‘Express’ as Agent of Change
Journalist ERROL S. PILGRIM recalls how a story he wrote collided head-on with the colour bar in newly independent Trinidad and Tobago.
The August 1st celebration of emancipation in Trinidad and Tobago coincided with an event that took place thirty-nine years ago that may have eluded those who have survived it. Yet, it’s an event which not only exploded the myth that independence in 1962 had brought an end to racial discrimination in Trinidad and Tobago but which cemented the role of the then struggling Trinidad Express newspaper as a proponent of crusading journalism and a major organ of social change.
It was on August 1, 1969 that a story that defined my place as a member of the Fourth Estate was exploded across the front page of the Trinidad Express under the headline: “Colour Bar at the Country Club”.
The story would precipitate a lot of anxious moments for myself as the writer and for the Express as the newspaper which had the temerity and the testicular fortitude to pillory the Trinidad Country Club, still a most “sacred cow” in a nation just seven years old.
Up to that point, the question of racial discrimination at the Country Club was discussed only in whispered conversations, either to be dismissed or accepted as part of the status quo. Reports involving prominent black personalities like the late Chief Justice Sir Hugh Wooding being subjected to one kind of bigotry or the other at the Country Club made the rounds but remained unconfirmed.
But here were Errol Pilgrim and the Express, both brash and young, daring to venture into territory where more established newspapers had feared to tread, detailing a story of not one, but two black American couples, who were claiming to have been discriminated against in two separate incidents at the Country Club during the last week of July 1969.
I still clearly remember that morning, thirty-nine years ago. Sitting at my desk at the old cramped but comfortable Express building on Independence Square, I got a telephone call from a good friend and trusted contact, Georgiana Masson, then public relations officer at the Trinidad Hilton. Hers were words that were like music to my ears, the kind of words that never fail to set those journalistic juices pumping: “I think I have a good story for you!”
But the story was too sensitive to be discussed on the telephone, she said. I had to come up to the Hilton, just a few miles away. I informed my then editor Owen Baptiste that something appeared to be brewing, grabbed ace photographer Tony Forte, now departed, and headed up to the Hilton.
The ever dependable Georgiana Masson had two distinguished looking black people sitting there in her office awaiting our arrival.
The story they told would come to be known as “The Country Club Scandal”. It would send the Express circulation figures soaring but would result in this impudent newspaper, just two years old, losing a whopping million dollars in advertising and teetering on the brink of collapse.
Dr. and Mrs. Leonard Hanna, were guests at the Trinidad Hilton, having come to Trinidad and Tobago “where every creed and race find an equal place”. They were seeking a holiday far from their home in Detroit, Michigan, where race riots were rampant in the sixties and black people were subjected, as a matter of course, to discrimination, injustice and inequality.
The Hannas were among the few blacks who had been able to pull themselves out of the mire of poverty and deprivation, but they were still part of the frustration that had boiled over into the Detroit race riots that lasted five days in the long, hot summer of 1967, claiming 43 lives in the process. Today, it should be noted, Detroit remains the most segregated major city in the United States.
So here they were at the Trinidad Hilton with one simple request on that fateful Monday, July 28, 1969: they wished to play a round of tennis.
The Hilton, not yet possessing its own tennis courts, had established an informal agreement with the neighbouring Country Club whereby its guests would be accommodated at the Country Club courts. Except that Dr. and Mrs. Hanna were the wrong colour.
Although there were vacant courts, the Hannas were turned away by the Club, their unbelieving suspicions of racial discrimination later confirmed when another Hilton guest, a white American naval officer, was welcomingly facilitated at the tennis courts of the Country Club.
In my front page report in the Express, I quoted Dr. Hanna as saying: “The furthest thing from our minds at the time was that we would be blocked because of the colour of our skin. This was unthinkable. We felt that race was something we had left far behind – in Detroit, Michigan.”
Three days later, it was as if the fates were trying to rip Trinidad and Tobago out of its inertia, perhaps preparing the country for the traumatic events that were to erupt early the next year, 1970. Another American couple, Mr. And Mrs. Robert Pious, also guests at the Trinidad Hilton and both delegates at a Mental Health conference at UWI, St. Augustine, were refused service in the Country Club bar. The bartender, as well as the manager, informed them that they could not be served unless they were members. The Piouses were both black.
On the morning of Friday August 1, 1969, the people of Trinidad and Tobago woke up to be confronted on the front page of the Express by what appeared to be proof that their free and independent country had something ugly in common with places like Detroit, Michigan: racial discrimination.
The Express page one story was complemented by an editorial with the headline “A Question of Colour”.
It stated in part: “In a small, close-knit society like this, with a largely homogeneous culture, there will always be examples of perfectly harmonious relationships between people of different races and colours. But should this blind us to the fact that there are still, in this day and age, numerous instances of blatant discrimination against black people, even though black people have become the political bosses of this country, and even though they form the majority in this country?”
That Express editorial of Friday August 1, 1969, went on to point to the ugly social situation that would linger even into 21st century Trinidad and Tobago: “There are still several social clubs which continue to operate informal colour bars in this country.”
The editorial continued: “The Country Club has traditionally been the most notorious offender in this respect. Nobody is fooled by the fact that they have taken in a few token blacks since Independence.”
This editorial and the news story which it supported would unleash a series of circumstances to which not many newspapers and journalists have been subjected.
First of all, I became the target of the anger of the Chairman of the Country Club, rum magnate Joseph Fernandes, now deceased. I had contacted him for a comment before committing my story to print. If I dared to publish what I had related to him about the two Country Club incidents, he warned, not only would he see to it that I was instantly fired from the Express, but he doubted I would be able to get a job anywhere in Trinidad and Tobago.
