The spirit of transformation

  • Historic night: the Reverend Wendall Foster, centre, at the curtain call at the Bermudiana Hotel on October 29, 1954 (Photograph courtesy of Marilyn Simmons)
  • Glenn Fubler represented Imagine Bermuda. This was written based on the research provided by Marilyn Simmons (née Simons), whose family were a direct part of that Vernon Temple story

On October 29, a diverse group of 15 members of the Planning Team gathered at the Department of Workforce Development. This collaborative group, under honorary co-chairmen Joan Dillas-Wright and Dennis Lister, were continuing a process that emerged out of the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Theatre Boycott this year.

The goal of the Planning Team process is to foster deeper appreciation across all sectors of our community for that transformational period — mid-20th century — establishing the foundation for the democratic culture we enjoy today.

Our society during that period experienced a renaissance, a transformation that benefited all of Bermuda.

The Planning Team’s role is to access the stories from that era, leveraging that treasure to propel our community forward during the challenges of the 21st century.

A focus of that Tuesday session was to review the story of the transformation of Vernon Temple AME Church in Southampton during the 1950s. That church had one of the island’s smallest congregations with limited resources when a novice pastor — 26-year-old Reverend Wendall Foster — was assigned to them in 1953.

Mr Foster had been born under challenging circumstance in small-town Alabama. His personal journey provided a perfect fit to address the challenges facing Vernon Temple.

The reverend reached out to the community of Southampton and Warwick by visiting neighbourhoods and frequenting clubs and bars.

He consequently recruited a number of men who joined a rally — a Bermuda tradition — to dig out a hall and indoor toilets under the sanctuary.

A former US serviceman, Mr Foster used his contacts at the local base to access movies for family entertainment on weekends, when the hall was completed.

With a background in the dramatic arts, Mr Foster wrote a play about the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church denomination in Philadelphia, celebrating that iconic transformation in the US.

The Vernon Temple family, along with others from the wider community, joined in that successful production and they brought down the house at the Bermudiana Hotel where there was a capacity audience on October 29, 1954.

That unprecedented event was a breakthrough on many levels.

The vast majority of those participating had never been involved in a play. It provided an education on social justice for the wider community.

The staging at one of the island’s premier hotels was a coup, since segregation blocked people of colour from front-door entrance to hotels up until the success of the boycott — five years later!

The spirit of community and empowerment at Vernon Temple was expressed in a number of other ways. At least seven young men were assisted in securing university educations.

A well-organised gift club thrived, which led to the establishment of the Bermuda Provident Bank a decade later. Because of a change of circumstances, out of Provident later emerged the Bermuda Commercial Bank.

Mr Foster married a Bermudian teacher, Helen Somersall, leaving Vernon Temple in 1956. He was subsequently assigned to the pulpit at St Paul AME in Hamilton before leaving the island for an assignment in the US in early 1959.

While the story at Vernon Temple revolved around a central character in Wendall Foster, appreciating its significance requires deeper exploration.

It means accessing the interconnections of this seemingly isolated story to that of others such as the Suffragettes Movement championed by Gladys Morrell and the Petition Campaign led by E.F. Gordon.

It says something about those folks “up the country” in Southampton.

These were neighbourhoods within a mile or two of the Naval Base at Morgan’s Point where the Bermuda Workers Association — renamed the Bermuda Industrial Union — was formed in 1944.

The goal of the Planning Team is to foster an appreciation of that spirit of transformation, which is exemplified by Vernon Temple.

Those seeds from our past brought us this far. As all of us appreciate that legacy, the “garden” called Bermuda will be able to thrive in the challenges of this new millennium.

Glenn Fubler represented Imagine Bermuda. This was written based on the research provided by Marilyn Simmons (née Simons), whose family were a direct part of that Vernon Temple story