The series of land deals that changed the face of Tucker’s Town during the 1920s is among the more controversial chapters in Bermuda’s history.
It’s among the pieces of Bermudian history that Professor Duncan L. McDowall (2nd picture) has researched meticulously.
Prof McDowall, a Canadian historian, published a lengthy piece for the ‘Bermuda’ magazine (published by Bermuda Media) in 1996 that chronicles how the mostly black community of Tucker’s Town turned into a white, affluent tourist destination in a series of land transactions and development deals between 1920 and 1923. A community was displaced — literally bought out and given new homes mostly located in Smith’s — homes were demolished, a golf course and country club were built.
The idea, he says, was to create an insular getaway that would draw wealthy tourists from America’s east coast, he writes in the piece: “The crown jewel of this colony within a colony would be a posh residential community where wealthy Americans could winter among their own kind,” wrote Prof McDowall: “No well-heeled American, the developers reasoned, was going to buy an expensive mid-Atlantic building lot if there was the slightest chance that their serenity might be troubled by Saturday night rum and chowder parties.”
In other words: in order for this tourism oasis to be established, the locals had to go.
Businessman Stanley Spurling presented the elected assembly with the plan in February of 1920: hotels, cottages, a country club and golf course, provisions for yachting and riding on 510 acres.
Mr Spurling characterized the land as backward and undeveloped with little to no economic value, only partly arable and very sparsely populated, according to Mr McDowall’s writing.
There did appear to be some semblance of legal due process to establish compensation for those who would be displaced. There was a three-man commission appointed by the governor that was able to broker differences between buyer and seller and then suggest a price. The residents, according to Mr McDowall, also had the option of having an arbitration panel to impose a price on the land or they could opt for a selection of a jury of peers that would decide a price.
“Yet, for all its due procedure, the act left no doubt that expropriation was the unavoidable fate of the Tucker’s Town diehards,” he wrote.
Businessman Goodwin Gosling sometimes offered straight cash or cash plus land and a home elsewhere to residents.
“In the end, only one resident of Tucker’s Town was physically evicted,” according to Mr McDowall’s report.
Diana Smith was physical removed from her home by police sometime late in 1923 and, along with her possessions, she was moved to a new Sommersall Road home in Smith’s.
The Tucker’s Town deal, coupled with a steady stream of ships shuttling American tourists here, ushered in a tourism boom. In 1919, there were about 3,000 tourists. By 1930, there were more than 43,000.
Tucker’s Town is not the only instance of compulsory purchase of land in Bermuda’s history. There was the building of the Bermuda Railway in the late 1920s and the construction of Kindley Field during World War II, according to Mr McDowall. The difference, however, between those instances and Tucker’s Town was stark. The expropriations for the railway and military installation, he wrote, cut across racial and social lines. But Tucker’s Town was different: it required a minority group of largely black Bermudians to surrender their lands to a private company dominated by wealthy whites,” he wrote.
He continued: “The immediate gain was thus a private one. The expropriation did create an indirect benefit for all Bermudians: the spectacular take-off of the tourism industry. However, in doing so it created divisions in Bermuda society. Tucker’s Town was curtained off from the rest of the colony along lines of wealth and race.”
“In a psychological sense,” he wrote, “it almost ceased to be part of Bermuda.”