Carolyn Cooper | No gender bias in Skeffrey family portrait
My column last week provoked a startling question. One of my friends called to say she enjoyed my tribute to Dr Yvonne Skeffrey. Then, she jokingly asked if it was gender discrimination that made me neglect to mention Yvonne’s brother, Kemp. It was not. I had, after all, highlighted her father. I was focusing on the family’s contribution to the field of medicine. Kemp was a property developer. He was a partner and director of Implementation Ltd, consultants and project managers for many outstanding construction enterprises such as the Life of Jamaica complex in New Kingston.
Kemp, who died in 1997, was the brains behind the JamWorld entertainment venue in St Catherine. He fully understood the value of the creative industries, particularly music. I was short-sighted in not immediately realising that Kemp was, indeed, a practitioner of the healing arts. It was the Greek philosopher Plato who conceived music as the medicine of the soul. And medical doctor Debasish Mridha put his own spin on the subject: “Music can heal the wounds that medicine cannot touch.”
For many, many years, JamWorld was the venue for Sting, the annual dancehall stage show that truly was medicine for the soul of hard-core fans. Admittedly, for its detractors, dancehall music is pure noise. But it does heal wounds. Over the years since Kemp’s death, the venue has declined. But not his vision! A January 2020 article in THE STAR by Teino Evans is headlined, ‘Can JamWorld rise from the dead? – Many believe venue could return to its glory days’.
Evans quotes Portmore entertainer Ricky General: “JamWorld a di right place, but hear wa happen wid JamWorld now. When people a look fi venue, dem nuh want dem bush ya. Dem want place wey dem can just come and set up dem ting. Anytime somebody tek it up and do the proper fencing and dem ting deh and can rent it, JamWorld will be great again.” Who will take up that challenge? Visionaries in the public and private sectors ought to collaborate on this rehabilitation project. A world-class venue on the grand scale of JamWorld is essential for the development of the entertainment sector in Jamaica.
'REFINEMENT AND CULTURE'
Last Sunday, Yvonne’s nephew Carey, who is Kemp’s son, sent me an appreciative email on behalf of family, friends, patients and colleagues of his aunt. He included a revealing photo of Yvonne seated all alone, surrounded by several hefty books. She appeared to be in a library and was studiously reading. The rather lengthy caption is illuminating:
“Now Negroes like Yvonne Skeffrey from Jamaica can get a first-class Catholic education at one of the best schools in the country. When they were admitted, some persons objected that Manhattanville was founded for the education of the upper classes. Mother Damman replied that the Negro as well as the white has an upper class of refinement and culture which needs the advantages of a Catholic education. When Cardinal Hayes heard of Mother Damman’s decision, he said, ‘This will please the Holy Father’.”
Intrigued, I contacted the college library and got a speedy response from Ms Lauren Ziarko, archivist & special collections librarian. The photo was published in Catholic Digest (September 1949) as part of an article, ‘Principle Conquers Prejudice: A Picture Story’. It featured students from Japan, the Philippines, Mexico, Belgium, Korea, China, Venezuela, India, the US, including Puerto Rico, and, of course, Jamaica. Ms Ziarko also sent photos of Yvonne in the company of other students, as well as a link to her senior yearbook page. She majored in chemistry, with minors in biology and physics, excellent preparation for her medical degree at The University College of the West Indies.
PASSING THE TEST
Mother Dammann, sometimes spelled Damman, was president of Manhattanville from 1930-1945. She fought relentlessly to ensure that ‘Negroes’ were accepted. But class prejudice is evident in the caption for Yvonne’s photo. It was upper-class Negroes who were desired. Coming from a prosperous and respectable family, Yvonne definitely passed that test. But there was a hard core of resentful alumnae who objected bitterly to the admission of Negroes, no matter how refined and cultured. I found an anonymous handwritten note, in a mix of upper and lower case letters, that looked exactly like a hostage letter:
“We feel disgraced, our pride is in the dust, we are forced to swallow a very bitter dose and we don’t like it.” It continued , “Black and white don’t mix in any language. Its (sic) bad enough to be on the edge of Harlem, but to open the gates to them is another matter.” Another angry missive, this one typed, was headed ‘Letter of Protest, Anonymous Alumni Mailing May 1938’. It was pure race-baiting:
“Has it come to your attention that Manhattanville College has accepted a colored girl as a Freshman for next year?
Do you wish colored women as members of the A. A. S. H., The Manhattanville Alumnae Association or The Children of Mary?
Are you prepared to accept these women on a social basis at all Alumnae Functions, sewing meetings, to gatherings at your homes?”
Five years earlier, the majority of students at the college had supported what came to be known as ‘The Manhattanville Resolutions’. These were eight statements affirming the human rights of African Americans and encouraging action to end discrimination. By the time Yvonne arrived, the dust had settled somewhat. But her nephew confirmed that she “never uttered a word about her studies in New York”. By contrast, “she spoke fondly and frequently about Wolmer’s and UWI”. Principle may conquer prejudice. But it rarely inspires affection.