Millicent “Millie” Neverson was a 39-year-old widow when she arrived in Bermuda from the Caribbean in 1921 to take up a teaching post at the Berkeley Institute. Self-taught in French, Latin and mathematics, which was typical for teachers of the time, and possessing a mastery of the English language, she had a passion for teaching and a burning desire to help people in need.
Her life in Bermuda was a replication of her career in the Caribbean. She founded a high school, Bermuda’s first black Girl Guide company and also the Haven, a children’s home.
The first half of her life was shrouded in mystery. Even her age was a closely guarded secret. She was born in Antigua and married a man from St. Vincent, where she founded a secondary school. She taught at St. Mary’s College in St. Lucia and established an orphanage in St. Kitts.
It’s not known how or why she came to Bermuda, but Neverson was among the earliest waves of teachers recruited from the Caribbean to fill positions in black schools because the need for educators was so great.
White Bermuda was no differentexcept its primary source for teachers was the United Kingdom. At Berkeley, Neverson worked under George DaCosta, who was hired from Jamaica by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) to open the Bermuda Collegiate Institute in 1892 as a high school and to train teachers.
DaCosta later fell out with the Institute, and was preparing to return to Jamaica, when he signed on as Berkeley’s first headmaster in 1897.
Berkeley had been in existence for 24 years when Neverson joined its teaching staff of two at its premises on St. John’s Road, Pembroke, where it had moved in 1902. She remained at the school for five years, and left, it is believed, after falling out with its board.
In 1926, she established Excelsior Secondary School on North Shore, Pembroke, just east of Government House. The location gave her access to Governor Sir Astley and Lady Cubitt, which would prove to be fortuitous.
Excelsior Secondary School was in existence for only nine years, but it filled a key niche. Black Bermudians were clamouring for education and students who were fortunate enough to get a place in primary school, let alone high school, had to pay for the privilege.
Excelsior gave them another option. Like Berkeley, it had a curriculum that led to the Cambridge School Certificate, the equivalent of today’s General School Certificate of Education.
Excelsior graduates included Dr. Kenneth Robinson and his future wife Rosalind Taylor, Doris (Heyliger) and Enith King, all of whom would became educators, and in the case of Dr. Robinson, Bermuda’s first black chief education officer. Neverson also was a mentorand tutorto her former Berkeley students, including future educator Dr. Marjorie Bean.
Other Excelsior students included Hilton Hill, a future Member of Colonial Parliament, and artist Charles Lloyd Tucker. The curriculum was broad for its day, with offerings in academics, music, drama and sports.
An April 14, 1934 report of an Excelsior sports day in the black newspaper the Bermuda Recorder had students participating in everything from three-legged races, high jump, long jump and the 80-yard dash.
The school, which opened with 13 students, had an enrolment of 98 students when it closed for good in December 1934.
A legacy was the First Excelsior Girl Guide Company, which Neverson formed from a nucleus of students at her school. The Girl Guide movement had been in Bermuda since 1919, but all the companies were white.
Neverson had been trying to win support from Bermuda’s all-white Girl Guide Association to start a company for black girls but made little headway. She would have found the goals of the youth organization irresistible because it offered opportunities for acquiring new skills and developing leadership potential.
Three influential figures lent Neverson a helping hand: Helen Storrow, a wealthy American, Tucker’s Town resident, a Girl Scout leader and philanthropist, and Lord and Lady Baden-Powell, the founders of the Boy Scout and Girl Guide movement. Storrow hosted the Baden-Powells when they visited Bermuda in 1930.
While here, the Baden-Powells learned about Neverson’s desire to start a company. They made it clear whose side they were on when they acknowledged Neverson’s presence at a meeting of the Girl Guide Association at Colonial Opera House and asked her to join them on the stage.
The following year, the First Excelsior Girl Guide Company was up and running, with 32 Girl Guides, Neverson as captain and fellow teacher Edith Crawford as lieutenant.
