Mattie Crawford had a lower public profile than that of her cousin Edith Crawford, and a shorter life, but she was no less committed to education. Like Edith, she devoted her whole life to teaching.
She and Edith were members of two storied quartets in education. The Central School (now Victor Scott School) on Glebe Road, Pembroke, was formed from an amalgamation of their schools and two others. The Crawford cousins were also two of the four founders of the Bermuda Union of Teachers (BUT).
Born in Hamilton, Mattie Crawford was the daughter of Charles Henry Crawford, a printer, and his wife Mary Louisa (White) Crawford.
Charles Crawford and his brother William, Edith’s father, had emigrated to Bermuda from Barbados as young men. The Crawford brothers and their descendants distinguished themselves in business and the professions, especially teaching. Charles and Mary Crawford had three daughters and two sons.
Besides Mattie, there were Catherine, a seamstress, Loretta, Albert, who emigrated to the US, and Robert Crawford, who became a businessman, the first black member of the Legislative Council (the Upper House), and the first black Bermudian to be awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
Details about Crawford’s early life have been lost in the mists of time, but it’s likely that she attended Jairus Swan’s school in Hamilton, where Edith and her brother Robert, received their early education.
Later, she set up her own school at Till’s Hill. The date she started the Till’s Hill school is not known, but it was in operation by 1908. Her schoolhouse was in a cottage, further up the street from her cousin Edith’s Central School, which she established in 1908 at Alaska Hall on Court Street, Hamilton (where the Progressive Labour Party headquarters is now located).
Mattie Crawford taught in an era when education got short shrift from the Government. Teachers set up their own schools, after notifying the Board of Education, and ran them with a combination of Government funding and fees the students paid. Free primary school education did not become a reality until the early1950s.
The clamour for education was such there were always more students than places to accommodate them. By the 1920s, Edith and Mattie Crawford’s schools, located in what is now known as the back of town, were overcrowded and their one-room schoolhouses, where they taught reading, writing and arithmetic and scripture were in poor condition.
Government was forced into action. In 1925, it bought more than five acres of land at Glebe Road, and began constructing a new building in phases.
In May 1928, Mattie and Edith Crawford moved into the new school. Edith Crawford was appointed head teacher, and according to a report in Central School’s archives, the cousins had a “harmonious” relationship, “working and planning everything together in perfect unison.”
Rev. Rufus Stovell’s North Village school made the move to the new premises in 1929, and Mary Louise Williams, who had a school on Pond Road, followed with her pupils in 1931, thus completing the amalgamation of the four schools.
When the new Central School, with 900 students, 20 classrooms and an assembly hall, was officially opened by Governor Sir Astley Cubitt on May 18, 1931, The Royal Gazette reported that it ushered in a new era for education.
C.A. Isaac-Henry was appointed head teacher of Central, while Edith, Mattie and Rufus Stovell became assistant head teachers, or deputy principals. In 1934, Victor F. Scott, after whom Central is now named, replaced Isaac-Henry as headmaster.
Retired teacher Ruth Talbot, who was a student at Central in 1931, said Mattie Crawford was “motherly”. While she was stern, she was more approachable than the formidable Edith, whom many students feared, until they got to know her. Mattie taught the fifth standard, Talbot said, while Edith taught students in their last two years of primary school.
Crawford’s other key contribution was as a co-founder of the BUT. In February 1919, she, Edith, Rev. Rufus Stovell and Adele Tucker, the headmistress of Paget Glebe School, started the BUT in the graveyard of St. John’s Church, Pembroke.
They were attending the funeral of a teacher, who was the third to die in quick succession, and in financial distress. The four were moved to form the union to press for higher pay and better working conditions for black teachers. All four founders were active BUT members, and served on its executive until the 1930s.
The BUT struggled for years, but was still going strong in 1947 when it became the first union to register under a new trade union law. Today the BUT is an established union that has largely achieved the goal of its founders. It represents Government schoolteachers in wage negotiations.
Crawford had a busy domestic life, although she never married or had children. She and her sister Catherine helped raise two nieces, Etheline Scott Pitt and Muriel Scott Rowling, the daughters of her sister, Loretta Scott. Pitt, Rowling and their sisters Cora Scott Gayle and Olive Scott Trott all followed their aunt into the teaching profession.
Mattie and Catherine lived in their family home Wingham in Pembroke West, although in their later years, they moved into their brother Robert Crawford’s home, Wrexford, where they helped nurse him in his last years. He died in 1946. Mattie Crawford was also an active member of St. Paul AME Church.
Crawford took early retirement from Central on December 31, 1942 and then operated a school from her home. She died six years later, at age 69, of a heart attack. She was buried at St. John’s Church following a service at St. Paul’s.
Mattie Crawford took a path that many of her contemporaries trod. Constrained by the racial boundaries of the time, that confined black women to either the kitchen or the classroom, she chose the latter. She kept her light under a bushel, but among the long list of Bermudian educators, she ranks as one who made a significant contribution.
On February 15, 2007, the Bermuda Post Office launched a ‘Pioneers of Progress’ stamp issue to recognise Mattie and Edith Crawford and four other teachers. Their images now grace a 35-cent stamp.