Vision: Educator Joseph Henry Thomas. *Photo courtesy of Carol D. Hill
Vision: Educator Joseph Henry Thomas. *Photo courtesy of Carol D. Hill
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Bermuda’s history is full of fascinating characters who helped to shape the island as it is today. Here, journalist Meredith Ebbin tells us the story of two notable figures in black history, Joseph Henry Thomas and Richard Tucker. The articles are courtesy of Ms Ebbin’s website, www.bermudabiographies.bm.

Richard Tucker (Circa 1786 — after 1850)
Community leader and businessman

Richard Tucker played a major role in securing freedom for 72 American slaves who were aboard a ship that landed in Bermuda in stormy weather.

His actions would have been remarkable in any era, but were even more so in the Bermuda of 1835.

He was a black man with drive and vision, but had no legal training and was operating in a society where slavery had only been abolished seven months earlier. Yet he launched the legal action in Bermuda’s Supreme Court that brought freedom to the slaves.

The episode began on February 11, 1835, when the Enterprise, a US brig with 78 slaves on board, landed in Bermuda. The ship, which was on its way to Charleston, South Carolina, from Alexandria, Virginia, had been blown off course.

Bermuda’s authorities took steps to prevent the brig from leaving the next day as planned. Meanwhile, Mr Tucker applied to the Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus to have all the slaves released.

He was operating as president of the Young Men’s Friendly Institution, which he founded on September 16, 1832. 

This was the first lodge or friendly society formed for black Bermudians around the time of Emancipation, with goals of self-development and financial support for those in need.

The issue that Mr Tucker’s legal action put before the court was the wishes of the slaves: Did they desire freedom? 

On February 18, at a packed court hearing that lasted from 9 pm until midnight, Chief Justice Thomas Butterfield spoke to each slave, one by one.

All but six, a woman and her five children, wished to remain in Bermuda.

The 72 were released and began new lives in Bermuda. The Royal Gazette’s report of the case praised the role of Mr Tucker’s Friendly Institution, which also took responsibility for those who were unable to find jobs right away.

Even before that victory, Mr Tucker could count a number of achievements.

He was born around 1786. Whether he was born free or a slave is not known, but he was a free man when he married a slave, Charlotte Bell, at St John’s Church, Pembroke, on December 11, 1830.

Library

It is likely that he was a business owner in 1829 because he rented commercial space that year. In 1835 he was a property owner, and his assets, which included a house and a separate lot of land, were valued at £550.

He was entitled to vote because he owned property and in 1837, he became one of the first blacks to vote in a Bermuda election.

In November 1837, he opened an ‘eating house’ on what is now Church Street in Hamilton, patronised by lodge members. By 1848, he was described in a newspaper as a hotelkeeper.

Mr Tucker was a member of the Anglican Church, for which he raised funds and gave a memorial speech in 1843 on behalf of the “coloured population of Pembroke and Devonshire”. He was also vice-president of the Useful Knowledge Library, which was founded in 1843.

Mr Tucker’s son William Robinson Tucker was the first Bermudian, black or white, to be sent overseas by the Government for teacher training.

He attended Battersea Training College, England, but died of tuberculosis in December 1848 at age 27.

The record is silent on Mr Tucker’s life after 1850, when he is listed in an almanac as an executive member of the Useful Knowledge Library, but Augustus Swan, who served on the Library’s executive, praised him in a letter to The Royal Gazette in May 1848.

Mr Swan wrote that the Young Men’s Friendly Institution that Mr Tucker founded “never had a greater benefactor, a kinder friend nor a more uncompromising patron”.

There is a plaque in Barr’s Bay Park commemorating
the landing of the Enterprise.
The slaves’ descendants continue to live in Bermuda.

On February 18, 2010, on the 175th anniversary of the ship’s landing, the City of Hamilton unveiled a commemorative statue in Barr’s Bay Park by Chesley Trott entitled We Arrive. n

Joseph Henry Thomas (Circa 1824 — April 30, 1908)
Educator, Oddfellows founding father

Joseph Henry Thomas made a major contribution to education and the formation of friendly societies in Bermuda in the years following Emancipation.