Neverson recognised the support of Lady Cubitt by naming three patrols after her daughters, Rosemary, Veronica and Lavender. She named the fourth Red Rose after her favourite flower.
The Guides were formally enrolled in 1932, the same year Lady Cubitt's daughter Rosemary Grissell founded the North Village Brownie Pack. The Brownie pack met at Government House for about 20 years, long after the Cubitts had left Bermuda.
As a Guide leader, Neverson worked on developing the whole person. According to an article that ran in the Recorder on Saturday, May 12, 1934, Neverson presented her Guides in a sacred concert that she staged and directed. Funds raised at the concert helped to pay for their summer camping trip.
Meanwhile, demand for places at First Excelsior had become so strong that Neverson formed the Second Excelsior Girl Guide Company in 1934 with Flora Musson as guide-in-charge. In 1935, Musson was promoted to captain of Second Excelsior, and Anita Lightbourne became lieutenant.
In 1937, two first Excelsior Girl Guides who had moved up the ranks to become Rangers, Doris (Heyliger) Corbin and Gaynell (Paynter) Robinson, were chosen to attend the coronation of King George VI in London. Wenona Robinson, a leader at First Excelsior, accompanied them.
With only the wealthy having the means to travel, the transatlantic trip was the opportunity of a lifetime. The trio travelled by ship as the era of mass plane travel was well into the future. They were abroad for nearly five months, and also visited France and Switzerland.
Neverson also began to receive official recognition for her work. She was Bermuda’s first black Girl Guide district commissioner, a post she held in 1944. In 1949, she was awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). By the time she retired as a Girl Guide leader in 1950, the Bermuda Girl Guide Association was well on its way to becoming the governing body for both black and white companies.
Neverson moved away from Bermuda for about two years in 1935, when she returned to the Caribbean. Things are not believed to have gone as planned back home, and on her return she joined the staff of Sandys Secondary School, where she taught for about five years.
In 1948, she opened The Haven and took in children from neglected or broken homes. She ran a school from the same location. Haven youngsters were between eight and 15 years of age, but Neverson prided herself on never turning away anyone in need, including at one point, a whole family, and a 23-year-old man.
She told the Bermuda Recorder on February 4, 1953, that the Haven had opened with five children and since then 42 children had passed through the home. She spoke of getting assistance from several people including physician Dr. V. O’ D. King who gave youngsters free medical treatment.
Neverson was someone who could make things happen. She raised funds to purchase the Haven property in a ‘Million Penny Drive’ and boasted that she paid off the mortgage in five years.
The Haven, which operated with Government funding and private contributions, resembled a castle and was nestled in a hillside on Berkeley Road, Pembroke. It was her residence as well as a school and home. It’s where she continued teaching until December 1955 when she officially retired, and then devoted all of her energies to social causes.
Neverson volunteered with such organisations as the Bermuda Society for the Blind and St. John Ambulance and also taught in prisons. Her concern for those in need did not go unnoticed. She served on the Social Welfare Board and the Juvenile Panel, both Government boards. In 1964, when Neverson, a Roman Catholic, received a citation from the Pope, the Haven was still going strong. In 1966, the high school closed down.
By 1971, Neverson, by then in her late 80s, was in poor health and bedridden. The Haven had only one resident, government had cut off funding and the Haven was in danger of closing. She died four years later at age 92.
She was buried at the Catholic Cemetery on Robert’s Avenue, Devonshire after a service at St. Theresa’s Church. Her only immediate survivor was a niece living in New York.
After her death, the Haven was put under the control of Teen Services, which operated it as a home for teenage mothers and their children. The building was subsequently demolished to make way for Berkeley Institute, but The Haven continues to operate on Happy Valley Road in Pembroke.
Neverson’s life was one of selfless devotion to others. She used her talents to improve and enrich young lives.
On February 15, 2007, the Bermuda Post Office launched a ‘Pioneers of Progress’ stamp issue to recognise the contribution of Neverson and five other teachers, including her former Guiding lieutenant, Edith Crawford. Her image now graces a 35-cent stamp.