The mums who took up the fight

Black-History-MonthWomen featured but went largely unrecognized in the turning point of the struggle for social rights of  Barbadians –– the 1937 Rebellion; but in the history of slavery they are conspicuously absent from the books.

Researcher and lecturer in history at the University of the West Indies, Dr Henderson Carter, says historians have focused mainly on male personalities, naming Clement Payne, along with known lieutenants like Chase, Lovell, Grant, Skeete, Alleyne, Adams, Crawford, Herbert Seales and Chrissie Brathwaite.

UWI historian  Dr Henderson Carter
UWI historian Dr Henderson Carter

“As a matter of fact, when you look at the Callender’s Monument –– near Thornbury Hill in Christ Church, on the left going towards the airport –– there are no women listed among the 14 persons who participated in that rebellion,” he stated, adding: “Furthermore, the Deane Commission that investigated the causes of the rebellion interviewed only one woman, by the name of Alma Griffith.

“Yet of the 415 people who were charged [with rebellion], 74 of them, or about 18 per cent were women . . . . We can’t say in equal numbers, but 18 per cent is still a fairly good number.”

Delivering a lecture on the subject recently, Carter argued: “Women were not at home, nor were they silent during the 1937 Rebellion. They participated in all aspects. They attended meetings, they participated in demonstrations, marches as well as the attack on the planter-merchant class in 1937.

“Nineteen thirty-seven threw up brave women who were politically conscious, who sacrificed their lives and their freedom to end oppression in Barbados . . . . The literature is fairly silent on women.

But this slight to females in Barbados’ history was not the only occasion.

“When you look at the 1872 Riot in Bridgetown, women played a major part in that struggle.

“In the Confederation Rebellion, women also played a significant role, as well as the other minor revolts in 1895 and 1898.

Carter’s contention is that it was the suffering of women who felt the brunt of oppression that served as one of the major vexing issues stirring the population into action, led by National Hero Clement Payne.

“Women were the lowest paid agricultural workers in the society. While men got 20 cents and more per day, women could only muster ten cents a day, sometimes doing the same work as men –– cutting canes, loading canes, etcetera.

Carter said: “Many women who went into the business of needlework found themselves out of work in 1937. They were a lot of needleworkers in the country, but in 1937 they were ground to a halt.

He said Alma Griffith, a needleworker who had “testified before the Deane Commission that she employed 13 girls before 1937, had to retrench her workers because there were several stores that were importing ready-made clothes, and she argued that there were 74 other dressmakers who were out of work”.

She identified the offending shops: Jubilee Store, run by a German; The Regent; and Royal Dress Shop.

“Even the Ideal Store –– what we call Cave Shepherd,” Carter said, “also imported ready-made clothes, and this was admitted by R.N. Cave, the managing director of Cave Shepherd.”

Carter, an author of several books on Barbados history said, then Bishop of Barbados David Bently testified before the Deane Commission that his wife, president of the Girls Friendly Society, “recognized that the earnings of women were small and insufficient to provide the real necessities of life. Some who she found were going on an early tea only until five or six o’clock, but without a bite of anything”.

Carter said “women were hungry; their children were also hungry”, which was supported by archival records of 1935-1936.

“We found that children were carried by death by two problems: mirasmus, a protein deficiency; and the other, malnutrition.”

Quoting the death records, he said: “There were 3,714 deaths in 1935, and 280 of these were from mirasmus and malnutrition.”

In 1936, 279 died out 3,481.

“So you could understand why women would be angry in 1937, and you could understand why they would support Clement Payne in the struggle,” Carter said.

During that period 1935 to 1936, “women also headed households living in abject poverty . . . especially in places like Suttle Street, Cats Castle and Carrington Village”.

Carter said: “Additionally, women rebelled because they were impressed by Clement Payne’s . . . charisma as a speaker, identification of problems in society, and his call for organization in the working class . . . for women’s participation.”

He reported Payne saying: “You black women must stand shoulder to shoulder with men, and assist in building the character of your children, and don’t grumble.”

He said there was at all times a heavy female population at Payne’s meetings, and many of them were in the march on Government House.

“You also had women . . . making sure that Payne had money to pay a lawyer,” Carter said, and relayed that Wynter Crawford spoke of Nicey Belgrave passing around a hat at a meeting, and collecting “$52 to pay [Grantley] Adams to represent Payne” at the appeal hearing between July 22 and 26.

There were three days of rioting –– July 26 to 28.

“July 27 represents the most critical part of the struggle,” Carter explained. “The crowd attacked the Empire Theatre and all buildings on Lower Bay Street. Three persons led the struggle, Fitz Weekes, George Alleyne, and a woman by the name of Millicent Junker, known as Milli Don’t Care.”

The historian said the Empire Theatre manager C.B. Ward spoke of recognizing Milli as a leader in the crowd of over 200. Milli would let Ward, who was upstairs, know that he was seeing too much, upon which she hurled stones at him.

Milli was charged with seven of the eight counts for that rebellion on Bay Street and the Empire Theatre.

She also led the attack on the Vauxhall Service Station, Cole’s Garage, and S.P. Musson, which saw cars being rolled out and pushed into the Careenage.

Milli was also charged with rioting and riotous assembly.

Along with Milli, two other women were identified with bringing stones in their aprons: Verona Phillips and Edna Bridge.

Of the attack on the Mutual Building in Bridgetown, the symbol of wealth for the elite, Carter spoke of women going to the Lower Green with stones in their aprons, and men hurling them at Mutual’s windows.

Court records show other women to be arrested as Ivy Thompson, Delphene Jordan, Elmira Brathwaite, Daphne Harris, Agatha Lewis, Doris Callender, Louise Sobers, and Gertude Lyda.

They got 18 months for rioting and assaulting peace officers.

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