It began during a time when Thursday afternoons were a half-day holiday, leaving a deserted Hamilton dozing in mid-afternoon shadows; when an hour or two before sunset, black fisherman tied up along Front Street to sell their catchers; when, during late-night stopovers at the airport, black travellers in transit were often compelled to spend the night on the benches.
Ironically, it was also the dawn of opportunity for many blacks. For while race restrictions barred blacks from hotels, restaurants and many other white-owned establishments, segregation, an enemy in other spheres, was an unwitting ally for the black entrepreneur. Bermuda had tasted the bitter fruit grown by war, had sacrificed a number of her sons, and now had to rise from economic limbo, hang a lantern in her window, and weave a new welcome mat. The world had experienced the pains of conflict. It was time for sun, sand, and the serenity of paradise.
Resurrection of a dormant tourist trade, stalled by war-related closures of several hotels and guest houses, was vital. But Bermuda’s post-war economic recovery was played out in the arena of sometimes intriguing, often bitter personal and political racial confrontations. The ‘40s and ‘50s, despite these verbally volatile duels, required the black community to put out its own welcome mat for the black traveller with time and money to flee grimy cities and nasty winters.
A year or so after the war, Lillian Minors and husband Archie pooled their resources and opened Archlyn Villa in St. George’s (they would later move to Pembroke). Located on the water’s edge, and with its own dock, it was a guest house that from the outset established a standard for quality and service. A veritable black ‘who’s who’ slept there, from future Bahamian Premier, Lyndon O. Pindling, Gladys Knight (before her Pips), to Jimmy Edwards, a black actor who stirred passions in the U.S. and Bermuda for his film portrayal of an officer commanding a mixed-race unit in a movie about the Korean War. But if Bermudian blacks were captivated by the handsome man who put in several guest appearances around the Island, whites were not. Only when it became apparent that it could be a money-spinner — black clubs and lodges were playing to standing-room-only audiences — did white-owned cinemas relent.
Edwards, impressed by his reception, helped promote Bermuda to black Americans sharing an inclination of flying or sailing to a new experience. Several articles, written by Hilton G. Hill but published under Jimmy Edwards byline, appeared in publications like Our World and Afro Magazine. Now the American tourist of colour can fish, sail and play cricket to his heart’s content with little or no prejudice, except in the hotels and a few restaurants.”
There was quick assurance for the reader that prejudice “isn’t worrisome to the black traveller. For he can well enjoy weekends at the seaside cottages or pastel pink bungalows of the Islanders overlooking sleepy lagoons.” Whether the typical black American visitor was particularly keen on “playing cricket to his heart’s content,” the die was firmly cast. Black Bermuda was committed to black tourism. Businesses had to step up to the wicket.
By 1950, Hill, a successful commercial photographer with a studio in the Arcade Building on Burnaby Street, had already launched the Bermuda Vacation Travel Service. At the time, when interviewed by Ira Phillip for the Bermuda Recorder, he said “we will endeavour to attract Negro tourists to Bermuda and provide information about the Island that he wishes and will need.” However, directly targeting black travellers — luring many of them away from the U.S. mainland for the first time — required cooperation, organisation and enterprises catering specifically to that market.
In the June 24, 1950, issue of Afro magazine, Hill was quoted as saying, “The time has come for us to seriously begin our own tourist trade. It is the Island’s biggest and best business. The building of a successful Negro tourist trade in Bermuda will be the means of strengthening our economy.” Hill recognised the potential impact that went beyond mere economics when he also pointed out that resulting cross-ocean intercourse would “provide more and greater opportunities for ourselves and our children, and give us a really tangible contact with the progress being made by the people of the great continent to the west of us.”
Within months of that press report, the Bermuda Tourists Association, with Hill, a provisional president, was formed, holding its first annual meeting in November 1950 at Hamilton Hall (Number 7 Shed). The membership included, among others, guest houses Archlyn Villa and Homeleigh, Hill’s travel service, Donald Smith Travel Agency, Imperial Hotel, Perinchief’s Taxi Service, Dismont’s cycle rentals, nightclubs Clayhouse Inn and Green Gables, El Rancho Grande restaurant, and entertainment halls such as Ratteray’s Grand Stand a stone’s throw from the Somerset Cricket Club.
