Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Race and Class in the Colonial Bahamas, 1880-1960$

Gail Saunders

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780813062549

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813062549.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM FLORIDA SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.florida.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University Press of Florida, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in FLASO for personal use (for details see http://www.florida.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 19 November 2017

Confronting a Divided Society

Confronting a Divided Society

9 Confronting a Divided Society
Race and Class in the Colonial Bahamas, 1880-1960

Gail Saunders

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 9 examines Bahamian society across the 1950s and 1960s in order to determine whether the turbulence of the preceding decades brought about any fundamental improvements in race relations. Reexamining the populations of New Providence and the Out Islands between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, Saunders finds over time a decrease in the number of individuals self-identifying as black and a significant increase in the number of individuals self-identifying as mixed race. Discriminatory practices still in force across the Bahamas at mid-century are described, as are improved material conditions—including better local and international communications and transportation— affecting all Bahamians. By the 1960s land in the Bahamas had appreciated in value and was attracting developers and speculators. While there was greater access to land ownership among Bahamian nonwhites, the best land, including entire cays, was sold to foreigners and wealthy local elites. An overview of these and related conditions in the Bahamas across the 1950s and 1960s reveals that attitudes towards race had not fundamentally changed since the 1880s and that there was a lack of confidence in Bahamian black leadership. Greater unity and militancy on the part of the Black majority would be needed to defeat the powerful white elite government.

Keywords:   population, New Providence, Out Islands, race, categories, discrimination, material conditions, attitudes, nonwhite, mixed race, black

It was not until the establishment of the Progressive Liberal Party in 1953 that organized opposition was felt in the Bahamas, and it would take another fourteen years for the black majority to win political power. Beginning with improved secondary and tertiary education and escalating with the protests of the 1942 riot, the 1956 resolution, and the general strike in 1958, changes underscored racial issues and raised expectations among the black laboring population. Politically, the Bahamas was on the brink of change in 1962. Although that year’s election was an overwhelming victory for the United Bahamian Party because of the unbalanced distribution of constituencies, the predominantly black Progressive Liberal Party had won more votes than the white-dominated UBP. Five years later, elections would end in a tie.

By the early 1960s modernity had come to New Providence, if not to the Out Islands. The economy based mainly on tourism and financial services continued to expand. The dominant North American culture brought in by visitors, investors, and Bahamian Project or Contract workers greatly affected the Bahamas. Many who had lived and worked in the United States, having adjusted to higher wages and modern facilities, found it difficult to readjust to traditional Out Island life. With more capital and heightened expectations, many Out Islanders left their settlements to seek employment in Nassau, at Pine Ridge, and later at Freeport in Grand Bahama. Community patterns were changing.

Demographic Forces at Work

Between the 1880s and early 1960s the population of the Bahamas had almost tripled, rising from 43,500 in 1881 to more than 130,000 in 1963.1 A high birth rate and in-migration from the Out Islands and the West Indies resulted in a tremendous increase in New Providence particularly. Nassau (p.287) accommodated the greatest number of whites and most of the migrant and non-Bahamian population. The concentration of the population was influenced by the neglect of agriculture and the establishment of tourism as the major industry. After 1953 more than half the Bahamian population lived in New Providence.

Also significant was that people indigenous to New Providence formed only 45.5 percent of its population by 1953; nearly 42 percent were Out Island born.2 By 1963 foreign-born residents constituted 12 percent of the burgeoning population of New Providence, including West Indians (3 percent), chiefly policemen, and especially Barbadians, who had joined the Bahamas Police Force in large numbers between 1946 and 1952.3

Out Islands with declining populations included Abaco, Harbour Island, and Eleuthera in the north, and Cat Island, Rum Cay, Long Cay, and San Salvador in the southern Bahamas. Decline in the Andros population brought on by the demise of sponging was offset by the development of the lumber industry and tourism. Similarly, outside investments stimulated growth in Grand Bahama’s population. Having declined before World War I, it showed positive growth due to West End’s importance as a base in the clandestine bootlegging trade during Prohibition. After 1944 the development of the lumber industry at Pine Ridge and the subsequent phenomenal growth of Freeport had a decided impact on the expansion of Grand Bahama’s population.4

Statistics on racial categories provided in the 1943 and 1953 censuses did not appear in the 1963 census. Racial assignments in the censuses of 1943 and 1953 were self-identified as opposed to those given by enumerators. The 1943 census recorded 11.5 percent as Europeans (whites), 83.3 percent as “African (black),” and 4.7 percent as “mixed.” “Mongolians” made up 0.3 percent, “others” 0.2 percent, and 67 persons did not state their race. Ten years later in 1953, 12.6 percent classified themselves as whites, an increase probably due to the recent immigration of Americans, Canadians, Britons, and Europeans. Significantly, only 72.6 percent now called themselves black, while 14.2 percent said they were mixed.5 A decrease of more than 10 percent in the proportion of self-defined blacks and the quadrupling of the actual number calling themselves mixed is surprising. We can perhaps speculate that with the white oligarchy determined to sustain its hegemony in an expanding economy, racial categories would tend to become polarized on the American model to ensure that all who could possibly pass as white would do so.

Paradoxically, though, favorable economic opportunities provided incentives for the mixed-race middle class to distance itself from the black majority, (p.288) especially the new immigrants from the West Indies, and in particular the Barbadians and Haitians.