He was head teacher of the Lane School, the first chairman of the Berkeley Educational Society, and helped to bring the first Oddfellows lodges to Bermuda.

He was also instrumental in establishing the British Methodist Episcopal Church, the forerunner of the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church here.

Mr Thomas’ name first crops up in an 1844 newspaper article, as a member of the founding committee of the Industrious Man’s Library.
This was one of two libraries established in the 1840s by prominent black men to improve social conditions and raise literacy among blacks.

The Industrious Man’s Library and the Useful Knowledge Library, founded in 1843, existed at least until 1853.

In May 1846, when he was in his early 20’s, Mr Thomas become the second head teacher of the Lane School.

The school opened in 1836, one of the first two schools established for newly-freed slaves by the Anglican Church.

Mr Thomas was head teacher until 1853, when he resigned to open The Chester School at his residence.

He ran that school for five-and-a-half years, with his wife, Ann. He then returned to his old position at the Lane School, in January and February of 1859.

Mr Thomas was involved with the formation of at least two other schools — St Paul’s College and The Berkeley Institute.

He opposed segregated schools and worked closely with Reverend William Dowding, an English Anglican minister who sought to revive Bishop George Berkeley’s plan to establish an interracial college in Bermuda.

In 1853, Revd Dowding opened interracial St. Paul’s College in Hamilton with 30 boys, most of them black.

The school closed three years later in the face of strong opposition from whites. Mr Thomas however, was assistant secretary of the Berkeley Club, which had formed to give support to St Paul’s.
In 1879 he became one of the 11 founders of the Berkeley Educational Society, which established The Berkeley Institute 18 years later.

Mr Thomas was one of the original group of six who met at Wantley on October 6, 1879, to discuss establishing a racially-integrated high school.

Mr Thomas was the Society’s first chairman.
He became a founding father of the Oddfellows lodges in Bermuda.

Friendly Societies like the Oddfellows had a long legacy, originating in England in the 15th century. Their goals of self-development, in-house savings, death benefit plans and assistance to widows, orphans and others in need resonated with people emerging from slavery.

Through the efforts of Mr Thomas and others,  the Somers Pride of India opened in St George’s on May 4, 1848, as the first Oddfellows lodge in Bermuda.

Mr Thomas also helped to  establish Alexandrina Lodge on Court Street, Hamilton, and Victoria and Albert Lodge in Sandys. Both opened in 1852.

In 1870, he and several others instituted proceedings to establish the British Methodist Episcopal Church, the forerunner of the AME church.

Thomas’ other achievements included becoming one of the first blacks in Bermuda to be eligible for jury duty, in 1859.

As a schoolmaster, he also won plaudits for his competence both from parents and the parliamentary school committees.

At the Berkeley Educational Society, Reverend Mark James succeeded Mr Thomas as chairman.

In the 18 years between the Society’s founding and the opening of Berkeley Institute, the founders campaigned to raise funds to get the school off the ground.

Mr Thomas served on the school’s executive until 1887.
He and the Berkeley co-founders remained true to their goal of a non-segregated school, although they were powerless to prevent the establishment of a segregated education system.

Influential

The Berkeley Institute opened at Samaritan’s Hall, Court Street, on September 6, 1897, with 27 students, one of them white.
It became the leading high school for black Bermudians for nearly a century.

The AME church, whose forerunner Mr Thomas helped to establish, became an influential religious denomination, while the Oddfellows and other friendly societies were important centres of cultural and social life for more than a century.

Mr Thomas died in 1908 at 84 and was buried at St John’s Church, Pembroke.

He has numerous descendants in Bermuda, but his name disappears from the public record after 1887.

His life was a testament to his commitment to building organizations to benefit black Bermudians.

As for the Lane School, it is not known how long it was in operation. Its appearance on the 1901 Savage map indicates it was a school up to that year.

The building has now been granted listed status.