Photo courtesy of Carol D. Hill
Joseph Henry Thomas made a major contribution to education and to the formation of friendly societies in Bermuda in the years following Emancipation.
He was head teacher of the Lane School, the first chairman of the Berkeley Educational Society and helped bring the first Oddfellows lodges to Bermuda. He was also instrumental in establishing the British Methodist Episcopal Church, the forerunner of the AME Church, in Bermuda.
Little is known about his early life or even if he was born in Bermuda. His name first crops up in an 1844 newspaper article, which lists him as a member of the founding committee of the Industrious Man’s Library.
The Industrious Man’s Library was one of two libraries established in the 1840s by prominent black men who were committed to improving social conditions and raising literary levels of black Bermudians. The Industrious Man’s Library and the Useful Knowledge Library, founded in 1843, existed at least until 1853.
In May 1846, when he was in his early 20s, Thomas succeeded Augustus Swan to become the second head teacher of the Lane School. The Lane School, which opened in 1836, was one of the first two schools established for newly freed slaves by the Anglican Church, and funded by the British-based Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.
Thomas was head teacher until 1853, when he resigned to open The Chester School at his residence. He ran the Chester School for five and a half years, in partnership with his wife Ann, who taught needlework. He returned to his old position at the Lane School briefly in January and February 1859.
Thomas lived during a time when schools were springing up all over the Island. He was involved with the formation of at least two, St. Paul’s College and The Berkeley Institute.
He was known for his fervent opposition to segregated schools and was part of a failed bid in 1874 to repeal the 1870 Devonshire College Act, which had provided funds to establish two schools, one all-white, the other all-black.
Tellingly, he worked closely with Rev. William Dowding, an English Anglican minister who sought to revive Bishop George Berkeley’s plan to establish an interracial college in Bermuda. In 1853, Dowding opened interracial St. Paul’s College in Hamilton with 30 boys, most of them black.
The school, whose curriculum included Latin and Greek, closed three years later in the face of strong opposition from whites, but Thomas was assistant secretary of the Berkeley Club, which had formed to give support to St. Paul’s.
Continuing to throw his support behind new education initiatives, Thomas in 1879 became one of the 11 founders of the Berkeley Educational Society, which established The Berkeley Institute 18 years later.
He was one of the original group of six who met at Wantley, the brand-new home of Samuel David Robinson on Princess Street, Hamilton, on October 6, 1879 to discuss the feasibility of establishing a high school that would be racially integrated.
Five others joined the original six at a second meeting on October 9. Robinson, a leading businessman and prominent landowner, was Thomas’ son-in-law, the husband of his daughter Elmira Elitia Dowding. Thomas was the Society’s first chairman, having been elected to lead its first three meetings.
Thomas became a founding father of the Oddfellows lodges in Bermuda when he and several other community leaders travelled to New York seeking to join a lodge. The group had been inspired by the efforts of Peter Ogden, a black Englishman who brought the first Oddfellows lodge to the U.S.
Friendly societies like the Oddfellows had a long legacy, having originated in England in the 15th Century. Their goals of self-development, in-house savings and death benefit plans and financial support of widows, orphans and others in need resonated with people who had recently emerged from slavery.
Through the efforts of Thomas and others, among them George and John Gilbert Allen, the Somers Pride of India opened in St. George’ s on May 4, 1848 as the first Oddfellows lodge in Bermuda. Other lodges Thomas had a hand in establishing were Alexandrina Lodge on Court Street, Hamilton, and Victoria and Albert Lodge in Sandys. Both opened in 1852. In September 1855, Thomas sailed to Philadelphia to represent Bermuda at an Oddfellows convention.
In 1870, inspired by a visit to Bermuda that year of Bishop Willis Nazrey, Thomas and several others instituted proceedings to establish the British Methodist Episcopal Church, the forerunner of the AME church.
Thomas’ other achievements included becoming in 1859 one of the first blacks in Bermuda to be eligible for jury duty. The main qualification was owning property.
As a schoolmaster, Thomas won plaudits for his competence both from parents and the parliamentary school committees that oversaw the operation of schools. On August 26, 1846, a few months after he had taken over at the Lane School**, the Schools Committee reported: “Mr. Thomas is a young man, and gives promise of becoming a valuable teacher…”
Twelve years later, a visitor to Bermuda, who identified himself in a letter to The Royal Gazette editor, as “A Londoner”, visited the Chester School in 1858 and pronounced it comparable to the best schools in England.
At the Berkeley Educational Society, Rev. Mark James succeeded Thomas as chairman. In the 18 years between the Society’s founding and the opening of Berkeley Institute, the founders campaigned long and hard to raise funds to get the school off the ground. Thomas was active during the first years of the Society’s existence and served on its executive at least until 1887.
Thomas and the Berkeley co-founders remained true to their goal of a non-segregated school, although they were powerless to prevent the establishment of a segregated education system. White members of the Society including Rev. Mark James. The Berkeley Institute opened at Samaritan’s Hall, Court Street, Hamilton on September 6, 1897 with 27 students, one of them white.
Only two founders were present at the school’s opening. Thomas was not among them. The Berkeley Institute endured numerous obstacles, but emerged as the leading high school for black Bermudians for nearly a century.
The AME church, whose forerunner Thomas helped establish, became an influential religious denomination while the Oddfellows and other friendly societies were important centres of cultural and social life for more than a century.
Thomas died in 1908 at age 84 and was buried at St. John’s Church, Pembroke. He has numerous descendants in Bermuda, but his name disappears from the public record after 1887.
His life was a testament to his deep-seated commitment to building organizations to benefit black Bermudians.
As for the Lane School, it is not known how long it was in operation. Its appearance on the 1901 Savage map indicates it was still a school up to that year.
Few in Bermuda were aware that the Lane School building was still in existence until 2009 when owners Moonray Manor Trust applied to the Department of Planning to have Moonray Manor, located on the waterfront next to Fidelity International on East Broadway, re-zoned. The application was rejected and the building was listed because of its historical significance.
In August 2014, work got under way to restore Moonray Manor. The original walls of the building will be incorporated into a new two-bedroom cottage.
Meanwhile Wantley, the birthplace of The Berkeley Institute, was purchased by Government in 2008. The property has been boarded up for some time and its future is uncertain.