Cultivating Solidarity

Black solidarity was also advancing, however. Two institutions that strengthened the nonwhite community were the Baptist Church and the various lodge organizations. Since the late nineteenth century the Baptist faith in the Bahamas had gained in membership and developed a more educated and respected leadership. Reverend Talmadge Sands’s appointment as head of Zion Baptist Church in 1931 was of great significance: a Bahamian, a nonwhite, and an Out Islander at that.

Despite the differences between native Baptist churches and Zion, which was linked to the Baptist Missionary Society in London, his appointment served as an example for others.6 Several early Baptist ministers in New Providence were Out Islanders. Harcourt W. Brown from Eleuthera served at Bethel Baptist Church from 1939 and later at St. John’s Native Baptist Church.7 His successor, Reverend Timothy E. W. Donaldson, was born in Cat Island and began his career as a teacher before migrating to the United States, where he became a citizen. Upon his return in the early 1920s, Donaldson was ordained and given superintendence of various churches on the Out Islands affiliated with St. John’s. In the early 1950s he was back in the United States and was awarded a doctor of divinity degree from Bishop McGuire Theological Seminary of New York. His leadership at St. John’s saw the promotion of local music and drama. Mixed-race and black youths with natural talent, including Winston V. Saunders, were allowed expression that had hitherto been difficult in the race- and class-conscious Bahamas.8

Eleuthera-born Jerome E. Hutcheson headed the Metropolitan Baptist Church, a splinter church of St. John’s located in Hay Street, Grant’s Town. Another splinter church of St. John’s, the Mission Baptist Church on East Street, was headed by Exumian Reuben E. Cooper. In 1933 Enoch Backford, a Long Islander who immigrated to Nassau in the 1920s, was appointed head of Salem Baptist Church, a splinter church of Zion. Backford had received his training at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, and at the Florida Memorial College in St. Augustine.9

The dynamic black leadership within the Baptist Church in the Bahamas attracted respect, and links to southern U.S. Baptist congregations were growing. The bonds were cemented after 1942, when the main Baptist groups combined for a time under the title Bahamas Baptist Mission and Educational (p.289) Convention, to plan an educational system. In 1944, already in contact with the National Baptist Convention of Chicago and the Southern Baptist Convention of Nashville, Tennessee, the Bahamian Educational Convention received financial assistance from its American affiliates to establish three schools catering to nursery, preparatory, and elementary school children. A Baptist High School was not established until 1961.10

Similar in doctrine and American in origin was the Church of God, which also attracted blacks. Akin to the African Methodist Episcopal Church or Shouter Chapel established in Nassau in the mid-nineteenth century and which still existed in some form in the 1950s, the Church of God was a branch of the American institution of the same name. It was originally led in the Bahamas by Bishop W. V. Eneas. Its first church was built Over-the-Hill in the early 1920s, on a street later to become known as Eneas Jumper Corner.11 As with the Baptists, leadership and congregational autonomy were paramount. This led to divisions, and the Church of God splintered into many groups, including the Church of God of Prophecy, known familiarly as the “Jumper Church.” Even in the 1950s it attracted tour operators so that visitors could witness how members in sustained periods of “exaltations” could “ketch the Sperret.”12

The traditional secular friendly societies formed by liberated Africans, freed slaves, and their descendants grew more sophisticated and were associated with black Freemasonry lodges and such fraternal organizations as the black versions of the Elks, Buffaloes, and Odd Fellows. Many blacks belonged to several organizations, each with its particular character, rituals, and regalia. Elite white men sometimes ridiculed the imitative pretensions of the black societies, failing to recognize the significance of these organizations: “With their arcane mysteries and mimic hierarchies, the blacks were psychologically displacing the alienation and deprivation imposed by the dominant social order. Few whites, moreover, acknowledged the degree to which membership in the societies and the performance of ritualized mysteries provided an institutional link to the kinship and community rituals and ceremonies of aboriginal Africa.” Like church participation, membership in the secular black organizations offered leadership roles that “helped to facilitate and shape black political activity in the twentieth century.”13

Ongoing Disparities in Housing and Land

As in most biracial communities in the Bahamas, residential segregation prevailed in New Providence. During the 1950s while the white population (p.290) was still largely confined to Nassau and the northern shores, there were also several pockets of whites in Centreville and Sears Addition on the eastern edge of Nassau. As more mobile middle-class mixed-race and black people moved out of their traditional areas, some acquired land to the south of the recently settled white areas. The majority of whites involved, often from Abaco and Harbour Island, were located on the northern side of the suburban developments, generally on hill top and main street lots. Mixed-race persons aspired to such choice properties but either could not afford them or were never offered them by realtors.

To avoid subtle discriminatory practices, some mixed-race couples approached the property owners directly. Some were willing to sell to certain nonwhites if they obtained the necessary financial backing. In most cases this was difficult, so the majority of mixed-race families had to settle for the property in the valley or “middle section.” Blacks, because of economic constraints and discrimination by white real estate agents, were relegated to the “back” or southern areas.14 Sir Orville Turnquest, born and raised in Grant’s Town, observed: “The mass of the black population also expanded, as their numbers increased, into areas outside the original Over-The-Hill neighbourhoods into … Coconut Grove, Shirley Heights, Culmersville, Sears Addition, Greater Chippingham, Pinewood Gardens and others.”15 Beginning about 1956, Turnquest stated, “many second generation family members would have been getting a better education, jobs, and leaving their parents in Grants Town and Bain Town.”16

