Today, we gather to celebrate the life of a woman who told our story and contributed so much to our understanding of what it means to be Bahamian.
To read a book by Dr. Gail Saunders is to be taken on a journey through time. Her talent for writing and storytelling rivalled her expertise as a historian. You cannot read a book like Islanders in The Stream without feeling a sense of wonder – as she so expertly told the story of Bahamian resilience and love in the face of so many hardships and obstacles on the way to becoming who we are today.
Through her work, she got us to confront the hard truths of our past while recognising the strength of our lineage. She was among the first to fully delve into the era of slavery and colonialism and the ways that those experiences have shaped who we are.
We were blessed to have her – a woman who became our voice, telling the complete story of The Bahamas in all its complexities – the untold stories that we had never heard before, and the old stories made anew by her learned perspective as a scholar.
The story of The Bahamas is such a beautiful story. It is a story worth telling. Gail gave us the opportunity to reclaim and own our stories as the foremost authority on our history.
That is the gift that Gail Saunders gave to us through her life’s work as a pioneering Bahamian historian. As we reflect on her contributions, we must acknowledge the profound impact she had on shaping our understanding of who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.
Nation-building comes in many forms. Dr. Gail Saunders was a nation-builder, who dedicated her life to the exploration and examination of our past, preserving her knowledge and passing it on for the benefit of the nation.
I first met Dr. Saunders through her husband Winston. She was obviously a woman of impeccable taste, having chosen a good Cat Island man as her life partner. Despite knowing how brilliant she was, the extent of her knowledge could still be astonishing at times. I believe very few Cat Islanders know as much about Cat Island’s history as she did.
Like his wife, Winston achieved greatness throughout his career as an attorney, educator, and award-winning cultural icon. Together, they were the ultimate Bahamian power couple – Winston in his role as a founder of the National Youth Choir, National Dance Company, National Children’s Choir, and the Dundas Centre for the Performing Arts; and Gail as the pre-eminent researcher and scholar of Bahamian history, founder and director of the National Archives, and a founder and board member of the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation and The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas.
That’s seven national institutions between the two of them. And that does not include her service to the other organizations she supported or served in some way, such as the Clifton National Heritage Park.
I do believe that there is a certain compounding effect that occurs when two great people form a bond. In the same way that iron sharpens iron, they made each other better. In their case, excellence attracted excellence for a love story that culminated in nearly 40 years of marriage.
In-person, Gail could seem quiet, even reserved at times. But you always knew that behind that humble demeanor was a sharp intellect and an unyielding passion. She was also very giving. She shared her knowledge and experience with anyone who was interested.
Thanks to her efforts in training and education, there are now many others who have been inspired to carry on her legacy through their research and scholarly exploration of Bahamian history. An entire generation of Bahamian historians now stand on the foundation built by her pioneering work.
And generations of Bahamians now have a shared sense of identity and history because of Dr. Saunders’ efforts.
She has made so many contributions to the study of Bahamian history, that it is easy to forget that she was inducted in the Bahamas National Sports Hall of Fame as one of the first women to represent The Bahamas internationally. She was so multi-talented, it wouldn’t be a stretch to refer to her as a Reinaissance woman.
In 2019, Dr. Saunders was recognised in the National Honours as a Member of the Order of Distinction. There could not have been a more deserving person.
Her greatness was also recognised outside of The Bahamas.
Dr. Saunders was president of the Association of Caribbean Historians; president of the Caribbean Archives Association and an executive member of the International Council on Archives.
In recording our history, she became a part of the history books herself.
I do not believe there can be a retelling of the modern history of The Bahamas without also telling the story of the woman who first told our story, and in a way that no one else did before her.
Her remarkable legacy will live on in our memories and in the pages of our history books – a history she personally wrote, inspiring many others to follow in her footsteps.
Today, we bid farewell to a historian, a scholar, a storyteller, an educator, and a nation-builder. Her memory will continue to guide us and inspire us to own our legacy and heritage as a people.
May her soul rest in peace.