Behind the association’s thrust was a core realisation that despite the number of white visitors, comparatively few dollars penetrated to black business. Hill’s reasoning was that with solid organisation and targeting, economic benefit would accrue directly to the black community. One-inch advertisements placed in the Amsterdam News, Our World and other black publications paid off as black tourists began booking passage to a dream isle.
Also in 1950, Hill, accompanied by Ronald Perinchief, and with a film he’d produced about Bermudian blacks entitled ‘Bermuda Paradise,’ embarked on an ambitious promotional tour. Premiering January 12 in Atlanta at Clark College Auditorium, the film, according to one newspaper, played to “a packed house of enthusiastic patrons anxious to know more about the ‘Island of Paradise.’” The review acclaimed the one-hour technicolor film as “an accurate as well as luxurious picture of this newly-discovered vacationland for Negro Americans, showing the culture, progress and people of the Island of which three-quarters of the population is Negro.” There they were. Captured on celluloid. Black Bermudians engaged in operating businesses, deep-sea fishing, swimming, lounging on coveted white and pink sand beaches.
After an interview on the Alice Washington programme at station WERD, Hill and Perinchief travelled to North Caroline, Virginia, Washington D.C., and New York. It was a jaunt that established new contacts with black professional groups, fraternities, church and civic leaders and a number of different organisations. The seduction had began in earnest.
Following both men’s return home, the Bermuda Tourists Association attempted to obtain financial support from the Trade Development Board. Although black tourism was showing remarkable potential, the white establishment had no real desire to promote such an enterprise. The idea of black tourists cavorting in Shakespeare’s fairytale-land was one that didn’t invite embrace. Not until 1952, according to Hill, after a number of approaches had been made, did the board, in cooperation with SILTA (Somers Isle Lawn Tennis Association), a black association, donate £36 towards trophies for a tennis tournament. The female winner of the tournament, Althea Gibson, would later go on to be the first black woman to win Wimbledon.
To promote penetration of the white American market, the board had engaged in advertising agents J.M. Mathes, Inc. In January 1953, Wilfred King, vice-president of Mathes, addressing a gathering of industry players on post-war development of tourism, said, “Bermuda can look forward to years of prosperity, but it must be on the alert… (being certain that) what it has to offer the tourist is continually maintained and value is always received.” A month after King’s glowing words, the Public Transportation Board (P.T.B.) was accused by the Bermuda Taximen’s Association of providing “unfair competition.” The association had sent a petition to the House of Assembly condemning government’s use of buses for sightseeing tourists. This, it claimed, constituted a threat to its livelihood. A select committee empanelled to study the charges eventually concluded “government through the P.T.B. has no alternative but to provide a service demanded by the visitor which can not be supplied by the petitioners themselves.” However, the committee also recommended that “where the patrons are for the most part individuals rather than pre-arranged groups, transportation should be left to taxicabs.”
In 1953, Hilton Hill was approached by Pan Am to expand his office to New York, where he could not only concentrate on sending black tourists to Bermuda, but to other destinations as well. With Pan Am support, he opened a branch office, known as Hilton G. Hill, Inc., at 55 West 42nd Street. It was, he would admit later, a learning experience, and one which was to launch him into becoming one of the leading black travel agents in North America. Black America responded in record number. By the mid-50s, physicians, surgeons, beauty culturists, musicians, businessmen, sports personalities, bishops, evangelists, dancers, opera singers and others came and were captivated.
By the end of 1953, to cater to increased local and tourist demand, a supper club had opened on Reid Street near the Canadian Hotel. The Cardinal Club, designed and managed by Stuart Battersbee, was described as “equal to Stateside clubs of comparable size.” The 200 Bermudian and American patrons were entertained by, among others, dancers ‘Bella’ Jones and Kenny Bean, both performing in red costumes portraying the bird after which the club was named.
But the travel bug had bitten not only black Americans, but black Bermudians. The Donald Smith Travel Agency, acting as agent for Colonial Airlines, was involved in both individual travel and tour groups out of Bermuda, And throughout the ‘50s, Green’s Tours took black Bermudians to a great many points in North America, from U.S. racetracks to Canadian native reservations.