Blacks also settled in the wholly black area of Engleston and on Wulff Road, which in the early 1950s was little more than a cart track. When relocating, more mobile blacks put their Over-the-Hill houses up for rent, often to immigrants. By 1953, 36 percent of the houses in New Providence were tenant occupied.17 As Doran and Landis have demonstrated, most leased properties fell into disrepair.18 S.E.V. Luke, one of the assistant secretaries at the Colonial Office, wrote in 1951: “Behind Nassau’s picturesque old-world streets and princely mansions along the East and West shores are slums as bad as any in any West Indian Colony, and far worse than anything Bermuda can show.” He added that he was “shocked by a personal tour of Nassau’s slums with the Governor”—not because they were worse than slums “existing on a larger scale in every West Indian Colony but because it is disgraceful that [such] conditions should exist in so rich an island.”19

Not all residents would have agreed with this negative report. Turnquest saw the area in 1962 as “the most developed community of the black Bahamian population,” though conceding that some zones could perhaps be (p.291) characterized as slums.20 Arlene Nash Ferguson noted that deterioration was more pronounced later.21 Rosemary Hanna’s Pictorial History and Memories of Nassau’s Over-the-Hill (2013) highlights the “tremendous contributions” of Over-the-Hill toward development of the Bahamas.22

But infrastructure had not kept pace with the population. Most blacks in New Providence lived in three-roomed wooden houses without running water or sewage disposal. In 1963, 56 percent of all Bahamian houses were of wood construction, some 14 percent of stucco or loose freestone, and 26 percent of concrete block. In New Providence 37 percent of houses had piped public water in 1963, but 12 percent depended on private wells or tanks, and 50 percent had only public standpipes.23 The majority of Bahamians still depended on water tanks, wells, and public standpipes.

In contrast, substantial improvements in housing had been made among the white elite, better-off whites, and the mixed-race and black middle class. Two- and three-bedroom concrete houses with running water and inside plumbing were becoming common, especially in the predominantly white areas of Centreville and Sears Addition. By 1963, 30 percent (up from 22.3 percent in 1953) of all houses in New Providence were built of concrete.24 As the population moved from the city into the suburbs, older areas were left more crowded and dilapidated than before.

Residential segregation likewise still prevailed among Out Islanders, the majority living in unpainted wooden houses without running water or inside sanitary facilities.25 Some communities where substantial foreign or tourist investment had occurred had benefited from installation of public water systems.26

Communications and transportation had seen some improvements. Nassau had fairly efficient international telegraph service with cable connections with Bermuda and Fort Lauderdale, Florida; it also operated six radio telephone circuits with the American Telegraph and Telephone Company in Miami, linking it with London. Internally, Nassau was connected to thirty-four Out Island settlements by radio telegraph and had telephone links with twenty-seven of them. It also had ship-to-shore radio circuits in operation at Nassau, Inagua, Cat Cay, and Pine Ridge, Grand Bahama.27

As described in chapter 6, Oakes Airfield—where angry laborers had gathered on the morning of 1 June 1942 before rioting in downtown Nassau—became the first commercial airport in the Bahamas.28 Pan American Airways had Miami-Nassau flights, and British South American Airways launched Nassau-Bermuda-London service that evolved into BOAC’s weekly New York-Nassau-Bermuda flights.29 The road system was improved in the (p.292) center of Nassau but lagged elsewhere.30 In the early 1950s most Out Islands still had only rudimentary road systems, although Eleuthera had a seventy-mile asphalted road, and a few other islands had concrete roads within settlements.31 By 1953 most islands were serviced by motorized mail boats that called weekly.

As improved mail boat service provided more reliable supplies of food, land ownership became less necessary for survival. In monetary terms land had appreciated greatly in value, but its acquisition eluded the majority. Crown lands still amounted to considerable acreages, and land policy had not changed appreciably since the 1890s.32 Most people were unable to meet the long-standing stipulations reinforced in 1948 that required certain minimal improvements to be made before freehold title was given.33

The imperial government’s primary land policy objective was to ensure that land leased or sold by the Crown was used for development and not merely held for speculative purposes—a vain hope. Prohibition and tourism drove up land values, which resulted in land being bought for speculative purposes and remaining undeveloped. Influential realtor Harold Christie bought large parcels at nominal prices and sold some for huge profits; the Crown Lands Office was dominated by non-Bahamians.34 Large holdings prevented expansion by local inhabitants, and fine beaches became private.35 Some foreigners and local white elites bought their own cays: William Cay in the Exumas, for example, was purchased in 1953 by Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy of theatrical fame. During the same year local white businessman Herbert A. McKinney bought Crab Cay, the largest cay in Great Exuma’s harbor.36

The majority was excluded from the boom. Intricacies in the land tenure system (chapter 1), combined with migration from the Out Islands, meant that owners of generation property left land vacant, and even those farming the land found it difficult to establish title, as in the case of J. Maxwell Bowe’s resident sharecroppers (chapter 7).37 No systematic plan was made before 1962 to resolve the land tenure situation or support traditional farming, and the percentage of people working in agriculture steadily declined.38 At the same time, wage labor failed to keep pace with the spiraling cost of living.39

Enforcing and Eroding Segregation

Prohibition not only enriched certain families, mainly white, but also established a pattern determining the basis of the Bahamas’ economy: a strong commercial rather than agricultural bias. The pattern widened the gap between (p.293) classes and races. Wealthy white Bay Street merchants continued to dominate Bahamian life in every sphere until 1967. American influence exacerbated the situation as Bahamians were further exposed to segregation practices by migrating to Florida and by the presence of thousands of American tourists in Nassau and some Out Islands. As Colin Hughes has argued, race relations in the Bahamas resembled those in the southern United States more than those in the West Indian colonies.40

Indeed, the color line hardened. The society was deeply divided by race. Color more than class separated the different sectors. Some upward mobility among poor whites and the black laboring population had occurred, and a small white middle class had emerged, comprising some Nassau whites but mainly Out Island immigrants from Abaco and Harbor Island. But there remained a cleavage between rich and poor even within the white society, although because of their color, poor whites had better chances of obtaining jobs from the white elite.

