Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange — seven months in detention, the untold story

pretty much the better part of a half a century, Olivia “Babsy” Grange has hidden, in plain sight, a deep and dastardly pain that no woman, no one surely, should bear. The image of a happy camper with the ready smile that she so easily projects on the national stage is lethal cover for either immense guilt or a monstrous wrong perpetuated against an innocent young woman.

It is a story this protégé of the late Prime Minister Edward Seaga has not often been able to tell in such a graphic way… until now. And if it brings you to tears, dear reader, then there may yet be hope for us all. For well do we know that, invariably, whenever the political blinkers are removed, baring our true Jamaican souls, copious flows the milk of human kindness and compassion.

And so, now if Olivia Atavia St Veronica Grange, or the more familiar household nomenclature — Babsy Grange — has not clothed herself in overt bitterness, put it down to a fierce determination to soar above her circumstances and continue her relentless climb from the depths of 1940s West Kingston poverty to stake her claim in what dream her beloved Jamaica might yet have to offer.

That steep, treacherous climb from the bowels of those sprawling slums of Kingston’s west end was never going to be a Sunday afternoon stroll, even if she was armed with beauty, extraordinary courage, boundless energy, a love for people, a passion for culture and a fighting spirit.

She might well in time ponder whether it was a blessing or a curse when Eddie Seaga tapped her to work by his side in matters of social intervention, as he sought to build Tivoli Gardens out of the social wreckage that was Back O’ Wall of the 1960s.

Almost inevitably, she would be fried with Seaga’s fat, accused as he was accused, vilified as he was vilified. And being in his controversial shadow, in a time of political upheaval, it would be a Herculean struggle to emerge as the independent woman she always knew was inside of her.

The enlightened, if belated, decision to confer on her the lofty Order of Jamaica (OJ) might be reward, if it is sufficient, for the thanks she is owed by a grateful nation for helping to unearth some of the brightest stars of Jamaican music and culture and her sterling support for the athletes who brought such shining glory to its shores.

The Babsy Grange story is a compelling tale that must be told for all its urgent drama and spectacular twists and turns — political detention and exile from home; the shocking taste of racism in Canada; witnessing the death gasps of the Third World’s first megastar, Bob Marley; defying Seaga and receiving the trouncing he had forewarned in Ralph Brown’s Kingston Central constituency and the unlikely victory over Bruce Golding in St Catherine Central; but then the reversal of fortunes that propelled her to Cabinet status and household fame.

Like all good storytelling, we must start at the beginning — at Luke Lane and Bond Street in the heart of politically innocent West Kingston, eons now, it seems, from today’s dubious reputation that it carries like an unbearable burden.

Grange’s parents were living at Luke Lane when she was born on April 27, 1946, setting off a tussle among immediate relatives to name her. When they had settled on Olivia Atavia St Veronica Grange, a relative nicknamed her Babsy, which would follow her through life.

Escaping Kendal Crash

Her mother, Raphaelita McLean, she recalls, was “the best dressmaker in Kingston”, which is significant to mention for a foreboding event that was on the horizon, and her father, Joseph Grange “was the best shoemaker in town”.

A few months later they moved to 24 Bond Street, just down the road from a certain Desmond McKenzie from Charles Street, who would become like her political twin under the tutelage of Seaga. The Duke Street Studio of yesteryear was just across the road from McKenzie, the now minister of government who — much to no one’s surprise — spins some wicked oldies on Nationwide 90FM’s The Mayor’s Parlour on Sunday afternoons.

Not long after, Grange’s mother married and migrated to the United States to seek a better life for her family, leaving the young Babsy to grow up with her grandmother, Martha.

Before that, however, her mother, a staunch member of the nearby St Anne’s Roman Catholic Church, was kept busy sewing clothes for people who came from within and without the community. She would normally take the toddler on the annual church excursion, or outing as they called it, by train to Montego Bay. West Kingston loved this outing and nobody wanted to miss it. When Grange was 11, her mother planned to take her, yet again, on the all-day outing set for September 1, 1957. But fate was waiting to intervene.

“My mother had so many orders for outfits to make for people who were attending that she ran late and that caused us to miss the outing,” Grange recounts. And just as well.

