W.L. “Bip” Tucker played a leading role in business and politics during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s. Bermuda’s leaders were coming under intense pressure from blacksand the United Kingdom governmentto abolish segregation and its outdated voting system. The battle for full voting rights, or universal adult suffrage, was played out on two fronts. Tucker led the fight in Parliament.
He is known as the ‘Father of the Franchise Bill’ for piloting through Parliament the bill that led to all adults over age 25 getting full voting rights in 1963.
It fell short of full universal adult suffrage, but excluding the bill that gave female property owners the right to vote in 1944, it was the first major change to Bermuda’s voting system in 300 years.
Tucker also made his
mark in other areas: he was the first black person appointed to the Executive Council, the forerunner of Cabinet and the first black president of the Bermuda Employers' Council.
Tucker and his twin sister Nina Louise were the only children of Frank Robinson Tucker, a police constable and shopkeeper, and Catherine Frances (born Sondy) Tucker, the daughter of a German immigrant and a black Bermudian.
Tucker went by the first name of Roy and his close friends called him “Bip”. He was born in Hamiltonhis father owned a store on Court Streetand attended Miss Matilda Crawford’s primary school in Hamilton and the Berkeley Institute.
The Tucker family attended St. Paul AME Church in Hamilton. Young Roy played the violin in Sunday school.
The Tuckers were originally Anglican, but left the church over its segregationist policies of separate Sunday schools and choirs for blacks and whites.
Outside of church, Tucker displayed entrepreneurial tendencies from childhood. He pocketed tidy sums selling candies at Cup Match.
After he left Berkeley, he attended Ontario Business College in Belleville, Ontario, Canada, and on returning to Bermuda, was offered a job selling insurance for a white-owned firm.
He declined the offer, which came with a good salary, because he would have been holed up in an office in the back of the building, out of sight of white customers. He found employment with a black-owned business, Quality Bakery, eventually moving up to the post of manager.
He left Quality Bakery around 1935 to establish a wholesale business, Tucker Commission House, on Fagan’s Alley in Hamilton.
He subsequently moved the business to Front Street, just west of its junction with Court Street. In 1945, the business moved again after he purchased Tweed House on King Street.
He later built new business premises, Tucker House, on the site. A hard worker, he would pedal from one end of the island to the other, collecting orders from shopkeepers. He was also a manager and part-owner of Cosmopolitan Liquors.
On November 15, 1934, he married Cecilie Gilbert of Somerset. The couple had three children, Germaine Tucker (now Trott), Wesley Myer Tucker and Gilbert Sondy Tucker. His sister Nina married Vernon Jackson, who became a well-known restaurateur, guesthouse owner and author.
Tucker was first elected to Parliament in 1953. Under the voting system then in effect, the majority of adults in Bermuda were ineligible to vote in elections because they did not own property. In 1953, out of a population of just under 40,000, half of them adults, only 5,066 had the right to vote.
Blacks were especially disadvantaged because they owned less land than whites. Landowners had the right to vote in each parish where they owned property. The law also allowed people to form voting syndicates, which meant a large property could have multiple owners, and therefore multiple voters.
With the political and economic system controlled by wealthy white landowners, black parliamentarians (Members of Colonial Parliament, or MCPs) were a minority in Parliament. Black Bermudians formed political associations to put up candidates who had the best chance of getting elected and representing their interests.
In 1953, the Devonshire Political Association initially considered the firebrand Bermuda Industrial Union president Dr. E. F. Gordon as a potential candidate, but ultimately decided to go with Tucker, with Gordon’s backing.
Tucker was more diplomatic than Gordon and also financially independent, which made him less vulnerable to economic pressure from powerful whites.
The 1953 election saw the largest number of black parliamentarians elected up to that pointa total of nine in the 36-seat house. Gordon, who had served in Parliament from 1946 to 1948, won a seat.
Other black MCPs were Somerset physician Dr. Eustace Cann and lawyer and future premier E. T. Richards, both of them close friends of Tucker. Tucker’s maiden speech was in support of a proposal from black MCP Russell Levi Pearman for the establishment an Inter-racial Committee to consider inequities of black Bermudians.
Later that year, as Bermuda went all out preparing for newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the island in November, Tucker became perturbed that leaders were focusing on the benefits of the visit to tourism.
He told Parliament that ordinary Bermudians should be given the opportunity to meet the Queen.
Gordon’s comments about the royal visit were more caustic. He lambasted white leaders after learning that only 60 black Bermudians out of a total of 1,200 had been invited to a Government House garden party and not one black person had been invited to the State dinner for 30 guests.
In 1954, the Inter-racial Committee, chaired by the powerful white banker and parliamentarian Henry Tucker, produced its report in Parliament. The black newspaper the Bermuda Recorder, said black Bermudians felt “they came off with the short end of the stick.”
There was strong criticism of Gordon and his fellow black members for putting their signatures to a report that did little to advance the cause of black Bermudianssegregation would remain intact and higher-echelon posts in government and the private sector would remain off-limits.
W. L. Tucker said that if black MCPs had written a separate minority report, it would have given the public some indication of how they “feel on these matters.”
In 1955, Tucker wrung a concession for black children to be allowed to play tennis on Saturday mornings at the Government-funded Tennis Stadium, but when this offer was withdrawn after only two months, he was strongly critical.
Tucker was re-elected to Parliament in 1958, when the number of black MCPs dropped back to six. Gordon had died in 1955, which dealt a blow to the aspirations of black Bermudians. Tucker soldiered on.