The economy continued to be tightly controlled by the white elite. As members of the House of Assembly, the white politicians devoted much time and energy to promoting tourism and the financial sector, with the benefits largely accruing to themselves and their relatives and friends. Tourism and financial services yielded high revenues to the rich and powerful, creating “private wealthy empires” and widening the gap between the rich and poor.

Some of the wealthy elite, such as Sir Stafford Sands and Sir Harold Christie, emulated the lavish lifestyles of the winter residents, occupying “palatial homes” and entertaining their friends at “gargantuan dinners and cocktail parties.”41 They employed a host of domestic personnel, which included household servants, cooks, butlers, and chauffeurs.42

The traditional elite such as the Duncombes, Adderleys, and Moseleys still held respected positions in the society, but they entertained on a more modest scale and lived more simply, as did the new white middle class made up of professionals, small businessmen, and civil servants. For traditional elite men, the regular Saturday night supper at the Club had ceased when that venerable institution closed in 1946.43 The segregated St. Andrew’s Society and the Royal Victoria Masonic Lodge remained bastions of Nassau’s white elite men. The Boy Scout movement under the presidency of Godfrey Higgs was also dominated by the elite.

Elite women were staunch members of the Bahamas Red Cross, the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire, and the recently reorganized Girl Guide Association. In the early 1960s the Red Cross Society was headed by wives of the white elite but included several token mixed-race spouses of politicians (p.294) or successful nonwhite professional men. Charitable work formed part of the ethos of the ruling class and spread gradually to the middle class in the form of noblesse oblige, the notion that it is the duty of the upper class to do good works for the unfortunate of the lower classes. This notion, of course, reinforced social distinction.

Members of the conservative and exclusively white IODE built their own headquarters in 1952 and continued to cater to the armed forces by entertaining officers from the Royal Navy ships that frequently visited Nassau. In addition to the upkeep of the Royal Air Force Cemetery, a relic of World War II, they also performed various charitable works.44 Many IODE members were associated with the Girl Guide movement, which had been revived by the governor’s wife, Lady Murphy, in 1945. Leadership was predominantly white, although the organization encompassed members of both races. Nonwhites included as treasurer Rita Toote, wife of T. A. Toote. Until the mid-1950s Girl Guide companies were strictly segregated by race. The Second Nassau Girl Guide Company in the early ’50s was white. Several light-skinned middle-class girls were allowed to join about 1955. However, when the company leader invited darker middle-class girls to join in 1961, most white parents withdrew their daughters. When Arlene Nash (Ferguson) joined in 1961, there was one white guide, Teresa Rae, daughter of liberally minded British civil servant Richard Rae.45

Racial segregation also existed in sports. In the 1950s and early 1960s softball and basketball were played at Garfunkel Field in the recently developed suburb of Palmdale. Players were mostly white, although some light-skinned mixed-race men were members of teams. Spectator areas, however, were strictly segregated. Whites sat in an enclosed wired-off section with bleachers on the basketball court, while nonwhites sat in their cars or on a low stone wall outside the compound.46

Whites played tennis at the Nassau Lawn Tennis Club, while mixed-race persons and blacks could join the Gym Tennis Club, established in the 1920s. By the early 1950s it had built its own clubhouse on the corner of Wulff Road and Mackey Street. Cricket was attractive to mixed-race people, the black middle class, and a growing number of upwardly mobile West Indians. Sporting clubs including St. George’s, St. Albans, St. Bernards, the Westerners, the Vikings, and St. Agnes belonged to the Bahamas Cricket Association, headed in the 1940s by A. F. Adderley and after his death in 1953 by Kendal Isaacs.47

Similarly, whites segregated themselves in their church attendance. Most traditionally belonged to the congregations of the Anglican Christ Church (p.295) Cathedral, the Methodist Trinity Church and Ebenezer, and the Presbyterian St. Andrew’s Kirk. At the Kirk, at least in the 1940s, separate Sunday schools were held for whites and nonwhites.48 This practice was slightly relaxed by 1962. Similarly, up until the late 1950s and early 1960s, Christ Church, which had a large middle-class mixed-race following, held separate Sunday schools. White children attended on Saturdays, while mixed-race and black children received religious instruction on the Sabbath. At Ebenezer, whites and nonwhites entered through separate doors and sat on different sides of the church.49

For the majority of Bahamians, the Board of Education’s public educational facilities left much to be desired, with inadequate buildings, short supplies, and few trained teachers. Despite the existence of evening continuation classes and the training college established in 1950, the majority of teachers in that year had no formal training.50 As late as 1956 half of all Bahamian teachers had received no professional training and lacked even the minimum of academic qualifications.51 Unsatisfactory primary education resulted in poor performance in secondary schools, with concomitant school certificate results. Very few candidates attempted the Higher School Certificate, and those who did, with few exceptions, were unsuccessful.

