Civil rights

Marva Phillips (1935-2021): civil rights hero and teacher – The Royal Gazette


Activist and teacher: Marva Phillips (File photo)

A civil rights champion and teacher are remembered yesterday for carrying on a family legacy of fighting for social justice as a leading member of the Progressive Group.

Marva Phillips taught in primary schools and what is now Sandys Secondary Middle School before being principal of Somerset Primary School from 1977 to 1982.

But his work with the Progressive Group, responsible for the 1959 theater boycott that sparked the demolition of segregation in Bermuda, put his career in jeopardy.

Glenn Fubler, an activist with Imagine Bermuda, said Ms Phillips carried on a family tradition of activism.

He said his father, Wycliffe Stovell, worked alongside the late civil rights leader EF Gordon at the start of the Bermuda Workers Association, a pioneer union.

The BWA, founded in 1944, was a forerunner of the Bermuda Industrial Union.

The association petitioned the British Parliament in 1946 asking it to examine social, political and economic injustices in Bermuda.

Mr Fubler said: “His grandfather, the Reverend Rufus Stovell, was one of the founders of the Bermuda Union of Teachers, the first union, in 1919.

“I have always drawn this link, this sense of independent thought and community, up to the progressive group.

“This is the context where it comes from.”

Ms. Phillips was a seasoned teacher.

She became an apprentice teacher at Harrington Sound School after leaving the Berkeley Institute in 1954 and then attended Brighton Teachers’ College in the UK on a scholarship.

She returned to the island to teach at the former Prospect Girls’ High School.

Her career included a stint as principal at Southampton Glebe School – now Dalton E Tucker Primary School – and later became Head of Education for Computing.

Ms Phillips, originally from Pembroke, married Lionel Phillips of Somerset in 1961.

Lionel and Marva Phillips (file photo)

Both were part of the Progressive Group, which challenged segregation in 1950s Bermuda by organizing and recruiting members, then running separate theaters.

Another member of the group, Reverend Erskine Simmons, said Ms Phillips’ activism was sparked upon her return from college in Britain.

Mr Simmons said: “She had not experienced the segregation that was rife in Bermuda, which she found totally unwarranted.

“Many of the group had come back from school and had the same experiences.

“At least you could be respected in other places and you haven’t experienced the level of injustice you found in Bermuda.”

But members of the Progressive Group knew they faced retaliation from the island’s business and political establishment if identified.

Florenz Maxwell, author and band member, had known Ms Phillips from her childhood when she attended St Paul AME Church in Hamilton.

Ms Maxwell said she was dating her future husband Clifford, who at the time was meeting undercover with the Progressive group.

She added: “He had to keep it a secret but I was suspicious.

“He kept mentioning my name in the group and Marva realized that we were dating.

“She knew my interest in social justice – I used to write letters to the editor complaining about segregation.

“She immediately endorsed my name, which I didn’t find out until much later.

“I wouldn’t have become a member if she hadn’t. She vouched that I would be a valuable member.

“She was very active in denouncing segregation.”

Wendy McDonnell, a former education commissioner, said at Ms Phillips’ funeral yesterday that she was a role model who was “loved and respected as a family member, public figure and activist.”

During her summer vacation, Ms. Phillips studied for a Masters degree at Queen’s University in Canada while at Sandys High School and graduated in 1974.

She studied at the University of Georgia in the United States in the 1980s for a master’s degree in computer technology education.

Ms Phillips was part of the first team of education officials to introduce computers into the public school system.

She retired in 2000, but has remained active working for the Bermuda Bible Society and the Bermuda Diabetes Association.

Ms. Phillips was also closely associated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Mr. Phillips died in 2010. The couple are survived by their daughter Christine Harrell, their son Andrew and their daughter Marva Vanessa Phillips-Williams.

· Marva Vorice Phillips, former principal of Somerset Primary School and activist for the Progressive Group, was born on October 10, 1935. She died on December 11, 2021, at the age of 86.