On the crest of the growth in black visitors, Wesley Gayle, who had tested the waters through renting out a couple of extra rooms when his children were attending college, decided to go the full distance, and opened the Sunset Lodge on North Shore. Its official opening was attended by many of Bermuda’s black elite, among them R.L. Pearman, M.C.P., and Dr. E.F. Gordon, M.C.P. Also on hand were members of the black American media, including Gerri Major, society editor of Ebony, and Betty Granger, a writer for several publications. The Pittsburgh Courier in a March 6, 1954 article, enthused that the Sunset Lodge “opened amid fanfare recently presaging the dawn of a new day for Stateside tourists,” noting that “the 25-guest lodge was designed and built by Negro operators and contractors, and will be operated on an interracial basis.”
By 1955, January statistics indicated the Island was attracting more visitors from broader areas, prompting T.W. Mowbray, executive secretary of the T.D.B., to say: “the immediate market is there, and there is no reason why we cannot get an increase.” But Bermuda’s economy had stumbled. A downward trend, noted in the two previous years, continued. Both the Bank of Bermuda and Bank of N.T. Butterfield & Son, in their annual reports, warned the Island was courting economic danger by spending more money than it took in, and urged that every effort be made to expand the tourist trade.
Throughout these years, the relationship between the Trade Development Board and black owners and managers never amounted to a very happy marriage. Promotional support, felt to be inadequate, provided a running source of dissatisfaction, although the board did contribute funds toward advertising, particularly in Ebony. It also subsidised the printing of a special pamphlet, ‘Your Bermuda Vacation,’ reviewed during a 1955 board meeting attended by black hoteliers such as Lillian Minors (Archlyn Villa), Florence Swan (Swanston) and Carl Wade (Imperial Hotel). At the meeting, the group pushed for increased promotion in Ebony magazine to encourage autumn and winter business, and also complained local travel agents were unhelpful.
Whatever glitches existed, travel by blacks to Bermuda throughout the ‘50s continued an upward swing. An estimated 1,000 black travellers visited in 1954. In 1955, record numbers, particularly through the summer months, saw as many as 2,000 black Americans crossing the ocean either by air or sea to sample Bermuda’s delights. While the market, large enough to develop a very practical and separate black economy, was a small percentage of the white travelling public, the social and cultural impact was remarkable. Balls and parties held in private homes and guest houses like Archlyn Villa and Ripleigh House, operated by Russell Pearman and his wife, forged many lasting relationships.
One distinguished visitor in ‘55 was Dr. Furman F. Fordham, an internationally recognised music educator who came to the Island to conduct what was called his “amazing music workshop.” The Bermuda Recorder noted the workshop “was for the benefit of the cultural uplift of Bermudians for a period of six weeks.” Fordham, a former head of the music department of Allen University, was sponsored by a prominent group of local black professional men and women. There were many other notables that year, among them world-famous tenor Roland Hayes, who gave three concerts at the Bermudiana Theatre under auspices of Revered T.W. Foster and his congregation at Vernon Temple A.M.E. Church.
The dollar value to black guest houses, restaurants and nightclubs was now exceeding $300,000 annually, and climbing. At the end of the year, G.A. Williams suggested to his fellow T.D.B. members that insertions in the Amsterdam News should be considered, as those in Ebony would not be sufficient. He said if further accommodation was needed to house an increased influx of black tourists, “the coloured people would find it.” But the T.D.B. decided against expanding into other publications; board chairman Henry Vesey said black hoteliers had a duty to advertise themselves.
Hilton Hill, firmly on track as a major player in black tourism following the opening of his New York office, was actively promoting his business. In 1956 his Bermuda Vacation Travel Service launched a brochure marketing ‘Cavalcades to Bermuda,’ an all-inclusive tour that packaged a round trip by air via Colonial Airlines, B.O.A.C. or Pan American clipper from New York. Air connections were arranged from all major cities, as were automobile transfers, and hotel or guest house accommodations were for seven nights. Also included were sightseeing tours by car, a boat trip, picnic and an evening at a Bermuda night club. It was a tantalising deal at $199, plus tax.
Hill was also successful in bringing to the Island 126 members of the Guardsmen — members of black clubs and chapters in a half-dozen states, including doctors, lawyers, and other professionals and businessmen. The package sold to the Guardsmen included travel via the Queen of Bermuda, and once on the Island, members were spread around in all guest houses, the Sunset Lodge, Imperial Hotel and several private homes which had never before taken in tourists. Around the same period, the Leopard’s Club, a mecca that drew black visitors and locals to Thursday afternoon luncheons featuring guest speakers of both races, bought adjacent property and fairly quickly opened the Leopard’s Plaza.