In the dark of night the train, returning from the excursion with 1,600 souls aboard, derailed at a sleepy village called Kendal in Manchester, killing an estimated 200 people and injuring between 400 and 700 others. The tragic event is remembered today as The Kendal Crash.

In its account of the tragedy, the Jamaica National Heritage Trust described it as “the worst railway disaster in Jamaica’s history” and the “second worst rail disaster in the world at the time”. Many of the dead who could scarcely be picked from the carnage were buried in a mass grave behind the crash site.

Recalling the sad event, Grange reflects: “If she wasn’t late making all these things, my mother and I would have been on that excursion.”

Grange likely acquired her love for cultural things from her mother, who had been very active in the church’s cultural activities and was part of a group which used the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union offices at Duke Street as a sort of cultural centre doing plays, writing songs, and the like. Out of that era she especially remembers a play and song called Healing in the Balm Yard.

She lived at Bond Street until age 16 or 17, starting out at a basic school in the yard in which McKenzie lived, then onto a preparatory school not far away at Duke Street, and later attending Gaynstead High School now located at Central Avenue near the National Stadium. Her grandmother also sent her to do piano lessons; why would Babsy not be so in love with music?

Grange is the eldest child of both mother and father, and counts 11 siblings by her father. They are Hamlin; Faye; Grace; Gregory; Gilton; Georgette; Joseph Jr; Noel; Olivier; Donovan; Kenrick; and one by her mother, Lex Walker. All but Noel who lives in Jamaica, are overseas between the US and Canada.

Babsy and Hamlin, a journalist who worked with the Toronto Star newspaper, co-founded Contrast, a publication catering to the black community in Toronto. Before all that, however, Grange was enjoying the formative years in West Kingston.

Eddie Seaga, revivalism and Chocomo Lawn

“I grew up in an environment in which all around me were churches and various religions. You had music, dance halls, it was a potpourri of different experiences. My grandmother would always say to me, ‘Kings and queens are born in the ghetto.’

“She talked to me about pride and dignity. She was very strict, but she was also understanding. She’d say to me, ‘Babs, don’t ever lie to me, no matter what it is, tell me the truth’. So I was brought up as someone who could always be truthful and honest and not be afraid to say what I think, but also respectful at the same time. I had a steel-like determination because she stressed that ‘whatever you want to achieve, you can achieve’.

“She was always helping people. And so I got that whole attitude and approach from her to help people. When you grow up in a tenement yard you live each other’s lives. You help each other. You feel each other’s pain. You share each other’s joy. That was my environment.”

Then there was the famous Chocomo Lawn, a dance hall in Jones Town which Seaga eventually purchased for a cultural centre. She felt enriched by all these experiences. At that point her great-grandmother, whom she remembers as “a very tall, beautiful black woman who rode a horse” and was viewed as an overseer, became an important part of her life.

When Seaga transformed Chocomo Lawn into a cultural centre it became a melting pot for many pioneering artistes who went on to gain fame in Jamaica and internationally — Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster, The Techniques, Olive Lewin and her fledgling Jamaican Folk Singers, come readily to mind. It was a bustling place.

Grange became the first president of Victor’s Youth Club which was formed at the time. She recalls Byron Lee and other businessmen helping out with instruments. The Tivoli Gardens Marching Band was formed there and still exists today.

“So you know that with all this cultural vibes around and the training as leaders, once you are involved in these community activities it instilled in you a commitment to your community, which became the base of your commitment to your country and a commitment to your brothers and sisters, your peers, and respect for your elders,” says Grange.

As Grange was soaking up the vibes and having teenage fun in the prime of her life, politics a la Seaga was beckoning. He had come to West Kingston to campaign and to become the member of parliament. At that time both the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), to which Seaga belonged, had branches to which juvenile groups were affiliated.

In addition to the conventional churches, there were a lot of revival churches and Grange loved to attend their meetings. She especially loved to attend the one at Chestnut Lane which was led by a shepherd called Big Wrap “because they used to wear these big turbans”.

“One night I went there. At this meeting they had what they call a table, which is a special observance. Everything on the table symbolises something and they had the duck bread and the coconut and cream soda table. Yes! So here I was, clapping behind where the drums were playing.

“At the end of it, Mr Seaga called me over. It was the first time we were going to talk. I used to see him going about and he would only say ‘hello’ to us, but we did not communicate.”