However, a number of mixed-race and black persons benefited greatly from the improved standards of the Government High School, which moved out of its cramped quarters in 1960 into a modern purpose-built building at Oakes Field, becoming a crucial factor in the growth of the professional nonwhite middle class. Additionally, the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches had opened high schools including St. John’s College Anglican School (1945), which catered to the upwardly mobile nonwhite middle and lower classes. St. Augustine College Catholic School for boys was opened in 1945, and St. Francis Xavier, a high school for girls, had been established in 1890. Both catered to whites and also the upwardly mobile nonwhite middle class. Secondary education, although limited to those who could afford it, was the salvation of nonwhite Bahamians. By 1953 a third of Nassau’s legal profession was nonwhite, including A. F. Adderley, Gerald Cash, Eugene Dupuch, Randol Fawkes, Kendal Isaacs, William Swain, Maxwell Thompson, Paul Adderley, Orville Turnquest, and Lynden Pindling.52

During the early 1950s a substantial number of mixed-race and black persons were studying in professional fields, including medicine, dentistry, law, and engineering. Those already qualified included five dentists, of whom two were black: Jackson Burnside and Cleveland Eneas. Five out of seventeen doctors were nonwhite, and another nonwhite, Dr. Ricardo DeGregory, (p.296) held the post of anesthetist at the Bahamas General Hospital.53 Several Out Islanders and some of West Indian descent also held important positions in the public service. West Indians were usually better educated and more aggressive and upwardly mobile than Bahamians. For example, Clement T. Maynard, the son of a Barbadian artisan, was appointed chief laboratory assistant in the Bahamas General Hospital in 1952.54 On the other hand, Out Islanders with poorer educational backgrounds were also energetic and upwardly mobile. Inagua-born mixed-race World War II veteran Wenzel Granger, by 1951, occupied the rank of assistant superintendent of the Bahamas Police Force.55

A growing number of Out Islanders also succeeded in private enterprise. Long Islander William Cartwright owned a publishing company, while black Exumian E. J. Rolle in 1953 established the Exotic Gardens, a floral and landscaping firm on Marlborough Street in Nassau. Rolle, from Forest in Exuma, had emigrated to Nassau in 1936. After working in Nassau for several years, he attended the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama between 1944 and 1946, training as a horticulturist. On his return to Nassau, he became known for his landscaping abilities.56

Women likewise made notable advances through pursuing higher education: Hilda Bowen trained in Britain and became a nursing sister at the Bahamas General Hospital in 1953 and matron in 1962.57 Other members of the nonwhite middle class who trained professionally overseas were Patricia Fountain, Dorothy Davis, Olivia Jarvis, Clarice Sands, and Keva Bethel (see chapter 7).58 In the late 1950s and early 1960s Dawn Thompson read geography at the University of Durham, and her sister Jeanne studied law at the University of London. Both sisters were graduates of Wolmer’s Girls School in Jamaica, where they completed their Higher School Certificate. Jeanne was the third Bahamian woman to be called to the Bahamas Bar.59

Many of the older generation of the mixed-race and black middle class, bound by economic and family responsibilities, continued to work in the civil service, which particularly attracted women, to the dismay of many governmental heads.60 Nonwhites, now dominating Out Island commissioners’ posts, were also beginning to occupy senior posts within the civil service departments. Better educational opportunities and the shortage of suitable whites led to the appointment of mixed-race and black staff. Not many nonwhites held the top posts, however. An exception was the fair-skinned Sidney Eldon, a career civil servant, who held the post of comptroller of customs in 1953, having been appointed seven years before.61 Many nonwhites felt that discriminatory policies rather than capability excluded such men from (p.297) holding even more responsible posts. Eldon’s long experience in the Treasury Department and as assistant treasurer made him the obvious candidate (before his transfer to customs) for promotion to the receiver generalship and a position in the Executive Council. But even he could advance only so far before meeting the inevitable obstacle of the color barrier. If promoted to the post of receiver general, he would have needed to be invited to Government House and rub shoulders with the wives of the white elite. Eldon was, however, appointed to the Legislative Council in 1951.62

For the mixed-race and black middle class, social life had broadened. The white elite benefited most from the developments in tourism, banking, and land investment, but some money filtered down to the middle class. With extra money, rising expectations, and more leisure time, there was an increase in travel and participation in social and sporting clubs. Mixed-race and black middle-class persons were conscious of the poorer nonwhites and had their own idea of noblesse oblige. “Mother Butler,” parent of Milo Butler, held in Malcolm’s Park an annual treat for the poor, which by the early 1950s had almost become an institution. Following her example were members of the mixed-race elite, including Rita Toote and Ethel Adderley, who spearheaded the Christmas Cheer Fund, a similar but more elaborate charity. Similarly, Lillian Archer’s Girl’s Lydia Club assisted mixed-race girls who came from humble backgrounds.63

Although most whites chose careers in business, an increasing number were entering professional fields. Law traditionally was attractive to a minority of the Nassau elite, but other less prestigious fields such as agriculture and teaching began to attract some. Oris Russell, for instance, studied agriculture at the University of Florida and returned to take up a post in the Department of Agriculture.64 Similarly, Colin Kelly read French at the Sorbonne and came home to a teaching career.65 In addition a new consciousness was growing among middle-class whites, some of whom descended from Out Islanders and sought training in less appealing areas. Philip Kemp, for example, received instruction in Kentucky in funeral direction and embalming and returned to Nassau to establish his own business in 1951.66 Similarly, Albert Russell from Cherokee Sound, Abaco, attended the Florida School of Barbering in the late 1940s and on his return to Nassau in 1949 was employed in the Prince George Hotel’s barber shop.67 Many middle-class whites earned the respect of mixed-race and black persons.