He spoke out against several irritantsthe segregated fire brigade and the withdrawal of Government funds from black high school Howard Academy. It subsequently closed, depriving numerous black Bermudians of the opportunity to obtain a high school education.
The following year was momentous for Bermuda and W. L. Tucker. Bermuda celebrated its 350th anniversary with great fanfare. In April, Tucker was appointed to the Executive Council in April, becoming, according to the Bermuda Recorder, the first black to enter the “inner sanctum” of Government. E.T. Richards said the appointment was long overdue.
In June 1959, the Theatre Boycott was launched by a secret group to protest segregated seating in cinemas. It caused heated debate in Parliament.
Tucker revealed that he and his family had been boycotting theatres for 20 years. The boycott was a major victory for black Bermudians and demonstrated that public protest had achieved what endless parliamentary committees had failed to do. In just two weeks on July 2, movie theatresand hotels, which had not been the target of the boycottannounced they would end their discriminatory policies.
Trouble was brewing on the labour front as well and Tucker was appointed mediator for a bitter dockworkers’ strike.
By then, there was a lot on Tucker’s plate in Parliament. On June 27, 1958, he proposed a review of the 1945 Parliamentary Act. Parliamentarians not only agreed, they elected him chairman of the committee they established to review the act.
According to Eva N. Hodgson in Second Class Citizens, First Class Men, it was his position as chair of that committee that was to prove “the greatest single contribution which W. L. Tucker was to make to the political life and progress of the community.”
Tucker’s proposal appeared to have come out of the blue, but it had been carefully planned in advance with E. T. Richards. The two decided after some discussion that Richards would draw up the wording of the motion for Tucker to present to Parliament. The motion was carefully worded in non-threatening language in a calculated bid to obtain the support of white MCPs and did not mention universal adult suffrage. Tucker told Parliament the time had come to consider a gradual broadening of the franchise.
For the next four years, Tucker and the black members of his committee battled a wall of resistance from a majority of white MCPs. As new versions of the bill were debated in Parliament, some black MCPs found themselves in the same voting camp as conservative white MCPs, although for different reasons.
Tucker’s first report, presented to Parliament in April 1960, recommended reforms, but not full voting rights.
In September 1960, activist Roosevelt Brown, home from college studies in the US, organised a series of public meetings about the franchise, which gathered steam as they moved from parish to parish over a six-week period. The Committee for Universal Adult Suffrage arose out of that.
In January 1961, history was made again when Tucker became one of four blacks appointed as chairman of a government board. Never before had any black person been selected for such a key roleTucker became chairman of the Transport Control Board.
The previous year, he became vice-president of the newly established Bermuda Employers Council, a position that arose out of his role as mediator of the dockworkers’ dispute.
In March 1961, parliamentarians passed a law that made it illegal for restaurants to deny service to blacks. Tucker was a member of another parliamentary committee, chaired by E.T. Richards, whose work led to the law’s passage.
In June 1961, the franchise committee reported again. The majority report, backed by Tucker, called for universal adult suffrage for adults over age 21, but a minority report called for a voting age of 25, with constituencies set up to protect the rights of the white minority.
The bill that eventually passed the House in December 1962 fell short of what Tucker and his fellow black MCPs wanted. Adults over 25 received the right to vote, but property owners had an extra “plus” vote. The number of voting constituencies was increased from 36 to 38.
It was a difficult time for Tucker. He and Henry Tucker were often at loggerheads. W.L. Tucker accused Sir Henry, who was not a member of his franchise committee, of undermining him because he had been holding talks with “an unofficial committee”, outside of Parliament.
On May 16, 1963, Tucker was re-elected to Parliament in the first election held under the new voting system. But by then his days were numbered.
He had taken ill while attending a Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Uganda in September 1960, was treated in hospital in Scotland and did not return to Bermuda until January 1961.
Complications of Diabetes
He never completely recovered. He was suffering from complications of diabetes, and pushed himself to attend the franchise debates, often walking with a cane.
In June 1963, he was awarded Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Two months later, he died at home a month before his 56th birthday after a brief stay in hospital.
His death, which came months after the death of MCP Dr. Eustace Cann, was a blow to the black community. Tucker was chairman of the Board of Governors of Berkeley Institute at the time of his death and his term as president of the Employers' Council had ended days earlier.
MCPs, black and white, paid tribute to him in Parliament and Governor Sir Julian Gascoigne, who had been sent to Bermuda to get things moving on the racial front, led the mourners at his funeral.
Historians and political observers give virtually all of the credit for universal suffrage to activist Roosevelt Brown. The series of meetings he organised lit a spark among black Bermudians and helped turn the tide of public opinion.
Yet Tucker had got the ball rolling, by obtaining Parliament’s agreement to review the law, and shepherding it through its numerous variations even as his health declined.
When the bill was in danger of being killed, Tucker, clearly well versed in parliamentary procedure, made what his opponents said was “a very astute political manoeuvre” in Parliament. The matter was taken up by a committee whose members were drawn from the Lower and Upper houses of Parliament in May 1962, and it “lived to fight another day.”
That Tucker fell short of his goal demonstrated the depth of resistance of Bermuda’s white minority to voting reforms.
Tucker’s widow sold their business about a year after his death, but the property that housed Tucker Commission House remains in his family.
Tucker’s success in business was a reflection of his belief in black empowerment. He encountered the usual barriers that were thrown in the path of black businessmenhe had to use the ploy of having a white man buy the property for his business on his behalfbut pressed on despite them. Having achieved a measure of financial independence, he turned to the arena of public service to press for long overdue voting reforms.