People’s champion: Dr. Barbara Ball, pictured at the House of Assembly in 2008. *File photo
People’s champion: Dr. Barbara Ball, pictured at the House of Assembly in 2008. *File photo
Sometimes national heroes and national game changers come in outsize packets. Others sneak in, almost unnoticed.

Dr. Barbara Ball was a national game changer who sneaked on to our national stage, made changes and then, just as quietly, went off.

She was a small, quiet woman. A white Bermudian who, in eras of rigid and blatantly, as well as subtly, enforced racial separation, through her work with the Bermuda Industrial Union, quietly broke all the rules and helped flip centuries of status quo on to its head.

Like many political and social activists, she paid a high personal price.

Her professional life as a doctor of medicine saw her dispense her medical skills without ever earning the financial rewards other white doctors of the time seemed to earn. Former BIU president Ottiwell Simmons has captured some of the life and experiences of Dr. Barbara Ball in his biography, Our Lady of Labour.

He retells the story of her conflict with the choir at St. Michael’s Church in Paget.

Ottie recounts that Dr. Ball, a staunch Catholic, was the organist for St. Michael’s. But her social activism, which saw her publicly working to advance the causes of black Bermudians, caused members of the choir to want to separate themselves from her. This they did by threatening to refuse to sing if she continued as organist.

The threat worked. The choir won. Dr. Ball stepped down as organist. For a time, she continued to worship at St Michael’s.

The Bermuda of that era, 1954, when she returned to set up her medical practice through to 1981, the year of the General Strike, was a Bermuda in which social change came slowly and, often and usually, that change sometimes came against bitter opposition.

Aggressive

That quarter century saw Dr. Ball spending the best years of her life in a struggle for civil, human and political rights for all black Bermudians but for black workers in particular.

Quiet, unassuming, unglamorous but steely and aggressive when she had to be, she helped fashion much of the quality of life that all workers in Bermuda can now enjoy.

In 1954, all Bermudians worked a five-and-a-half-day week — Monday to Saturday with Thursday afternoon off. No paid holidays at New Year, Good Friday, May 24, Queen’s Birthday, Cup Match, November 11, Christmas or Boxing Day. 

No health insurance. No paid annual vacations. No pension schemes of any kind for the majority of black workers and only a rudimentary pension scheme for a small group of white workers.

Dr. Ball had joined the BIU in 1954 at a time when Royal Gazette newspaper adverts for workers blatantly said “whites only”, “white salesman” or “white bookkeeper”.

But she lived to see, and helped to propel, Bermuda’s move from that unpleasantness to the far more open, far freer and far more diverse society that Bermuda of 2011 has become.

One of my favourite anecdotes about Dr. Ball was that of her, a Judo expert, stamping her feet and flipping 6ft cops over her shoulders.

That story may or may not be true.

But Dr. Ball did stamp her foot all over Bermuda’s history. Her stamp will stay forever.