Fundamentally, though, local white views about color had not changed. The Queen’s College School Committee, although pressured by the London Methodist Society to integrate Queen’s College, admitted the bare minimum (p.298) of nonwhite children by the late 1950s and early 1960s, fearing that massive numbers would lead to intermarriage, which was to be avoided at all costs.68 White thinking, subtly upheld by Mary Moseley in the Nassau Guardian, was unlikely to be shaken by the paper’s new owners, headed by Robert “Bobby” Symonette, a member of the House of Assembly and the son of Sir Roland T. Symonette.69

Bobby Symonette had a “tincture” of African “blood” but considered himself white and did not sympathize or mix freely with nonwhites. As described in chapter 7, the definition of a mixed-race person remained an ambiguous matter of subtle distinctions and identifying terms.70 An Indian ancestor, for example, was more acceptable than an African one.71 Tourism, exposure to American whites, Garveyism, and postwar egalitarian trends all fed into the mix, and a hierarchy pertained within the black community.72 Details of physical appearance could count for a lot.73

The Politics of Identity

Peter Graham, a white UBP member of the House of Assembly elected in 1956 and 1962, stated that in the latter year, “the Bahamas was racially divided.”74 Sir Arthur Foulkes, who at that time was an active member of the PLP, opined that since the riot of 1942, attitudes of the white ruling class in Nassau had stiffened. He described Stafford Sands in particular as being “uncompromising and more aggressive” than the “old ruling class.”75 Similarly, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, social stratification in biracial Out Island Bahamian communities hinged on color, with whites occupying dominant positions in the society.

While skin color was important among mixed societies such as those in Tarpum Bay and many communities in Long Island, so too were social attitudes and positions in society. Even if quite dark, “a person is white when he thinks more of white people than of black people. We say his heart is white or her heart is white.”76 A Long Islander might be married to someone black, but if he was a doctor or had “good hair,” he was acceptable. In the racially mixed society of Mathew Town, Inagua, there was no segregation as such. The Ericksons, however, had a separate compound where white foreign workers lived.77 Within all-white and all-black communities, divisions were more dependent on wealth and status. With the adoption of wage labor, class distinctions began to be made according to economic positions dependent on jobs, possessions, power, and social status. Admiration for American imported goods stimulated development of the money economy.

(p.299) Wage labor was rapidly replacing the old subsistence economy in many Out Island communities, and the massive migration of Out Islanders into the capital caused fundamental changes in Bahamian society, which assisted in eventually breaking down rigid color lines.

While the chief beneficiaries of Nassau’s prosperity were the white elite, the expanded mixed-race and black middle class, mainly through a heightened consciousness and increased educational opportunities, made limited material gains. Some middle-class nonwhites were also doing quite well professionally or in business.78 Worst off were members of the black laboring class, most of whom struggled to sustain their existence, living primarily in poor conditions in Over-the-Hill Nassau.

Improved wage rates in Nassau were neutralized by the increasingly high cost of living caused by the “price-cost structure generated by the tourist economy” and the economic dependence on customs revenues.79 Catering to tourists, mainly from the caste-conscious United States, bolstered white attitudes in Nassau. Moreover, poor but conservative Out Island whites, who because of their color were at an advantage in the city, looked down on nonwhites. Traditionally fearing intermarriage, whites displayed hostility to any member of their race who dared openly fraternize with a mixed-race or black person. This attitude, almost equivalent to apartheid, was clearly demonstrated in the admissions policy of the local Methodist Church, the Queen’s College School Committee, and St. Andrew’s School.

Nassau whites disliked the British expatriate officials and took subtle measures to control their numbers. The House of Assembly also legislated to control immigration generally. As Howard Johnson demonstrated, most Bahamians were particularly hostile to West Indians, whom they regarded as “both arrogant and opportunistic.”80 Bahamians generally refused to recognize themselves as West Indian, which to them stood for something “subversive and dangerous.”81 Howard Johnson states: “Ironically in a society long divided along racial lines, class and colour lines, resentment of the outsider provided an element of cohesion which transcended those divisions.”82 The development of tourism and the financial sector had lessened the insularity of the colony and strengthened ties with the United States, with which the Bahamas increasingly identified.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the search for a Bahamian identity began in earnest, with emphasis on an exploration of the African experiences. It can be argued that in the Bahamas the most important element in the search for “self-definition” was racial identity. This emphasis, as Howard Johnson demonstrated, was particularly poignant in view of the marginalization of (p.300) nonwhites and the severe discrimination suffered until at least the 1960s.83 Wealth and power continued to be equated with race, which affected every aspect of Bahamian life.

The Election of 1967

In August 1961 the National Committee for Positive Action launched its monthly newspaper the Bahamian Times, determined to remove the PLP’s conservative old guard, suspecting that this group doubted the ability of blacks to govern. Racial propaganda grew more intense, and public speeches, along with articles in the Herald and Bahamian Times on the topic of race, were used to stir the emotions of the masses.84 Sir Arthur Foulkes stated that race was not used by the PLP as “a tactic”—race was “the issue.”85

Nonwhite Bahamians were “a proud and aspiring people” with a strong, sophisticated black society and a thriving social and cultural life.86 Yet they had quietly endured discrimination for many years, accepting a sense of inferiority passed on to them by their parents.87 The mixed-race middle class, acutely aware of the racial divide, began to resent the degrading, unjust treatment and indignities meted out by whites and, in some cases, near whites. The nonwhite population’s tolerance for inequality based on racial grounds was steadily eroding. By the 1960s all these forces combined to make race relations a serious issue that the PLP used in their campaign.