Tonight would indeed be different, but Grange could not have imagined how much it would change her life.

Unknown to Grange, Seaga had been noticing her. He had spent a considerable amount of time researching Revivalism and was impressed with the commitment of the young woman to the Chestnut Lane church and her community activism as president of Victor’s Youth Club. This night he decided to call her over to talk about possibilities for the future.

“He asked me my name and we began to talk. He invited me to get involved in his cultural programme and I accepted,” says Grange. From that day, I would say I became his protégée. And you know, there are a couple of us that became his protégé, including Desmond McKenzie, that he would really guide or work with us, and involve us in his programmes, because he was always having activities. Sometimes it would be cultural, sports or social programmes, assisting the elderly, and so on.”

A black girl in fashionable Canada

Around this time, Grange’s mother, who had migrated from England to Canada, had filed for her to join her. She quickly began to miss Jamaica and the excitement of her community activities. The fact that her grandmother refused to migrate made matters worse because she had been close to her.

Grange constantly thought about Jamaica, explaining: “I was just so passionate about Jamaica. Would you believe I would be in my bed and hear rediffusion (radio) playing the National Anthem as they were signing off air, and I got up and stood at attention?

“When I look back, I don’t know how to explain it, but there was just this in me, just this passion about being patriotic and being loyal and being faithful. And I guess I still have that passion to the extent that sometimes I do things and the people around me say ‘Why would you do that?’

“You know, I’m driving along and I see this youngster with a sign that says ‘I work for food’. I spin my car around, pull up beside him, call him and say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And he tells me a story and I put him in my car. And the next day, I’ve literally adopted this youngster, not formally, but I took him and got him into school and funded his education.”

That anecdote, however, would have a tragic end. The youngster, who was from the troubled inner-city enclave of Southside in Central Kingston, told her stories about how he would be used to climb through windows to steal things. Grange assisted him until he left school and was able to get a job, wearing ‘white shirt and tie to work’, which made him very proud. He had now been living in Allman Town. One day on his way to work he got caught in a crossfire and was shot dead.

But even while yearning for her old life in Jamaica, she tried to adapt to Canadian life, picking up where she had left off as a community activist.

This was 1965. She started with the Jamaican Canadian Association, in which her mother and stepfather were active members, quickly becoming a member of the executive. Much of her activism was about helping Jamaicans who arrived in Canada — those were days when no visas were required — but were being turned back at the airport.

“So I would be at the airport as part of the Jamaican Canadian Association team and we would post a bond, because what they would do is hold them in detention and send them back because they felt that they would overstay or not leave the country once they were allowed in. And then when their time is up and they decide to go back to Jamaica, the bond would be released.

During that time, she and her brother Hamlin started Contrast newspaper, which quickly became the voice of the black community. Babsy was also the first editor.

One of the first things she did when she got to Toronto was to attend Patricia Stevens Finishing School to work on her social graces and to train as a model. Her first modelling job did not work out so well, she recounts. She was about to encounter her first brush with racism, something her Jamaican existence did not prepare her for.

“I saw an ad for a summer showroom model and applied for the job in the fashion district, where you would show the clothes to wholesalers who would buy for stores. I did the interview and got the job and I remember the gentleman who interviewed me said he thought I would make a great showroom model and, you know, could relate well to their clients and so on. But he had a business partner who was travelling at the time but he would have to sign off on my employment as well.

“The partner eventually came in and saw me working with some clients. Not long after, the partner who hired me called me and said ‘Olivia, I really think for the few days you’re here you’ve really done very well. Businesses which you attended to love the clothes and they think your colours pop. But my partner does not want a black girl working here and showing clothes to his clients.’

“I was devastated, because I’m coming from Jamaica, I grew up like a queen in the ghetto. I remember my grandma telling to me always be proud of who you are, so you know I am now in shock. It suddenly dawned on me that I was having my first bad experience of racism. That motivated me to work for the Ontario Human Rights Commission and advocating for minorities,” Grange explains.

“In the newspaper we would have little quotes saying ‘Being black does that mean you’re anti-white, but you must stand up for your rights’. With the Ontario Human Rights Commission we used to do a lot of public education programmes or outreach programmes, often working on the Native Indian reservations and at times with the Jewish community.”

