Monday, August 3, 2009

Lady B - in her own words

LADY BUSTAMANTE... we must all acknowledge the obligation to pay our debt to the past.


Lady Bustamante, when urged by writer Ken Jones to say more about herself as he worked on her memoirs, told him, "I seldom speak - I only work." Fortunately, the persistent author was able to garner enough about this national icon that we have a well-drawn portrait of a courageous lady who was that steadfast North Star for her mentor, boss and husband National Hero Sir Alexander Bustamante.

The Memoirs of Lady Bustamante (Kingston Publishers) tells us that Gladys Maud Longbridge was born in the tiny district of Parson Reid near Ashton in Westmoreland where her God-fearing family and solid teachers inspired her enduring faith in God and encouraged her to develop her talents. At the Bustamante Museum, Seragh Lakasingh has in place Lady B's piano, organ, guitar and accordion, "all of which she played well", he says.

It is important that we educate this and coming generations about the incredible sacrifices made by pioneers like Lady Bustamante, to secure our sovereignty. She has given us an eyewitness account of the beginnings of our labour movement and the founding of the Jamaica Labour Party.
She recommended, "We must all acknowledge not only where we are coming from and how much we owe the past, but also the obligation to repay our debt to the past. This is the spirit in which I have lived and I strongly recommend it to my fellow Jamaicans."

It was fortuitous that years after Lady B was born, her birthday March 8, was declared the International Day for Women. Her memoirs reveal that she was very proud of the achievements of her fellow women, and that she worked hard to qualify herself, surpassing the speed for shorthand and typing expected from the graduates of Tutorial College.

Her 150-word-per-minute rapid-fire recording matched the rapid-fire dictation of Bustamante who became her boss on March 9, 1936 and with whom she lived "happily ever after" when they got married in September 1967.

Lady B records the triumphant fight to reinstate our first female Jamaica Scholar of 1912, Oxford graduate Leila James, in the Education Department, the first black woman to have ever held such a post. She recounts Amy Bailey's advocacy for graduates of technical schools to be admitted into the Civil Service, "and so (she) opened the doors of opportunity for thousands of boys and girls whose standard of education had been unjustly regarded as inferior".

Lady Bustamante took these breakthroughs personally, remembering the many months that she stayed unemployed because of her colour. She referred to Gleaner employment advertisements of the 30s that made specific reference to colour and shade. "Because I was not of light complexion I could not hold a job of any kind in a commercial bank," she stated.

No wonder that the young Gladys Longbridge became such a passionate supporter of the labour movement that Busta and St William Grant had started to build. "The folks at home would marvel at the fact that the quiet, Sunday-school organist from Ashton was in the forefront of national upheaval, fighting for the underpaid working class and the hungry unemployed," she said. "Almost all my working days have been spent in this service; even now (1997), so late in life, I am still fully committed to trade unionism and I propose to continue that way until the breath has left my body."

"During the formative years of the union we worked night and day," she recalled, "setting everything else aside, travelling the countryside . I had become the principal day-to-day caretaker of what was the largest single organisation in Jamaica." In March 1939, the BITU had a paying membership of 6,500 efficiently managed by Ms Longbridge without the aid of modern technology.

It is truly fitting that she will first lie in state at the BITU Headquarters tomorrow.

Lady B shied away from active politics. She reluctantly agreed to run for office in Eastern Westmoreland in 1951. She was pleased when she learned she had lost - a Gleaner report described her as "the happiest loser" they had ever seen in an election.

Her memoirs carry photographs that are milestones not only in local, but also in world history: attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 and the funeral of John F Kennedy in 1963, welcoming royalty to Jamaica House, including Emperor Haile Selassie in 1962, the building of Jamaica House in 1963.

On the lighter side, Lady B loved cars and there is a pictorial of the vehicles she had driven over the years, through hills and dales of Jamaica with her beloved Bustamante by her side. She was a fierce defender of the Chief as she fondly called him, and recounted a dramatic scene at the Port Maria Tennis Club in the early days of the BITU. A black man named Clifford Clementson had refused to serve Busta a drink, saying, "You are the man organising the niggers around here. You cannot drink in my club." Another member, Colin McGregor (Resident Magistrate, later appointed Chief Justice), insisted that Busta should have his drink but with the atmosphere becoming tense, Ms Longbridge persuaded him to leave.

As they were leaving, she caught sight of a drunk about to strike the Chief with a bottle. "It was then that I summoned the nerve to grab the offender by his tie and pull him to the floor," she related.

Although Sir Alexander's health had been steadily declining, his death came unexpectedly on August 6, 1977 at their home in Irish Town. "I gave way to uncontrollable tears and a feeling of emptiness came over me," recalled Lady B. "He whom I loved with all my heart, was gone, never to return."

But Lady B soldiered on: "I could not leave my work with the BITU. The Union had been a great part of the Chief's life and it was my life too."

My husband's family (the Chins of Victoria Street, Franklin Town) was close to the Bustamantes, and I was privileged to be at several of her birthday celebrations which she enjoyed so much, lovingly arranged by her close friends and caretakers Seragh and Effie Lakasingh. Warm and wise, Lady B would take the time to commend and advise us. We can try to repay her sacrifices by emulating her: as she reminded us, service is not an option, it is an obligation. Rest in Peace, Lady B, enjoy your heavenly reunion with your dear Chief.