After the 1962 election changes began in earnest, in spite of the fact that the Bay Street oligarchy was still in control. A new constitution framed in London in 1963 introduced ministerial government, which came into effect on 1 January 1964, giving nominal protection against discrimination on the grounds of race, place of origin, religion, and political opinion. The PLP, pushing against the discriminatory policies of the governing United Bahamian Party, led a demonstration on 27 April 1965 criticizing unfair constituency boundaries that favored the white minority. Spearheading the demonstration, which came to be known as “Black Tuesday,” was opposition leader Lynden Pindling, who in protest hurled the mace from the House of Assembly through an open window. This action was continued by a protest march at the time, and again on 24 May 1965, followed by a visit to New York during August that year for a session of the United Nations Committee on Colonialism. After the demonstration in 1965, the Progressive Liberal Party was “unequivocally … the party of the black majority.”88

Further, PLP supporters were addressed by black American politician Adam Clayton Powell, who warned that they would remain “second class (p.301) citizens” if they did not unite. The PLP continued its assault on conflict of interest matters, such as those regarding Freeport, Grand Bahama, whereas Development Board chairman, and later as minister of finance, Stafford Sands was privately profiting from consultancy fees from the Port Authority. The PLP held public meetings and demonstrations, with speakers severely criticizing the UBP. Preceding the 1967 elections the PLP petitioned the queen complaining about the “undemocratic allocation of seats in the House of Assembly and the unfair delimitation of electoral boundaries, conflict of interest involving Ministers,” and even accusations of “criminal elements of this hemisphere thus endangering our ancient heritage as a God fearing Christian community.”89

An external factor that assisted the opposition in awakening political consciousness was the civil rights movement in the United States under the dynamic leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and his close associate Dr. Ralph Abernathy. King visited the Bahamas in 1958, 1960, and 1964, when he met with the PLP leadership. By the mid-1960s Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power philosophy also was affecting Bahamians and the PLP leadership.

The 1967 election was fiercely fought. The PLP used the theme from the movie Exodus, and the American civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” became very popular. According to Dame Doris Johnson, Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech also echoed from juke boxes across New Providence. Black celebrities such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Bela-fonte lent their support. The emphasis on race had intensified under Pindling’s leadership from 1963 with the support of the NCPA within the PLP, led by Arthur Foulkes, Warren Levarity, and Jeffrey Thompson, whose aim was to get rid of the white minority government and open up opportunities for all Bahamians.90

Enough nonwhites had the courage to vote for the predominantly black opposition PLP in January 1967 for the election to end in a tie, and Lynden Pindling was able to form the first PLP government with the support of the sole labor candidate Randol Fawkes, who took over the Ministry of Labour, and former UBP member Alvin Braynen, who ran as an independent and agreed to become speaker.91

In April 1967 at a Teachers Union banquet, Father Bonaventure Dean, a radical black Roman Catholic priest and headmaster of St. Augustine’s High School, made a profound statement.92 Cognizant of the Detroit race riots in the United States, he declared: “In the Bahamas we do not have Black Power because this implies a ‘power’ within a country which lacks the legitimate power to achieve its goals. In the Bahamas we have black men in power.

(p.302) Whether or not their exercise of power will develop in this country a black nation as opposed to a Bahamian nation depends on how well we teach a lesson in the correct meaning of justice and equality for all.” He continued: “That black men have been treated unjustly by white men is an uncontestable fact. It would be wise for white men to admit this. They may have done so in ignorance but they have done so none the less. I believe that an admission that they have acted wrongly will help to blunt the edge that could too easily become a sharp instrument of revenge in the black man.” Bonaventure then exhorted black men to be just, to avoid the “evil of the past,” and to choose the “correct system of education” that could “pave the way to this because it will be based on the individual personal worth of each human being regardless of colour, race or creed.”93 To a large extent successive Bahamian governments have followed his advice.

As the new premier, Lynden Pindling hardly put a foot wrong during his first year in office. His moderation and shrewdness, and the same qualities in his government, ensured the maintenance of free enterprise, the continued expansion of the tourist industry, and the training of Bahamians to fill as many posts as possible, while recognizing the need for qualified expatriates. The PLP government also made it clear that health services would be improved. Fearful of reprisals and reverse discrimination, a small number of Bahamians left the Bahamas, most notably Stafford Sands and Donald D’Albenas, members of the opposition UBP.94

Pindling and the PLP government now generally tried to avoid the encouragement of racial rhetoric. Members of the party were embarrassed when popular black singer Nina Simone urged Bahamians to be more militant “and to take back the land the English had taken from them and stop being frightened of expressing themselves.”95 Dr. Trevor Munroe, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, visited Nassau in 1970. During his address to the left-leaning Unicomm organization in Nassau, he encouraged its members to follow “a revolutionary rather than reformist ideology,” observing that a “black premier did not ensure black government.” Pindling, “a reformist” like most new Caribbean leaders in the period surrounding Independence, disagreed with Munroe, remaining convinced that the Bahamas’ problems could be solved “within the existing democratic system and under the rule of law.”96 He favored a gradual and peaceful transition from white leadership and discouraged discrimination against citizens of (p.303) European descent. His moderation and astuteness ensured that the majority of Bahamians were not alienated or victimized.

On behalf of the PLP, Pindling gave assurances that they would continue to expand tourism and maintain stability. This bolstered confidence and led to a substantial PLP victory and devastating defeat for the UBP in the 1968 general election, called due to the death of PLP member Uriah McPhee. The election results clearly demonstrated the polarization of the Bahamian electorate by racial origins.

