Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

The "Race Card" and the Rise to Power of the Progressive Liberal Party in the Bahamas

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

The "Race Card" and the Rise to Power of the Progressive Liberal Party in the Bahamas

Article excerpt


The social and economic structure of the Bahamas departed from the plantation economy common in most British Caribbean colonies. Its relatively high percentage of Whites, its proximity to the United States with its segregation practices, and the close cultural ties with the United States, along with a weak Black middle class made for more antagonistic race relations in the Bahamas.1 The most important element in the Bahamian search for "self-definition" was racial identity. This emphasis, as Howard Johnson demonstrated, was particularly poignant in view of the marginalization of non- Whites and the severe racial discrimination they suffered until the 1960s.2

To compound matters, the dependence of the Bahamas on the tourism industry, while bringing great wealth to the Nassau White mercantile elite, created a cleavage that reinforced social and racial divisions. In fact, racial discrimination generally persisted well into the 1970s, and perhaps beyond.3 Although tourism profits stimulated the growth of the Coloured and Black middle class, real wealth remained in the hands of the White minority. Wealth and power continued to be equated with race.

By 1953, the year that the first successful political party, the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), was established, Coloured and Black Bahamians were better educated, having completed studies at universities abroad. The educational system, particularly in Nassau, had been improving, and more Bahamians were obtaining a secondary education with the establishment of several church-based high schools that complemented the sole, small and selective government high school established in 1925. Additionally, returning Bahamian contract workers, who had encountered overt racism in the United States, were determined to change the status quo. Despite the growth of the tourism industry and its trickle-down effect, the Bahamas was ripe for change politically. The small Coloured and Black middle class and upwardly mobile Black Bahamians were frustrated with the inequalities and were resentful that uneducated poor Whites were more socially acceptable, and were given more opportunities in the workplace.

It was not surprising, then, that politicians used the racial issue to their advantage. This article examines the factors that led to the rise of the PLP and analyses the use of the "race card" by both the PLP and the Bay Street elite.

The Establishment of the PLP

The PLP was organized by a group of anti-establishment and idealistic light-skinned Bahamians, the majority of whom were Roman Catholics with roots in the Out Islands. Deprived of a university education, they had all suffered from severe racial discrimination. The three most prominent organizers were Henry M. Taylor, chairman; Cyril St John Stevenson, secretary-general; and Williams Cartwright, treasurer. Taylor, a former teacher from a poor background in Long Island, was a bookkeeper who worked at various jobs in the public service and private sector. He had won a seat in the House of Assembly for Long Island in 1949. Cartwright, a Long Islander and journalist, had successfully contested the all-Black constituency of Cat Island in 1949. He resigned from the PLP under a cloud in about 1956. Stevenson, a Nassauvian with roots in Long Cay, was also a journalist. He later bought the biweekly newspaper, the Herald, which became the official propaganda organ of the PLP.4

This group of "outsiders" was joined by several others, including John S. Carey, an Eleutherian bookkeeper, who became vice-chairman of the party; Clement Pinder, a Nassauvian clerk, who was appointed assistant secretary-general; and Urban Knowles, also a Nassauvian and a printer by profession. In addition to the officers of the executive board, there were members Felix Russell, a black-skinned Cat Islander and small businessman; Holly Brown, a near-White Nassauvian, a World War I and World War II veteran, and founder of the Herald; and Paul Farrington, a Nassau printer, who soon bowed to pressure from "Bay Street", resigning from the party in 1954. …

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