Cleopatra Eugenie White 1898 -1987
Cleopatra Eugenie White - nurse, social worker, community leader, vocalist, dramatist - never married, never bore children, and from the little she gave out about her private feelings, never knew the love of a man after her boyfriend drowned early in her life. But she adopted a family - its name is Belize. And, together with Nurse Vivian Seay with whom she shared a house on Albert Street, Cleopatra White helped to rear the late brother of the late Signa Yorke, himself a first-class educator and former Chief Education Officer, Edward P. Yorke. She also reared two girls, Carrie Smith Collins and Olga Amold. Olga, today a prominent Belizean caterer, recalls that growing up with Cleopatra White was like constantly being at a drama.
"Our dining table was a constant chatter of voices and laughter," says Olga with a dreamy look in her eyes. "And it was like a conference table. We were always discussing events and things."
Nurse White is best remembered for her Creole compositions in the Festival of Arts, her songs, her work with village councils, Garveyism and Black Cross Nurses and her own nursing services in Belize City, Double Head Cabbage, Gales Point Manatee, Roaring Creek and Hattieville..
Not much is known about her very early life. What is known is that she had one sister, long since dead. That sister had one child who has migrated to the States. By all accounts, though, Cleopatra's life appears to have been notably absent of family ties of any sort. It is Olga Arnold understanding that Cleopatra's origins lie in Honduras and that the mother died when Cleopatra was young; Olga remembers the father being around in the 1940's. Cleopatra also managed to build a house on Cran Street, Belize City; why she was left homeless appears to be something of a mystery. It is clear that she wanted her property left for her church, Ebenezer, but there is no record of this having been done. At any rate, Cleopatra White spent her last days at the Belize City Infirmary; she was moved to the Belize City Hospital, but only briefly, and only for the purpose of being visited by Her Majesty the Queen on the 1985 Royal Visit to Belize. The year Cleopatra was born, 48 years after the Education Act of 1850, there were 42 schools throughout Belize, with a total enrollment of some thirty five hundred students. Young Cleopatra went through Miss Braddick’s School for Girls and Ebenezer Primary School where she developed a strong Methodist background and where she later founded the Ebenezer choir and Women's League. Who knows what influenced young Cleopatra White to pursue the vocation of nursing. Perhaps it was the ravages of the 1918 influenza outbreak; perhaps it was a natural calling. At any rate, Cleopatra followed in the footsteps of her friend and mentor 18 years her senior, Nurse Vivian Seay herself a great Belizean patriot. Nurse Seay became the first matron of the Black Cross Nurses Association; Nurse Whte was its second matron. The Black Cross Nurses Association was founded in 1920, largely through the impetus of Nurse Seay and Cleopatra White when Cleopatra was 21 years old. It was a direct outgrowth of the Universal Ncgro Improvement Association, founded in 1914 by Jamaican Marcus Garvey who himself visited Belize on July 7, 1921 and whose philosophy of uniting blacks universally was promoted in Belize largely through the newspaper "Belize Independent", and its column "The Gravey Eye" by L.D. Kemp, the work of Belizean patriot and benefactor "Coconut King" Isaiah Morter and the establishment of Liberty Hall. Two specific objectives of the U.N.I.A. (today alive in Belize in the form of an association called the Isaiah Morter Harambee) have been the promoting of black consciousness and the administering to the needy, particularly through health workers. Thus was formed the Black Cross Nurses. Although the original Black Cross Nurses were untrained community workers doing home visits, they reorganized by 1921, as reported by Cleopatra White herself at a March 1970 meeting of the association. The best were selected to seck instruction in general nursing and maternity care. Thus began in 1921 twice weekly classes under Dr. K.M.B. Simon, a government medical officer, Mrs. Amy Clare Woods George, a certified British Honduran midwife who had trained in Great Britain, and Matron Lois Roberts - another woman of substance who gave her all to Belize. In the aftermath of the 1931 hurricane, Cleopatra White and other Black Cross nurses worked diligently in the barracks set up at what is now the international airport, with supplies being transported in on "Handy Billy," a boat donated to the hurricane relief efforts by wealthy Mr. Melhado.
In the early 40's in Belize the training of nurses in general took on a more organized composition. Previously nurses trained under Matron Lois Roberts who held lectures every Monday and Thursday at the Belize City Hospital above the Nurses' quarters. Trainees shared 2 or 3 books and depended largely on the expertise of the famous Matron Roberts who had received formal training in England.