With the year ending on a high note, and with improvements to various attractions, several black and white accommodations underwent renovations, with some adding beds. In addition, to the Bermuda Tourists Association, black hoteliers now formed two other groups: the Bermuda Tourism Accommodation Bureau (B.T.A.B.) and the Bermuda Resort Association (B.R.A.), an umbrella organisation. But by the summer of 1958, the B.T.A.B., composed of almost a dozen owners of accommodations, was beset by internal squabbling. By July, Archlyn Villa, Atlantic Beach Club, Imperial Hotel and Washington House had withdrawn from the group to form the Bermuda Holiday Bureau (B.H.B.).
The year also saw a three-year-old presentation entitled, ‘A Suggested Pan For Further Development of the Negro Section of our Tourist Trade’ updated, using Hill to re-implement and direct the B.T.A.B.’s sales programme. But even as hoteliers were discussing issues relating to black tourism, events begun a year earlier gathered momentum. They would lead to a massive social reform throughout the Island.
On March 29, 1957, E.T. Richards, M.C.P., told the House discrimination was causing “incalculable damage to Bermuda’s reputation abroad and is fomenting racial conflict in the Islands.” In a proposal challenging the way the Hotel-Keepers Protection Act of 1930 was used to perpetuate racial segregation, Richards sought legislation to overturn exclusionary policies and practices.
The battle ebbed and flowed through-out much of ‘57, finally resulting in the constitution of a Joint Select Committee to examine the issue and table remedies. As president of the Bermuda Resort Association, Richards knew well the feelings of the black membership. There remained annoyance at the reluctance of the T.D.B. to bring equal fervour in attracting the black visitor as it did for the white. Ten years earlier, in 1947, the T.D.B. had spent £83,962 in efforts to revive the industry. In 1957, £444,148 were spent, and in ‘58 expenditures would approach £500,000. Black guest house owners believed the assistance they were given (between £5,000 and £10,000 annually) was paltry by comparison.
During Easter 1959, Richard Saunders, a Bermudian photographer who achieved renown in the U.S. for his work with major national magazines, and who was one of a select few chosen by the American Tobacco Company for “having made a contribution to the ‘American Way of Life,’ flew in with his wife Emily to do a special feature promoting Bermuda’s black tourist trade.
And even as tourism initiatives by all parties were undertaken against the backdrop of racial polarisation, the industry received another boost in March ‘59 when a special proclamation, issued by the Mayor of Baltimore, Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., designated Saturday, March 21, as ‘Bermuda Day’ in Baltimore. The proclamation enthused that with “the existing friendship between the City of Baltimore and the Island of Bermuda, the Eagle Airways (Bermuda) Ltd., will inaugurate fast plane service between Baltimore and Bermuda… the flights to be made by the super Viscount ‘Spirit of Friendship’ which should result in greater amity between our two communities.”
Such amity was markedly absent between Bermuda’s black and white communities. Within three months of the Baltimore connection, a boycott against cinema segregationist policies took place June through July, 1959, when the colour bar affecting all six of the cinemas operated by the Bermuda General Theatres Limited was dropped. Even before this decision, white-owned hotels announced that as far as their public rooms were concerned — restaurants and nightclubs — they were abandoning segregation. But they remained reluctant to admit black guests.
In 1960, the Joint Select Committee came back with its findings. In a majority interim report to Parliament, it recommended the dissolution of racial discrimination in hotels and restaurants. Three months into 1961, segregation was abolished in restaurants. The ultimate effect of this victory was unanticipated by the black community: black hotels, guest houses and restaurants which had been catering to an essentially captive trade, now had to compete with larger, plushier and better financed white establishments. With barriers down, many black tourists, particularly those with deep pockets, preferred the luxury of major hotels. And strangely, direct marketing promotions by black properties were soon abandoned.
What had been an economic, cultural and educational revitalisation of the black community began to dim along with many tourist-related businesses. And just 15 years after the end of the war, the black community was faced with forging a new direction within the changing political and economic context. The seduction of black America would soon be over.