By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
SIXTY years ago, the late Tribune Editor and Publisher Sir Etienne Dupuch moved a resolution to end discrimination in the House of Assembly, a move that changed the racial landscape in The Bahamas forever.
Sir Etienne’s bold move on January 23, 1956, in the face of possible imprisonment, made it possible for black Bahamians to have free access to all public places. Before then, people of colour were barred from hotels and restaurants in Nassau, and were refused admission to the whites-only Savoy movie theatre on Bay Street.
Former Governor General Sir Arthur Foulkes, at one time The Tribune’s news editor, said at a time when The Bahamas was still a British colony, Sir Etienne’s bold move did more than “any one single person in the 20th century” to heighten “the political consciousness of the Bahamian people”.
Sir Arthur said Sir Etienne’s move – though far reaching in its significance – was merely a snippet of his “relentless campaign” against the excesses of the ruling group at the time, the “Bay Street Boys”, and the British Colonial Office’s failure to bring about reform of the political system, particularly on racial issues.
“One of the things that most irritated Sir Etienne was the arrogant and intransigent attitude of leaders of the ruling group on the issue of race,” Sir Arthur recalled yesterday on the eve of the 60th anniversary.
“He was incensed that they maintained a system of racial discrimination in public places, including hotels, restaurants and movie theatres.
“I believe he was, as a Bahamian, also embarrassed when prominent people from abroad who happened to be coloured – that was the nomenclature of the day – were refused accommodation at our leading hotels and had to seek lodgings at private homes.”
He added: “I remember that one of these was renowned pianist Hazel Scott, who was the wife of US Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. She was accommodated at the home of Mr and Mrs Charlie Major on Fowler Street, off East Bay Street.”
He said in a telegram to her husband, Mrs Scott described the Bahamas as “the land of Sir Jim Crow,” a reference to the racial segregation and tension in the southern United States.
Sir Arthur said it was against that backdrop that Sir Etienne launched his voracious attack on racial inequality in the country.
On the night of January 23, 1956, scores of Bahamians filled the public gallery of the House of Assembly and the square outside in anticipation of Sir Etienne’s resolution to end discrimination. On that night, Sir Etienne told the House that the time had come in the life and affairs of the colony when Parliament ought to declare publicly whether they were one or two groups of people.
Sir Etienne was backed by his brother, Eugene Dupuch, QC, then the Member of Parliament for Crooked Island, who told the House that the matter before them was a question of “pure and simple Christianity - a question of right and justice”.
Heading into the heart of the debate, Sir Etienne requested that a Commission of Inquiry be launched to investigate all matters relating to and/or stemming from discrimination in the colony, with the hope of eradicating discrimination “via legislation or otherwise”.
House member Frank H Christie opposed the resolution by moving to have it sent to a select committee. He was seconded by Sir Stafford Sands.
However, Sir Etienne was against such a proposition, fearing that his resolution would be relegated to a “graveyard committee”, one that would never meet and if it met would never report.
After a lengthy debate nonetheless, the resolution was defeated by an 11-9 vote and sent to a committee of the House. Those who had voted in favour of Sir Etienne’s resolution were B A ‘Bert’ Cambridge (the seconder), Eugene Dupuch, Dr R W Sawyer, Dr C R Walker, Marcus Bethel, H M Taylor, Sir Gerald Cash and Donald McKinney.
Those who voted to send the matter to committee were Mr Christie, Sir Roland T Symonette, C W F Bethell, Foster Clarke, P G D Bethell, G A Bethel, Sir Stafford Sands, Roy Solomon, Basil H McKinney, Harold Christie and Harold Johnson.
House Speaker Asa Pritchard subsequently appointed Mr Christie to head the select committee, of which Sir Etienne was made a member - rather than chairman as is the usual practice for the mover of the resolution – along with Mr Foster Clarke, Peter Bethell, Sir Gerald Cash, Sir Stafford Sands and Mr Roy Solomon.
Enraged, Sir Etienne rose and protested the speaker’s sending the matter to a select committee, where it would normally die, especially under the chairmanship of Mr Christie, who opposed the resolution. Speaker Pritchard told Sir Etienne that he had no right to speak and should therefore resume his seat.
Pounding the table, Sir Etienne refused to sit down and continued to lodge his protest, to which the speaker threatened to call “the constable”.
Sir Etienne responded: “You may call the whole police force, you may call the whole British army … I will go to gaol tonight, but I refuse to sit down, and I am ready to resign and go back to the people.”
As reported by The Tribune at the time, the crowd in the building, fidgeting and uneasy, rose in deafening protest, declaring that Sir Etienne would not be touched. Someone suggested that the lights be turned off. A quick thinking Donald McKinney moved that the House be adjourned to the next day.
The voice of popular Bahamian musician Freddie Munnings could be heard from the public gallery shouting: “Don’t touch him!”
The House broke up in great confusion as people in the gallery headed for the stairs to join the shouting crowd outside.
The Speaker’s procession from the chair was broken up as the crowd surged around Sir Etienne.
Pausing on the downstairs steps of the House Sir Etienne urged the cheering crowd to go home quietly and create no trouble for themselves or the police. The crowds cheered members of the House who had supported the resolution, while jeering those who had opposed it, chasing some of the leading politicians to their cars as the police provided protection. Sir Etienne, his wife, and daughter, who was The Tribune’s House reporter that night, quietly walked to their car and drove from the square. As far as the Montagu hotel on East Bay Street there were pockets of Bahamians cheering them on as they drove home.
Speaker Pritchard did not have Sir Etienne arrested as the sergeant-at-arms never moved from his station and the crowds in the House and from the public square roared in protest.
Sir Arthur said of the moment: “That protest and angry public demonstrations of support led to the collapse of racial discrimination in public places in the Bahamas. It was most certainly one of the most important moments in Bahamian history and a turning point in our social and political development.”
• The Tribune’s role
pages 6 and 7.