Seaga calls her home

She also recalls bringing cultural groups from Jamaica to perform in Toronto and Seaga, now the Member of Parliament for Kingston Western, told her that her work had been sorely missed and asked her to return to Jamaica full time and come work closely with him on his Tivoli development programmes. She packed and came straight back to Jamaica. Everybody thought she was crazy, but for her it was a no-brainer.

On the plane back to Jamaica, Grange felt a pulsating sense of relief. She had never quite settled in Canada and the racist encounter had left a bad taste in her mouth. But even as she pondered on what she would do in Jamaica, she had no thought of political involvement, and Seaga had not mentioned anything of the sort. Yet, events were preparing the political wicket.

Shortly after she returned to Jamaica, the JLP lost the 1972 General Elections and a hugely popular prime minister came on the scene in Michael Manley. At the height of a raft of social re-engineering programmes the PNP declared itself democratic socialist and overnight Jamaica became a battleground for the East-West ideological conflict that pitted the United States against the then Soviet Union.

In 1974 Seaga emerged as leader of the Opposition JLP, with the ouster of Hugh Lawson Shearer, the de facto leader. Seaga’s JLP, backed by the US, contended that the Cuban-backed PNP was going to introduce communism to Jamaica. A virtual civil war was unleashed on Jamaican streets, with killings from political violence reaching unprecedented levels.

Working in Tivoli Gardens, Seaga’s stronghold, Grange was never going to go unscathed. She persevered with her cultural programmes that continued to draw in big talents, like Dean Fraser — the outstanding saxophonist attracted by the formation of the New Vibrations band. Later came Earl “Chinna” Smith and Lloyd Parkes of We the People fame.

Grange suggested that the programme at Tivoli should be replicated across Jamaica. “Through that programme we ended up at the community centre with various cultural art forms. So we had the pop band, but you couldn’t get involved in the pop band if you weren’t prepared to take theory lessons to learn to read music and to write music.

“We had persons like Marvin Brooks, Michael Rose from Black Uhuru; eventually everything grew to a level where we ended up with the Tivoli Touring Theatre. We would do the north coast and people would get a regular income because it became such a good programme.”

There was a junior version of the Jamaican Folk Singers, a steel band, dancers, a programme of personal development and grooming, and the TG models whom she says were the first set of black models in Jamaica and were much loved by the fashion houses here at the time, like Francis Keane and Amanda Lee.

“I remember once we got a booking and when we arrived we found out that the venue was a PNP office. We didn’t know before and everybody was looking at me. I said, ‘It’s okay, we are going to do our show’. We set up and performed and everybody just loved it.”

Hellhole at ‘Red Fence’ detention centre

But as the shootings and murders escalated, the Government declared a state of emergency (SOE) on June 19, 1976 and everything crashed.

Grange was at a party retreat somewhere in Kingston when the news of the SOE hit.

“The police came and picked up some members of the JLP. I think they picked up Peter Whittingham first. The night I was detained I actually thought they had come to pick up Pearnel Charles because it seemed he was being trailed. I couldn’t imagine I would be picked up by the police because I wasn’t one of the leaders of the party. I was very active in coordinating the programme in West Kingston, which was our flagship programme showcasing the community as a great community with a lot of talent.

“We had a PR meeting at Belmont Road and when I was about to drive out I saw a vehicle across the road; but just the way it was parked I had an inkling that they were policemen. So I went back into Belmont Road and said to Pearnel, ‘I think they’re coming to pick you up tonight, because I see policemen out there.’

“So, not imagining that I would be involved, I went on my way to a pharmacy. And when I came back out I saw the same vehicle that was at Belmont Road. They wouldn’t be coming for me, right? Anyway, I left and nothing happened.

“I went home to Twickenham Park and when I looked down the road I saw the same car at the gate of one of Mr Seaga’s drivers. So I went straight there to find out what is going on. They were there to pick him up, so I said ‘Well, let me go call Mr Seaga and tell him what is happening.’

“Because in those days, you know, everybody, they were afraid of their shadow. It was scary. Very scary, because it was a bad, bad period. As I was walking back to my yard, the policeman said to me ‘Where are you going? I’m sorry, I come for you.’