In 1943 organized training of public health nurses began. In this first formal group was Cleopatra White. Together with her friend Ms. Lemott and other younger nurses like Nurse Catherine Dora Rhys, Cleopatra spent four hours every morning in public health lectures just opposite what is now the U.S. Consular offices in Belize City. These lectures were conducted by the foreign doctors like Dr. Anderson of Jamaica who serviced Belize in those early years before Belizean doctors. Then in the afternoon Cleopatra and her colleagues trekked over to the Belize City hospital for four hours of practical training. After one year of formal training, public health nurses were sent out all around the country to work as rural health nurses. After qualifying, Nurse White went first to Double Head Cabbage and then to Gales Point Manatee as the first appointed Belizean rural health nurse there. During her 16 years there, Gales Point smiled, laughed and had a very healthy lifestyle - it was kept spic and span under the leadership of Nurse White. In the late 30's, 40's and 50's, Gales Point Manatee was the Caye Caulker and San Pedro of Belize - a very famous holiday spot for the city people. Travel was by sailing dory or by sandlighters and often times very rough indeed quite a few lives were lost at the Point's lagoon bar. At any rate, Nurse White made her way to Manatee and immediately began to organize things. She was instrumental in getting people together, in organizing entertainments, in organizing the women's group and in organizing the first village council in the country of Belize. Belizean educator and storyteller Myma Manzanares grew up in Gales Point. She remembers Nurse White as being much much more than a village nurse. She could spank or scold anybody in the village because everyone respected her. This was in the early 50's. I was about 7 or 9 years old then and I will always remember May month and Nurse White. Back then school holiday ended in May and because we kids would fill up on green mango and stuff. Nurse White would line us up and have us all drink worm oil. I didn't like it. One time she sat on my two feet and got someone to hold my hands and she held my nose so I had to open my mouth and she poured the worm oil down and waited until I drank it all. Of course, Gales Point was very different then. The Point of the peninsula was very high, and the burying ground was very high and not close to the water like today; the old battlefield was close to the lagoon and you could always find Nurse White there when public meetings and debates and quarrels were going on. Ms. White was a big woman, heavy, with a pleasant voice; you would always hear her singing a lot of folksongs. She would write scripts for community entertainment - in fact, she and my mother wrote one called 'The Statue. ' And then she used to sit and tell stories. None of us kids was really afraid of her or anything. The only time I was scared was when I took the worm oil Kids used to actually pass worms. It really worked. and bathroom was then outhouses by the back lagoon. We would rub and rub coconut trash and brown paper until it got soft and use it like toilet paper. There were no sanitary napkins in those days. The women used to use cloth, like a baby diaper folded up. When a girl became a young lady, the parents and the child would go to Nurse White and she would talk to the young girl and prepare her for womanhood and teach her how to take care. After use, the cloth had to be washed and boiled and put on the grass to be bleached. And then it was hung on the line - everybody would know when you had your period. Nurse White, in fact, took on the role of mother for many a Gales Point teenager, and when anyone got into trouble only two people in the village could really straighten them - Audrey Burgess, a midwife, or Nurse White. Nurse White always had on dresses with huge pockets - older villagers remember that these pockets always housed medications for headache, stomachache, you name it, she had a remedy for you. Oftentimes, her remedy was laughter. Together with her friend Sophia Timbrell, Cleopatra White organized numerous forms of entertainment, socials and dances. At social events, she was the life of the party. Often she would simply pull some unsuspecting male villager or city visitor off his bench and swallow him in her arms for a dance. But it wasn't all fun and games for Nurse White. When Corozal Town and villages were being rebuilt after the ravage of Hurricane Janet in 1955, the quasi-government of elected Belizeans realized that there was no leadership in rural areas and so formally began the task of setting up groups of 7 people that the government could consult with - the origin of today's village council. But as far back as the mid 1940's, Nurse Cleopatra White had been setting up similar groups of people in Gales Point with whom she would consult about village affairs. In fact present day ministers of government unhesitatingly say that, in an unofficial way, Cleopatra White was the inspiration for this idea of village leadership and eventually the village council system. Nurse White was the light of the village in Gales Point - and in Roaring Creek where she participated in daily out patient clinics in seven surrounding villages doing pretty much as she did in Gales Point. Additionally, in Roaring Creek Nurse White set up the first Methodist Church. Though she died in poverty without access to her own land and property in Belize City, she did obtain a plot of land in Roaring Creek - but for the purpose of building the Methodist Church. She preached at times and of course was on the choir. In the villages of the Cayo district, she served as a counselor and on occasion even as a judge. By the time Nurse White left Roaring Creek, she had reached retirement age. But retirement was not a word in her vocabulary. At the age of 64, Nurse White commuted 17 miles to Hattieville, from Belize City to house many of the homeless victims of 1961 Hurricane Hattie. Cleopatra was the first nurse to work in the clinic there. Then, Hattieville generally consisted of barracks with canvas partitions for doors - everyone knew everyone's business - much like today in Belize. At any rate, Nurse White touched the lives of most of the residents then - particularly the life of Leolin Myvett who helped out at the Hattieville Clinic in the early 60's. Nurse