birth of Freedom Square.

“Freedom Square, on which the City Hall building and grounds rest, will henceforth be recognized as a safe space for people to express themselves regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or national origin.

“Our hope is that Freedom Square will forever be a central location where the public can come to reflect on and celebrate the freedoms that have been fought for, freedoms that have been realized and those still to come.

“Specifically, Freedom Square will encompass the City Hall Car Park, Wesley Square, Dismont Drive, Nellie’s Walk and the City Hall grounds. It stretches from Washington Street to Wesley Street; Victoria to Church Street.

“As a cultural centre, City Hall’s location has made it one of the pivotal platforms for promoting free expression, social justice and community-building.

“We hope that Freedom Square will be seen as a ‘safe space’ for voices to be heard and aspirations to take shape.

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“Freedom Square will also be the foundation for a ‘learning City’, merging oral and written traditions with technology to create an interactive, cultural learning experience using smartphones and QR codes.

“A swipe of the phone over a QR Code and a brief informative video will pop up detailing that location and its historical significance. The videos are interspliced with archival material to make them as visually engaging as possible.

“Already the City has installed five of these codes which are all located along Freedom Square.

“The very first one is at the corner of Wesley and Church Street to tell the history of the Theatre Boycott;

  • “Another right across from that spot to mark the former location of ‘Zion Chapel’ – Bermuda’s first Methodist Church and the first church where black and white people could sit & worship together;
  • “A third QR plaque installed along Dismont Drive to recognise Hamilton’s first black Mayor Cecil Dismont;
  • “A fourth just a few feet away on Nellie’s Walk to honour Helen Rees who was a staunch advocate for women’s rights in the early twentieth century;
  • “The final QR code is located on the Church Street side of the City Hall car park, to mark the site of the former Hamilton Hotel which launched Bermuda’s tourism industry providing employment for many black Bermudians who were excluded from many other professions due to their race.

“There will be further locations to recognize others [time does not allow me to mention them today], who have led the way to the freedoms we enjoy and as we strive to complete this task, a better life for all tomorrow. We will encourage the Department of Education to use this resource for social studies, learning Bermuda History, evolving IT technology, communication – the list is endless as we share our culture and our successes.

“We are not limiting this initiative to Freedom Square but will expand across Hamilton in the coming months and years. Our aim is to eventually group the spots into specially curated self-guided tours.

“Our long-term wish is to erect a fountain or sculpture along the grassy semi-circle area in front of City Hall which further represents the concept of ‘freedom’. This will be an outreach exercise that will have the input of the public and community groups to find the most appropriate symbol for this spot.

“In conclusion, we would like to thank the Progressive Group, whose unselfish desire for equality transformed our island, Mr Fubler who has rightly championed the efforts of the group as well as Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda and other community groups and social justice advocates who are helping us turn this idea into a reality.

“I would also like to thank The City Secretary, Mr Dwayne Caines, Charles Maybury and Zoe Mulholland for their early work reaching out to many already mentioned, as well as my fellow members of the City Council, Executive and Staff of the Corporation for bringing this vision to fruition. We recognize for change to take place in Bermuda we must lead from the front. Always remembering Hamilton is Bermuda at its best. Thank you.“

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