The West Indian Social Club celebrates its 60th anniversary
April 27, 2010
Every weekend there’s dancing or music at Hartford’s West Indian Social Club. Throngs of young people pack the dance floor dressed according to different themes — “All White Affair,” “Short Shorts,” or “Bare as You Dare.” The WISC is also the main venue for popular dancehall artists, and where teens and 20-somethings dance and party the night away. But it’s important to remember the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice the first generation of West Indian immigrants put into the club to make it what it is today. This year the WISC will celebrate its 60th anniversary with a gala event on May 1, at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Cromwell, with former Jamaican Prime Minster P.J. Patterson as the guest speaker.
“When the club was in its infancy, it was an exciting time,” says Leslie Perry, who has been a member of the WISC since 1969, and who has also served twice as president. For members the club was a home away from home. “There weren’t many organizations, social institutions, or places at that time for Caribbean people, so the club represented a place where they could share in their culture.”
In the 1940s, the idea of the “American Dream” reached those living in the West Indies, as it had so many others around the world. Many Caribbean men from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, St. Lucia, and others came to Hartford to work in the tobacco fields. Once here, the men yearned for the things they left in their home countries and began meeting on the weekends for camaraderie, drinks, friendly conversation, and dominoes. They formed a men’s cricket team and played other teams from Massachusetts, London, and Canada. Having basically established themselves as a club, in 1950 they wrangled over a name that would reflect the group’s diversity, and settled on the West Indian Social Club.
“During the organization’s early years, it was a very integral part of the social life and the sports activities,” remembers Perry. This was around the time when Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados were all seeking independence. “There was an excitement at that particular time.”
Early on, the organization only had male members — women were not allowed in the club. Several of the WISC members’ wives formed their own club in 1954, called the Women’s Auxiliary. Many of the women who formed this accompanying group were African-American women married to West Indian men. It wasn’t until 1980 that women became full members of the WISC.
In 1970, the WISC found a new location in a former roller-skating rink that had been turned into a furniture warehouse on Main Street. The members raised funds and resorted to other methods to acquire the funds for the building.
“My husband and myself, as well as other men and women, put our houses up as collateral to buy this club because we didn’t have enough money,” said Wollaston. “The building used to be a roller-skating rink that mostly white people went to, and once we bought it, the men gutted it out to make it what it is today. A lot of the men had trades that they learned from the West Indies, so they built the lounge, bar, the disco room, and the ballroom.”
Forty years after the club was formed, and 10 years after women were allowed to be members, the WISC elected Veronica Airey-Wilson as the first female president.
“It was a little difficult being the first female president,” says Airey-Wilson, now an elected official on Hartford’s Court of Common Council, and is the first Jamaican to serve as Deputy Mayor of Hartford. “There were those men who saw the club as their throne. [They] saw the club as a place where they could voice their opinions as well as do what they wanted, but now had to come to the club to see another woman bossing them around. For others it wasn’t a problem because I grew up in the organization, and they gave me the respect.”
Today the club has changed, to the chagrin of the older members. The ballroom and disco room are often rented out for parties that many feel are inappropriate. Neighbors complain about the loud music, the cars, and the noise from the party-goers leaving the club. Different clubs and organizations have popped up, which has diminished WISC memberships. And the club is $70,000 behind on their taxes. The WISC’s newly elected president, Richard C. Gordon, is well aware of the problems facing the club, but is ready to take the challenges head-on and restore the club’s respect and dignity in the community.
“One of my chief objectives is to get us back on firm financial footing. That’s number one,” says Gordon, who took over the presidency in January. “Number two is to restore the spirit of the membership, because it’s taken a couple of hits over the years. Third, and very importantly, I want to restore this organization to respectability. There was a time when people didn’t like us but they respected us. Now they don’t like us and don’t respect us. It’s important that we restore that. [And] we must address our tax situation fast or we could lose this place.”