White came up everyday to do medical treatment. She was a fat woman and active like a man. She used to use a brown and white dress with black laced shoes, and she moved like a man, if bench needed moving, well, she would just move it. And she was always humming - every time she was fixing up a dressing, she would be humming. You know, I never did hear her complain about anything to anyone - and though big with a heavy voice, she wasn't rough; she never shout after anyone even when scolding. Oh, and she loved anything of Belize - she specially loved rice and beans and plantain, and always, lots of juice. And so generous - she would always bring up clothes for the less fortunate and always willing to share her tray - we used to have a Salvation Army kitchen here and they used to fix a tray and take it to her. After retirement from Hattieville, Nurse White tried to reorganize the Black Cross Movement in Belize City which had begun to decline by 1965, largely due to lack of volunteers for this community system of nursing. Up until this point, training of Black Cross nurses was generally held at Liberty Hall on Barrack Road in Belize City, the headquarters of the Black Cross Nurses - the headquarters too of much entertainment, baby exhibitions, and Mother's Day functions, organized largely by Nurse Cleopatra White, for although she herself never bore children, Nurse White thoroughly enjoyed organizing parties and contests for women and children; whether it was a baby weighing contest or teaching kids to sing Creole folk songs, or grouping women to speak up for themselves, or spearheading fundraising and entertainments for the Methodist Church or organizing entries for the annual Festival of Arts which began in the early 50's and had its years of glory under Colonel Fairweather. Dramatist and folklorist Cleopatra White also entered a group in the Festival and always came away with a prize. Together with her regular pianist Robert Belisle, Cleopatra White helped to raise Creole consciousness through song. A number of these songs have been recorded by Professor E. Beck in Belizean Studies, a journal published by St. John's College. Yet she was allowed to die a pauper, a poor woman. As she got older, before she became too ill to go about, she could always be seen about the streets of Belize City, a do-gooder in the community, bumming motorists, any person with a vehicle, for a ride to go here or there to do this thing and that thing that just needed to be done. As folks tell it, she had such an imposing manner that it was very difficult to refuse taking her anywhere. She would flag you down, come right up to your window, and say, "Take me to . . .' Word has it that once in the 70's Cleopatra even stopped the governor on the road because she needed a lift and the governor took her. One thing is for sure about Cleopatra White - she never stood on ceremony and, even in her stearnest of hours, a smile or a Creole song was just around the comer. Reggie Brown of Belize City often relates the famous Gales Point joke about the clock, long awaited in Gales Point, that had only one face - it faced the sea. So the boys would swim out to see the time and swim back to report the time, which of course was wrong by then. A joke - of course - but jokes and giggles and laughter were constant companions of Nurse White. She served, and she served with a smile, a huge smile. Today, a health center in Belize City bears her name. In 1986 the Women's Bureau of Belize (forerunner of today's Department of Women's Affairs) established the National High School Quiz Contest; the prize given is the Cleopratra White Shield. Cleopatra White was the guest of honor; it was her last public appearance. The Bureau got a student to interview her and, when asked what advice she had for women, Cleopatra said: "Tell the women of Belize not to let the men take advantage of them. If men want to take advantage of them, the women should leave them or divorce them." Cleopatra was officially awarded for her services - in 1958 Nurse White traveled to England to receive the medal of Member of the British Empire and as early as 1953 she was awarded a Victorian Medal. But medals could not serve her in the 1980's. This woman, this true Belizean, this daughter of Creole consciousness and Belizean humanity spent her last days in a wheelchair in the poor house, but never complaining, never bemoaning her fate. Her one regret, as she told to those who took the time to stop and chat, was a wish that she had had a daughter - even illegitimate as she put it - to carry on her name and follow in her footsteps. And her footsteps were big - as big as the heart that gave it all to Belize for Belizeans and from her place in paradise, Cleopatra would have smiled approvingly on August 11, 1991 if she had read a headline in The Reporter: "Black Cross Nurses of Belize Make an Impressive Comeback".
CLEOPATRA WHITE STORY WAS PUBLISHED IN AUGUST 1991
MOTHERS OF MODERN BELIZE
This book was commissioned by the Belize National Women’s Commission
©BELIZE NATIONAL WOMEN’S COMMISSION 1991
Profiles of "Belizean Patriots"
by Silvana Woods, August 1991
BELIZE NATIONAL WOMEN'S COMMISSION
A book does not write itself. We acknowledge with gratitude the work of Silvana Woods, president of
CREOLE GIAL PRODUCTIONS, who has worked with the Belize National Women's Commission as a consultant.
She is responsible for the writing of this book.
Thanks is also due to the members of the Belize National Women's Commission who assisted,
in particular, Dorla Bowman, Dolores Godfrey and Martha Carrillo.
We acknowledge with gratitude the oral sources of information provided by:
Carmen Alamilla, Beulah Arnold, Olga Arnold, Alexander Bennett
Eddie Cassasola, Octavio Castillo, Orpha Castillo, Basil Coleman
Alec Frankson, Joyce Frankson, Nurse Delcia Goff, Hon. Philip Goldson
Dean Lindo, Manuel Lizarraga Jr., Manuel Lizarraga Sr.,
Rita Gabourel Lizarraga, Myma Manzanares, Celi McCorkle, Leolin Myvett
Joslyn Nembhard, Ramon Nunez, Nicholas Pollard Sr., Hon. George Price
Nurse Catherine Dora Rhys, Suad Rishmawy, Dorothy Williams,
Charles Woods, Edith Woods, Rosamond Yearwood, Janice Yorke
Title and Cover Design:
Charles and Gerald Chavannes of VISUAL IMPACT
Prepared for the
Belize National Women's Commission
PO Box 1598 Belize City, BelizeCentral America
This book was commissioned by the Belize National Women's Commission