We should not fail to carry on the legacy
Born out of necessity, the West Indian Social Club, Inc., which had its roots in the basement and homes of the first West Indians to set foot in Hartford, has been recognized for its leadership which helped to shape the community of the city.
We should dwell on the fact that although the founders came here to make their contribution to the development of this country as mere laborers in the tobacco fields, by launching the club they proved to the world that despite their humble beginnings, they were just as much capable and responsible leaders. They paved the way for us to move forward, leaving us with a legacy that we should not fail to carry on.
The club has become an inspiration to all other organizations of its kind and has certainly helped to make the West Indian presence in Hartford valued and well respected. It has established the kind of reputation for excellence which every other West Indian community in America and other parts of the world should strive to emulate.
From the turn of the century, people have been migrating in search of a better life, something which is otherwise not available to them in their homeland. As it turned out, America with its promise of prosperity and abundance of opportunities became the main destination for these adventurers.
West Indians did not start to arrive in the U.S. in large numbers until in the 1940s. They came on contract to work in the orange groves, sugar cane and tobacco fields of the country. A small group ended up in Connecticut working in the tobacco fields.
Finding themselves in a rather strange and frigid environment, although treated well, it did not take long before they began to yearn for some of the traditions of their homeland. As a result they began to meet on weekends to play dominoes, drink and engage in friendly conversation. At the same time others who were avid sportsmen started a cricket team, recruiting members from all the farms in the area and began playing games against teams from Massachusetts, Canada and London, England.
During those friendly get-togethers, the idea to form a club evolved. At first the men opted for a benevolent society as is the custom back home, but when told that it could not be done here, not deterred, they continued the discussions. A group later met to finalize plans for the formation of a club. Because they did not have any particular schedules, meetings were held at any convenient place, but as the interest increased the men sought out and were able to secure the use of the St. Benedict Church hall to hold meetings.
It took three months before the men could agree on a name, but shortly after this was accomplished, they moved to premises located on Barbour Street. As the organization progressed, the need for more suitable accommodations became apparent. Hartford at the time was experiencing some serious upheavals, but under the leadership of then president David Cooke, they were able to secure the structure on Main Street.
Although starting out as a male organization, women also played a role in its development. Out of a desire by some of the members’ wives to get involved with the project, the ladies formed an auxiliary in 1954. The auxiliary consisted of women who were either West Indians or related by birth, blood or marriage. The women organized their own programs and assisted the men in whatever projects they were undertaking at the time.
The club blossomed into becoming a respected entity that provided leadership and an important service to the community, fostering social unity that keeps alive a proud cultural heritage. It was instrumental in establishing the West Indian Independence Celebration Committee, which each year stages a very vibrant celebration that draws people from various parts of the country, the Caribbean and the world, to enjoy a week of festivities. It also was responsible for the establishment of the West Indian Foundation, which is the forefront of a number of educational, cultural and civic activities that are staged throughout the city each year. The Foundation was established in 1978 to promote and encourage the strong cultural, social and economic status of West Indians in the city.
Individuals who have served the club either as presidents or in other capacities in the early days include the late Alfred Chambers, Reginald Leslie, Lowell Sutherland, David S. Mills, Basil Wollaston, Constantine Simpson, Ivan Redwood, Lance Gordon, Noel McCarty, Frank Jacobs, Keith Carr Sr., Sydney Barnett and Leslie Perry.
The club also produced presidents in the likes of former Councilwomen Veronica Airey-Wilson and Dr. Alred Dyce, Noel McGregor and Guy Jacobs, who went on to carve out successful political careers.
This “home away from home” center, over the years has served as a gathering place for meetings, educational forums and social functions, which are important to the unified life of the community. It is a daily hub of activity as it is used by a number of other organizations for a variety of cultural, educational and social activities.
The magnificent center today stands as a monument to the small group of men, who had the vision and insight to launch the club, and the many dedicated members who toiled throughout the years to keep it going.