Following the election and building on the constitution of 1963, which introduced ministerial government, further constitutional advance was obtained in 1969. This strengthened the colony’s independent authority and also augmented the power of the ruling party. The Senate was enlarged, and for the first time the Bahamas government was given the right to negotiate trade and migration agreements with other governments, while the police and internal security were placed under control of a cabinet minister.

The Bahamas government provided new opportunities for Bahamians while actively promoting tourism. It tightened up on the operations in Freeport, which was described as “a foreign outpost,” and began the Bahamianization of that city, taking control of immigration to make certain that Freeport became an integral part of the Bahamian community. Emphasis would also be directed at expansion and improvement in the educational system, including the establishment of the College of the Bahamas in 1974.

In 1968 the annual flow of tourists to the Bahamas surpassed the million mark for the first time. Despite the depression in early 1969 and during the 1970s, the general election on 19 September 1972, fought on the issue of Bahamian independence, brought a landslide victory for the PLP, which would remain in power until 1992. As Craton and Saunders explained: “For the first time, the opposition openly acknowledged that the Bahamas belonged to the black majority and attempted to fight the election on issues other than race.”97 (p.304)


(1.) Report on the Census of the Bahama Islands, Taken in April 1881; Report on the Census, 15 November 1963; all census reports cited in this chapter were printed by the Nassau Guardian (ANG) and are housed in the Bahamas Archives and the Department of Statistics, Nassau.

(8.) Ibid., 26–27; Tribune, 24 August 1953.

(14.) Interview with Percival Hanna, 22 February 1984.

(16.) Interview with Sir Orville Turnquest, 19 March 2013.

(19.) Notes on the Bahamas 1951 by S.E.V. Luke, 20 April 1951, CO23/889.

(21.) Interview with Arlene Nash Ferguson, 20 March 2013.

(26.) Out Island Commissioner’s Reports, Rock Sound, Eleuthera, 1950–53; Hatchet Bay, Eleuthera, 1949; Harbour Island, 1947–53; and Bimini, 1953, Bahamas Archives, Nassau.

(29.) Bahamas Administrative Reports 1951, CO26/154. See also Cash, “Colonial Policies and Outside Influences,” 343.

(31.) Encl. Neville to Luke, 1 October 1951, CO23/889.

(33.) Rules Governing the Procedure to Be Adopted in Disposal of Crown Lands, encl. Murphy to Creech Jones, 14 December 1948, CO23/877.

(35.) Tribune, 5 November 1953.

(36.) Ibid.

(37.) Judgement in the Case of the Petition of James Maxwell Mitchell Bowe under the Quieting of Titles Act, 1959, concerning the Forest Estate, Bahama Islands Supreme Court, Equity Division, no. 137 of 1961, Bahamas Archives, Nassau.

(43.) Interview with Gurth Duncombe, 15 September 1984.

(44.) Nassau Magazine 12, no. 1 (December 1945): 11, 31; P. Albury, Story of the Bahamas, 212–13.

(45.) Interview with Lorraine Lightbourn and Arlene Nash Ferguson, 15 and 20 March 2013.

(46.) Personal reminiscences of the author.

(47.) Tribune, 3 September 1949; see also Bahamas Review Magazine 2, nos. 1–2 (April–May 1953): 33.

(48.) Interview with Jeanne Thompson, 22 March 2013.

(49.) Personal reminiscences of the author.

(50.) Annual Report Board of Education, 1953, Ministry of Education Records, Bahamas Archives.

(54.) Ibid., 48.

(55.) Ibid., 56.

(56.) Tribune, 19 December 1953.

(57.) “Hilda Bowen, MBE Portrait of the Week,” Tribune, 1 November 1983.

(58.) Tribune, 21 October 1953.

(59.) Interview with Jeanne Thompson, 22 March 2013.

(60.) Public Establishment Commission of Enquiry conducted by Sir Alan Burns, 1949, CO23/844.

(63.) Nassau Guardian, 29 August and 1 September 1949; Tribune, 21 December 1953.

(64.) Tribune, 23 December 1950.

(65.) Tribune, 7 July 1953.

(66.) Tribune, 7 March 1951.

(67.) Nassau Guardian, 3 May 1949.

(68.) Dyer to Noble, 7 November 1953, Nassau, WMMS Papers.

(69.) Bahamian Review Magazine 2, nos. 8–9 (Winter 1953–54): 14.

(70.) Denyer to Noble, 10 April 1947, Governor’s Harbour, Eleuthera, WMMS Papers.

(71.) Personal reminiscences and experience of the author, who attended a predominantly white high school.

(73.) Interview with Winston V. Saunders, 10 November 1984.

(74.) Interview with Peter Graham, 8 May 2013.

(75.) Interview with Sir Arthur Foulkes, 24 April 2013.

(77.) Interview with Sir Arthur Foulkes, 24 April 2013.

(78.) Interview with Marina D’Aguilar, 7 May 2013.

(83.) Ibid., 13.

(85.) Interview with Sir Arthur Foulkes, 24 April 2013.

(87.) Interview with the Right Reverend Gilbert A. Thompson, assistant bishop, Anglican Diocese of the Bahamas, 6 March 2013.

(90.) Interview with Jeffrey Thompson by Tracey Thompson, 18 December 1996; interview with Sir Arthur Foulkes, 27 December 2000.

(92.) Ibid., 153, 170, 183.

(93.) Bahamian Times, 5 April 1957.

(94.) D’Albenas is said to have left for health reasons.

(96.) Ibid., 185; Nassau Guardian, 30 July 1970.