“They were actually very aggressive and my young daughter, Paula, got very upset. She held on to me and they even grabbed her and pulled her away from me. They were really very, very unkind. Eventually they took me to this old jail at Munamar Square, Spanish Town. Paula was left at home and she was very upset. She was actually traumatised, just their behaviour, because those days it was almost like, you know, what you read about the Jews and the Nazis. That’s how it felt. That’s how it felt.

“My poor grandmother was a nervous wreck. They didn’t know where they were gonna take me and so on. The men just wouldn’t answer any question. But they questioned me. I’m putting it mildly, but it was a very, very hostile and aggressive approach. Poor me.

“They were accusing me of all kinds of things and I just couldn’t understand what was happening. They had me there ’til morning and threatened to put me in a cell with a woman whom they said had committed all sorts of horrors, to scare me.

“Eventually, though, they took me from there to Up Park Camp, the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) headquarters in Kingston, to what became known as Red Fence, a detention centre, and I will never forget that experience. They took me into the guardroom where I saw the familiar face of a senior policeman whom I had met previously.

“Police officers were used in the guardroom as opposed to soldiers, who were used to guard the detainees. I felt a little relieved that he was there. But the funny thing about it, this man was so scared that he pretended he didn’t know me, and he kept putting his finger on his lips, suggesting I pretend not to know him.

“I said, ‘My God, what is this?’ A woman police officer strip-searched me.

She and two soldiers took me into this building down a long corridor. It had several doors. We passed through one door and then through another big heavy wooden door with a grille.

“They put me in that cell. There was one little window which was high. There was a bed which was a mattress attached to the wall. When they closed those two doors behind them with a loud bang; I could still hear the sound in my ears. It’s as if I can still hear them now,” recounts Grange who, at this stage, is struggling to hold back tears.

Alone in pitch darkness, as the footsteps of the officers slowly faded into the night, Grange at last allowed herself a good cry. After drying her tears, she tried to make sense of what was happening. She had not left Canada to come home to this. They had accused her of this silly business about guns. But nobody had bothered to provide her with proof of their accusation. She was convinced they had detained her to hurt Seaga.

Her thoughts raced back to her daughter and her grandmother. They would both be nervous wrecks. The news by now would have reached her mother and siblings in Canada. All this embarrassment, and for what? She felt a tightening in her chest, something she had never felt before. Was she having a heart attack? Later she would attribute her hypertension and stomach ailments to this period.

As the hours passed in her cramped jail, a wave of despondency swept over her. Olivia Atavia St Veronica Grange felt completely helpless and alone. And the tears came again, this time like a flood. ‘Oh God, what could I have done? What is going to become of me? Will I ever see my one daughter again?’ Those were the questions that flashed across her mind every night before she fell into troubled sleep.

Every time they opened the first of the two doors, apparently to put someone else into a cell, a streak of light pierced the darkness of her room, and she would shuffle towards it. But it wouldn’t last. For days, she was kept in solitary confinement, with no communication with the outside world. She could not even tell the time of day. Then one morning the routine changed. She could hear someone saying from under the door, “Let her walk around the building.”

“That’s what they did with us to exercise in the morning and to use the bathroom which was such that someone could see your legs through the bottom half of the door. It was just an unbelievable experience. It hurt because I felt there was no reason for me to be there. Every day I would assume someone would be coming to let me out. People knew my name,” Grange relives the moment.

In sheer desperation, she climbed up to the window one morning and put her hand out. A soldier, risking his job, slipped a little transistor radio into her hand. She never got his name, but she remains grateful to him because she was at least able to hear some news.

She said a tribunal had been set up for detainees to plead their case, but “you could not make a case because you can only make a case if you had particulars. Every time the particulars were asked for, the attorneys weren’t given the particulars because in one instance they said they could not say who these people were who had signed statements against me because they were afraid… or some such stupid reasons.

“I remember that Christmas, Mr Seaga went to see Michael Manley to make a case for me and George Lazarus, who was overseeing the Tivoli sports programme. George, who is Lebanese, was released, but he never recovered. Mr Seaga sent a note to tell me they said they could not release me.”

Grange remained in detention for seven months when she tried again to plead her case. Her daughter Paula had just finished prep school and was taking her incarceration badly. Babsy’s mom had come to Jamaica to take her up to Canada because her grandmother couldn’t manage to care for her.

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