A Three-Part Series (Part III)
The small island nation of St. Christopher and Nevis (St. Kitts) sits 257 miles southeast of Puerto Rico in the leeward island chain of the West Indies. St. Kitts is shaped like a cricket bat. Nevis, its sister island to the south, is shaped like a ball. St. Kitts is 23 miles long and 5 miles wide. It is a volcanic island with Mt. Liamuiga rising to nearly 3,800 feet at the northern end. The 60,000 green vervet monkeys on the island outnumber the human population by a few thousand.
Like most of the island nations of the Caribbean, St. Kitts has a majority population of citizens with African heritage. West African slaves were brought to St. Kitts by the British and forced to provide labor to clear the forests in preparation for the planting of sugar cane fields. England and France fought for possession of the island during the 17th and 18th century. St. Kitts gained its independence in 1983.
Hillarie Stevens Belle was born in the capitol city of Basseterre, St. Kitts in 1957. After completing her primary education, Hillarie went to work in the sugar cane fields outside of Sandy Point at the tender age of 16. Hillarie may be the hardest working and most resilient person I’ve ever known. She is also one of the most generous and giving. Our paths crossed in 1987 when I joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to teach physical education at Sandy Point High School.
After training in Miami and Barbados, I was sent to St. Kitts as a member of a small education team. We were reading, physical education, and art teachers determined to make a small difference in the world. Each of us found that we learned more and gained more from our host country than we were able to give. Living in St. Kitts opened our eyes to the struggles and amazing spirit of the Kittitian people.
I arrived in St. Kitts in July of 1987 and headed to the village of Sandy Point at the northern end of the island. I found a modest home in a section of the village called “de Ghaut.” While the homes around me were sturdy and well-kept, many lacked running water and electricity. As the only white person in the village, I became a novelty to the locals. I was welcomed and quickly accepted by my neighbors. My privacy was respected, but people always knew my comings and goings.
Part of our initial Peace Corps training focused on gaining an understanding of the culture and norms of the countries we were assigned to. Many host countries had long-standing and somewhat erroneous beliefs about Americans. It was with great energy and enthusiasm that we accepted that our job included breaking through those misconceptions. I did all I could in my two years in St. Kitts to be a good ambassador.
Shortly after moving to de Ghaut, I met Hillarie. I call Hillarie the Mayor of Sandy Point because everyone knows her. By the time I met her, she had been working a variety of jobs, but she was mostly known as a seller. She would sell food and snacks to the school children. Her spot was perfectly situated between the Sandy Point Primary School and the high school. Hillarie was raising her two beautiful children, Lionel and Renee, across the street from my house. We saw each other every day.
Hillarie was an incredible mom and amazing provider, not just for her family, but for her neighbors as well. With limited means, Hillarie took care of several people including me. Hillarie could cook. For two years, she cooked me Sunday dinner every week. She made sure I tried every local dish. I ate breadfruit, plantains, curried goat, salt fish and much more.
My two years in the Peace Corps flew by. In August of 1989, I left St. Kitts and headed to graduate school at Northern Illinois University. I left the island telling Hillarie I would stay in touch. I did, for a while. St. Kitts never left my heart, but my career, marriage, and children took their rightful priority in the years that followed.
In 2019, thirty years after leaving St. Kitts, I returned with my wife to celebrate our 25th anniversary. I had no idea if I would see anyone from my time there. While visiting Sandy Point High School (now renamed Charles Mills Secondary School), I asked the young headmaster if he knew Hillarie. I wasn’t sure if she was still alive. He immediately knew who I was talking about. Of course he did, she IS the Mayor of Sandy Point after all.
With some assistance, I found a local man who promised to take me to Hillarie. He walked me up the hill to her house. I stood outside her fence yelling “Hillarie!” like I often did when I lived across the street from her. There was no response. I opened her gate and walked to the front door and knocked hard several times. Hillarie finally answered. I recognized her face immediately. It took her a little longer. When the recognition finally hit her, we hugged and cried for several minutes.
Seeing Hillarie again was overwhelming. We were both so happy to find each other. I introduced her to my wife and during our stay on the island we got together for dinner a few times. Thirty years went by in the blink of an eye. I feel so fortunate to have been able to re-connect with Hillarie. I now call her faithfully once a month to check in. I am committed to never letting her get away from me again.
In the first two parts of this series you met Mrs. Butler and Faith Smith. Now you’ve met Hillarie. The three of them have much in common. They are amazing women, courageous Black women, who faced life head on and overcame significant obstacles along the way. They also represent three of the most significant relationships I’ve had in my life. I knew them on a personal level. I didn’t read about them in a book. My life is immensely and irrevocably better for having known them. It is because of them that Black lives matter to me.
Are they the only reason that Black lives matter to me? No, of course not. I have hundreds, if not thousands of reasons. I have worked in schools for thirty-three years. It is obvious that the schooling experience for a large number of African American children is much different than their white peers. That shouldn’t be. Black children shouldn’t have to overcome more obstacles to reach the same level of success as their white peers.
We ALL have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When I say Black Lives Matter, I am affirming that it is MY job, MY responsibility, to make sure that the black and brown faces in my school reach their goals and achieve their dreams. That means I will have to work differently for them. I will have to be pragmatic, thoughtful, and vigilant in doing what is best for them. I CAN do this and WILL do this for them, because like Mrs. Butler, Faith, and Hillarie, their Black lives matter to me.