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A true champion

by Smokey Burke

Leotta Burke MBE was my paternal grandmother and practically my mother as she raised me from the age of two. Small in stature but big in spirit, she was a champion of women’s rights when the subject was barely on the radar!

A letter to the editor by a childhood friend, William Skinner, prompted me to deal with an issue that had a profound effect on my life not to mention those of many others. Skinner in his zeal to pay tribute to Gensie (family name) Burke assumed that she was the originator of the CWL. Correction! The original organisation was started by Flora Wyatt in Trinidad.

My grandmother was the long-serving President of the Caribbean Women’s League (Barbados Chapter) and in some way it must be to her credit that long after her passing, it remains the only chapter still in existence; the other chapters were located in Trinidad (the original one) and St. Lucia whose coming into existence and inauguration was greatly assisted by her. The Barbados Chapter is at present celebrating its 60th anniversary!

Because of the meetings and/or social activities at our home on Britton’s X Road, I was afforded the opportunity at a very young and impressionable age to interact with stellar names in local society that might have been impossible otherwise. Names like Florence Daysh, Joe Tudor, Clyde Gollop, Marjorie Blackman, Eunice Gibson, Thelma Vaughn, Olga Lopes-Seale, Ben Gibson, were regular visitors to our home or club events any day or night.

There were many entertainment events at our house throughout any given year and I am quite sure that the regular presence of persons like the Ward twin, Piercy and Lisle, Bruce and Neville sent me into the entertainment field. I am also sure that the humour of Clyde Gollop (later Sir) and Joe Tudor greatly impressed me to the point that to this day I yearn to be a comedian! Joe’s adaptation and treatment of Redd Foxx’s Kentucky Derby still resonates in my mind!

One of the proudest moments in my life, to this day, was when she travelled to Government House in 1966 to receive from Her Majesty The Queen personally, an MBE (a la Sir Garfield!). I also always remember my late father’s interpretation of the letters – Mother Begs Everyone!

That the organisation was still in existence was a mild shock to me after I returned home from Toronto, Canada in 1997. Sometime prior to or just after my sojourn to Canada, the operations of the Women’s League were moved to another location as age had started to wreak havoc on my grandmother’s mind (Alzheimer’s)! Thus I was now totally out of touch with its day to day running. Added to all this my grandmother spent some time in the United States.

The club, as everyone called it, had a seriously positive influence on my development despite its feminine preponderance. As a child I was terribly shy, pretty much introverted, but I grew out of it as I had to often interface (not a word then) with several of its members and many of the big-up names mentioned earlier. There was also the choir which was successfully conducted by my uncle, Walter Burke, which would also have had obvious influence on me later in life. Lying in my bed and listening to them practise songs of several genres and being amazed at my uncle’s ability to single out a particular individual, “Mrs. Fleming you are singing flat” are all gleefully stored in my memory.

One raison d’etre of the Caribbean Women’s League was the looking after the underprivileged in the immediate areas; this included sending children under such restrictive conditions to high school! These scholarships are still done to this day, I found out to my pleasant surprise. One of the early recipients is a practicing journalist today at a major media house.

There are several persons from Britton’s Hill and its neighbouring communities like the Bayland and the Pine, who would have also benefitted greatly from its existence. Both adults and teenagers were accommodated as there were junior and senior aspects to the club.

Some of these very individuals express surprise today when they realise that Smokey Burke and the introverted Fito (family nickname) are one and the same! The names of some members will live on in my memory forever; names like Ms. Willock, two unrelated ladies with the last name Als, Miss Alice Cole, Gwen Moore, Adele Waldron, Mrs. Medford, Ms. Nurse, Ms. Garnes, Ms. Chase, Mrs. Fleming and Lucille Burke and the indomitable and evergreen Vivian Sealy. Then juniors like, Bernadette, Gercine, Fleurette, Idahlia, Hazel, Sheila, and many others whose names have unfortunately eluded me at the time of writing.

To the Caribbean Women’s League, I proffer a salute for your longevity, your influence on the lives of many within and without your operations and most especially to your continued existence and appropriateness. May you have at least another 60 years!

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