A powerful man indeed, but a little overreaching in his prognostications about my career path. Not only did I become political reporter of the Express but I do not think the goodly Joseph Fernandes survived to witness my much later assumption of the position of Head of News and Current Affairs at the now defunct Trinidad and Tobago Television.
So much for his assumptions regarding the extent of the power he wielded in independent Trinidad and Tobago.
However, Mr. Fernandes and the seven-man Country Club Board of Directors did go on to file libel suits against both myself, as the writer of the offending article, and Owen Baptiste, as the editor of the offending newspaper. The suits did cause some anxiety in the Express newsroom, but it never reached the courts.
Where Joseph Fernandes succeeded was by attacking the Express in the area where it was most vulnerable—its pocket. He was able to use his extremely influential position in the business community to rally a significant segment of the business comunity against the Express, no doubt with the objective of, at best, teaching this brash, young newspaper a lesson or, at worst, bringing the Express down. For a period of almost a year, the business community withheld advertising support from the fledgling newspaper, starving it of an estimated one million dollars at a crucial point in its development. One million dollars in 1969 terms, would be worth a fortune in today’s market.
Later, Express Managing Director Ken Gordon would acknowledge the role that popular national support played in protecting the Express from collapse in this period. In the minds of many in newly independent Trinidad and Tobago, the Express was a crusader for positive social change and protector of the public interest.
Notable among the Express “crusades” of this period were its spearheading of the national outcry against the Public Order Act and its decision to open up its pages to the historic Lloyd Best/James Millette debates that would have a powerful impact on regional integration.
An outcome of the “Country Club Scandal”, however negatively or positively it might be viewed, was perhaps the extent to which it may have fuelled the flames of protest and dissent that were to erupt in Trinidad and Tobago in early 1970 in what Lloyd Best dubbed the Black Power Revolution.
I remember a then young, “bad boy” political activist named Aldwyn Primus, a former copyboy at the defunct Trinidad Mirror, who had launched a Black Panther Movement in the late sixties, aping the more credible and much more militant Black American organization by the same name. Well, Primus and his scattering of followers had been looking for a platform on which to launch their organization into the consciousness of the Trinidad population and saw in the Country Club Scandal just the thing the doctor had ordered.
One morning, following the publication of the story, Primus and his handful of “panthers” marched around the Country Club armed not only with placards bearing over-sized pictures of myself but also of the white members of the Country Club board. One of the “panthers” also allegedly threw a poorly-crafted Molotov cocktail onto the grounds of the club which seared a small tuft of grass, but otherwise did no damage.
But perhaps the more positive outcome of the daring journalistic prowess of the Express was the eventual decision of then Prime Minister Eric Williams to do something about the Country Club situation. To the extent that he could be, Williams may have been moved not so much by the persistent crusade of the Express on the issue but moreso by the ensuing outcry from the national community that something decisive be done. In a dramatic political move, he appointed a Commission of Enquiry into the Country Club. At the end of the day, the Commission delivered a report, merely rapping the offending institution on its privileged knuckles.
The Commission found that the unsavory incidents involving the two Black American couples were more of an aberration of the management of the Club than reflective of any entrenched policy of racial discrimination by its Board of Directors.
Its conclusion, however, did nothing to assuage the mounting anxieties of the Express or of the general community. The still fledgling newspaper, spurred on by its significantly increased readership, decided to pursue one aspect of the points made in that editorial of August 1, 1969 which stated:
“The history of this society has been one long, slow climb from privilege based on colour to privilege based on merit and ability. In many areas of our social life we have succeeded in replacing the criterion of colour with that of merit. Education, public employment, political life, to quote the most outstanding examples.”
And the kicker: “But we would be only fooling ourselves if we felt that the struggle for social and economic equality is over, and that colour is no longer an important criterion in many areas of life. Private employment practices, for example, still leave a lot to be desired: how many banks and insurance companies (to name two examples) can claim that their employees were recruited purely on the basis of education and ability?”
The Express would go on to spearhead another journalistic crusade that would significantly influence the process of social change in Trinidad and Tobago. It demanded that the government appoint a Commission of Enquiry into Banks and Insurance Houses.
Williams, who had come to office with his own agenda for social change, promptly accommodated the request.
One of the major recommendations of the new Commission that would have a far-reaching effect on the society as a whole was that the ethnic composition of banks and insurance companies must reflect, as closely as possible, the ethnic composition of Trinidad and Tobago. The die was cast. Black faces began to emerge at the front desks and counters.
As we celebrated Emancipation 2008, I recalled a function that was held at the Trinidad Country Club on July 4, just a few weeks before Emancipation Day. It celebrated American Independence and was organized by the United States Embassy and its Ambassador Roy Austin, a naturalized black American, born in St. Vincent.
Looking around at the hundreds of black faces taking the Country Club surroundings for granted, I could not help but recall those incidents 39 years ago when four Americans could not play tennis or get a drink at the Country Club because they were black.
The Trinidad Country Club, the Express and indeed all of Trinidad and Tobago have indeed come a long way since 1969. But the question remains: is it far enough? Indeed the injunction of that Express editorial of August 1, 1969 is as relevant to today’s Trinidad and Tobago as it was then.
“The paradoxical thing about this country,” the editorial said, “is that of all multi-racial societies, it has perhaps come the closest towards establishing the basis for a genuinely harmonious society. Already we can say that most racial groups share in a common culture, and the barriers of language and religion which separate many races in other societies do not exist here at all.
“It is precisely because of this, therefore, that we should all strive to make an honest appraisal of our present situation, and move towards eradicating , for all time, the remaining barriers between us which none of us created, but which all of us have a responsibility to destroy.”
And this was 1969.