Sir Edward ‘E. T.’ Richards was one of a small group of visionaries who laid the foundations of present-day Bermuda. During the tumultuous period of the 1940s to the 1970s, E.T. was most politically and professionally active. He was involved in every major political shift which moved Bermuda from a system based on racial privilege to one legally based on equitable and unifying principles enshrined in the 1968 Bermuda Constitution.
British Guiana, where E.T. was born in 1908, was diverse, with Guyanese of African, East Indian, Amerindian, Portuguese, Chinese and English descent. Although that society was not without its barriers and prejudices, it was devoid of the pure form of institutionalised racism and absolute segregation, which so shocked the young E.T. when he arrived in Bermuda in 1930.
Recognising these evils, he fully entered the life of the black community first as a teacher at The Berkeley Institute. His brilliance, charisma and belief in an equal non-racial society broadened the minds and won the hearts of his students and the respect of his fellow teachers. He became an active member of organisations like the Pembroke Hamilton Club and the Warwick Workmen’s Club. At night, he worked as Assistant Editor of The Recorder, the island’s only black newspaper, where he often fell foul of the authorities for articles decrying Bermuda’s social ills.
The forties began with marriage to Madree Williams, a South Shore beauty and a former student. Although not everyone approved of Madree’s marriage to a West Indian, she was to be his con dante, moral compass and partner for the next 51 years. In 1943, his tenure at the Berkeley ended with his departure to London. There he pursued studies in law, in spite of the war and the London Blitz, completing his studies in 1947. Before leaving, he accompanied his friend, Dr. E. F. Gordon, when he presented the Colonial Secretary with a petition, outlining the injustices being perpetrated on the black Bermudian population and demanding a Royal Commission. This exemplified the relationship between these two men, whose differences were superseded by their determination to fight against the ‘system’ existing in Bermuda.
The 1950s were turbulent. E. T., now both lawyer and parliamentarian, represented the constituency of Warwick East. He and the handful of other black parliamentarians strove to be agents for change. In his legal practice, E. T. often intervened to prevent mortgage foreclosure of his clients, a tactic used against those who challenged the status quo. In Parliament, he spoke passionately against racial segregation but the oligarchy refused to dismantle it. In 1953, he was appointed to the Inter-Racial Select Committee, chaired by Henry ‘Jack’ Tucker, to discuss matters of race — the first forum of its kind. This Select Committee, and those which followed, showed that the black voice could no longer be ignored.
In 1953, Bermuda welcomed its first female barrister, Miss Lois Browne. He had encouraged this former student and presented her to the Bermuda Bar in 1953. They later became political adversaries but their relationship remained one of mutual respect.
In Parliament, E.T. focused on discrimination in the island’s hotels and restaurants. From 1957 – 1961, he challenged this policy, meeting resistance in committee and in the House. But change was in the air. In 1959, the nine-day boycott of the island’s cinemas dealt the first blow to institutionalised racism. In 1961, the bill to desegregate restaurants that E.T. championed was passed, the first Bermuda statute of its kind.
Party politics began first with the creation of the Progressive Labour Party in 1963 and then the United Bermuda Party in 1964. E.T.’s decision to join the UBP was met with disappointment and anger from sectors of the black community. Why had he who had so relentlessly fought for the rights of black people chosen to join a party whose majority white members had often opposed his ideas? To this he replied, ‘My main concern was to get the two races together. You could not do that by racial polarisation. Political parties should not be colour-oriented’. E.T.’s early experience in Guyana gave him a vision of society not defined by race. This was his lifelong position, taken when it was unpopular to do so, a political philosophy that now powers other nations that strive for racial reconciliation.
His partnership with Henry Tucker targeted two great obstacles to equality — the unequal franchise and the segregated school system. At the Constitutional Conference in London, E. T. was the senior legal counsel. In 1968, Bermuda received its Constitution, underpinned by universal adult suffrage, and modern Bermuda came into being. Education was the last bastion of the old regime to fall in 1971, with the desegregation of publicly-funded schools. When Sir Henry retired in 1971, E.T., now Sir Edward, became Bermuda’s first black leader. Under his leadership, the Constitution was further refined, resulting in the now-familiar bodies and titles — Cabinet, Senate, Ministers, Premier. Additionally, the British-appointed Governor would no longer sit in Cabinet and be responsible only for reserved powers. This period of transition came at a heavy price. The assassination of the Governor, Sir Richard Sharples, in 1973 was the most traumatic political incident of Bermuda’s history. E.T. guided the country through this difficult time, despite the death threats that he himself received.
Perhaps his greatest legacy lies in his vision of Bermuda’s future: ‘The interests of this country lie in people working together. Stop this talk of race and black and white — but tell of being Bermudian.’