phe University of the West Indies recently conferred its Legacy Award on one of Hollywood’s more revered stars.
Pioneer Black actor and film director Sir Sidney Poitier was one of two recipients of the illustrious award, bestowed at the university’s 2001 gala, dubbed “Building the Legacy,” at mid-Manhattan’s Marriott Marquis. The other distinguished honoree was world renowned aluminum giant, Alcoa.
U.S. Secretary of State General Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, the author Maya Angelou and actor/singer Harry Belafonte are past recipients of the prestigious award.
Sir Sidney was among 15 Caribbean luminaries who were saluted last year at UWI’s gala, the university’s foremost fund-raising initiative.
Those recognized at that time also included the legendary Jamaican reggae maestro, Robert Nesta Marley; Jamaican national hero, Marcus Mosiah Garvey; St. Lucian Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, economist Sir Arthur Lewis and literary powerhouse Derek Walcott; Trinidadian costume designer Peter Minshall; former U.S. Congresswoman, of Barbadian roots, Shirley Chisholm; Vincentian merchant marine captain, Hugh Mulzac and West Indies cricket great, Barbadian Sir Garfield Sobers.
This year, UWI saluted another 15 remarkable Caribbean personalities, who, it said, for the past century, have made their imprint on the region and the world.
They are: Barbadian novelist Paule Marshall, formerly Valenza Pauline Burke; Essence Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Kittishian Susan Taylor; basketball great Jamaican Patrick Ewing; Pan-American Health Organization’s director, Barbadian Sir George Alleyne; former Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Dr. Eric Williams; black activist Malcolm X, of Grenadian roots; Trinidadian actor Geoffrey Holder; Barbadian author George Lamming; former U.S. Congressman, Trinidadian Mervyn Dymally; Jamaican/Haitian dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham; Jamaican Olympic sprint ace Herbert Henry Mc Kenley; Jamaican writer Claude McKay; Jamaican U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee; Barbadian attorney Hope Stevens, the first black president of Harlem’s Uptown Chamber of Commerce; and West Indies cricket stalwart, Barbadian Sir Frank Worrell.
A packed ball room comprising major Hollywood and Broadway stars, mainstream media personalities and New York politicians, such as Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel and former New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins, among a vast array of other dignitaries, witnessed the convocation of Poitier and Alcoa.
The ceremony was presided over by UWI’s Chancellor Sir Shridath Ramphal; Vice Chancellor Professor Rex Nettleford; and Belafonte, the event’s honorary patron.
“The University of the West Indies is honored to salute the career and achievements of this cultural icon,” read a statement, by the region’s premiere tertiary institution, about Sir Sidney. “His legendary performances and outspoken support of civil rights have left an indelible mark on the Caribbean and the world.”
Belafonte jokingly said that Poitier was able to produce his best works because he (Belafonte) declined the roles played by him.
“Sidney’s personality and charisma opened so many doors (for aspiring black actors),” he said. “He is one of the finest actors of our generation. With unquestionable grace and dignity, Sidney has remained loyal to his roots.”
“On this night, we can have no better legacies than (those) for Sir Sidney Poitier,” said Professor Edward Baugh, the university’s orator.
“On this gala occasion, the University of the West Indies is pleased to say, “To Sir With Love.” The latter phrase refers to a movie by that name in which Poitier played a starring role.
Sir Sidney, who was accompanied by two of his six daughters, Beverley and Pamela Poitier, said: “It will require my best effort to balance this distinguished honor on my weary head.”
Raised on the small island of Cat in the Bahamas, Poitier overcame numerous obstacles to reach, for a black man, film industry’s zenith.
His achievement enabled him to be referred to as “The Jackie Robinson of Film.”
He was the first African American film actor to achieve major Hollywood stardom in successful mainstream films that depicted black men in a positive, non-stereotypical light.
In 1958, he became the first black man to win the best actor Oscar for his role as Homar Smith in “Lillies of the Field.”
Poitier also starred and directed other films, such as “Soul,” and “Uptown Saturday Night.”
“As one of the most visible African- American role models,” UWI said, “Poitier carried the hopes and inspiration of an entire people. His films never shied away from addressing sensitive issues of race.”
Last year, Poitier received the Screen Actors Guild’s Lifetime Achievement award, a fitting tribute, UWI said, to a career characterized by “honor, charm, grace, and dignity.”
Poitier also served as the Bahamas‚ Ambassador to Japan and acts as a spokesperson for various humanitarian causes.
In honoring Alcoa, the world’s leading producer of primary aluminum, fabricated aluminum and alumina, the university noted that the corporation has been “extremely generous” to it, providing crucial academic scholarships and university development funding.
It also said that Alcoa, which operates in 26 countries worldwide, including Jamaica, helps significantly in enhancing health and human services, cultural endeavors, and the quality of life in the region.
Since 1985, Alcoa has been offering two UWI scholarships to children of employees. In the past year, it assisted UWI in providing $300,000 for refurbishing.
“All of the people at Alcoa feel a deep sense of gratitude and pride,” said G. John Pizzey, the corporation’s president, in receiving the honor. “We recognize the adage that the best thing you can do for someone is to give (that person) a chance.”
Sir Shridath said that the West Indies is what the University of the West Indies has helped it to be, “a reservoir of confident, talented and enlightened citizens of the region and the world.
“In the new century, there is no greater need than the need for such a global populace,” he added.
“And it should be no surprise that they will be nurtured in large measure in institutions, like the University of the West Indies, which, has for all its existence, understood the pre-eminence of the ethic of oneness.”
But the UWI head said that the university must offer its services in the shadow of regional economic stringencies and social environments of deprivation.
“It must respond to these harsh realities,” he continued, “and rise to the enlarged challenges they present.”
Patrons were entertained by David Rudder and the Mighty Sparrow. The Marie Brooks Dance Theater Company presented the flags of all the islands of the region.