The 11 Virtues of south Manchester
At Independence time comes a story of the epic struggles and amazing triumphs of a family growing up in the new Jamaica
Mary Virtue

Courage is the first virtue that makes all other virtues possible – Socrates

From out of Jamaica's Independence experience emerges a compelling story of 11 living Virtues — the siblings Erica, Ian, Grace, Hazel (Ivy), John, Aldith (Lor), Orville (Dean), Neil, Sadie, Richard (Richie), and Marlon, in order of birth, offspring of the late Walsworth and Mary Virtue — who defied the brutal odds of growing up in deep-rural Manchester.

It isn't necessarily remarkable that they are named Virtue, derived from the Old English word "vertu" or Latin "virtus," meaning "moral excellence"; or that there are so many of them who, along with their children now, occasionally pop up in national life.

What is more than remarkable is their journey out of post-colonial poverty – their battles against abuse, the commonplace explicit bigotry of low expectations for people of their background, as well as vicious political victimisation – to where they are now as mostly highly accomplished professionals interacting with the world in multiple ways. Most importantly, they are all caring, civic-minded, law-abiding individuals, with a deep sense of responsibility to their heritage, to each other, and to their communities.

A complicated beginning

"I remember the house where I was born and where we lived until I was 10," says Grace, a Maryland-based educator and public affairs professional. "The big bad wolf could have blown it down with just one huff and two puffs."

Michael Manley, prime minister in the eventful 1970s

Born in the south Manchester valley, DNA partially tracks their ancestry to 53 per cent Nigerian; 13 per cent Ghanaian, Liberian, and Sierra Leonean; and 13 per cent European, confirming their status as descendants of formerly enslaved Africans, and their captors.

In fact, their Virtue lineage in Jamaica has been traced to the owners of the Roxborough Estate in Mandeville. The Virtues sold the property to the Manleys, that became the birthplace of now National Hero Norman Washington Manley, chief architect of Jamaica's Independence. This coincidental connection between the two families reappeared in the 1970s, resulting in a major life change for the younger Virtues.

Just as their DNA reflects the impact of slavery and colonisation, the social conditions, in which the Virtues were born, mirrored that of most Jamaicans of African descent: material deprivation of the kind well documented by historians.

"I do not like the word 'poor'," Grace asserts. "We use it casually, but it is dehumanising because it presumes certain monolithic qualities – all of them negative. The Virtues were not any of those things. We were resource-deprived because nothing much had happened to break the cycle for families such as ours."

Born near the century mark after emancipation, their father was often the target of political opponents as well, because he was an ideologue and community activist. This often prevented him from securing meaningful employment.

Their situation was exacerbated, they agree, because the family was large. However, they insisted that their father did everything he could to support his family, including road work, masonry, and small farming – all below his intellectual and potential earning capacity. He refused to charge villagers for the work he was constantly called upon to do – reading or writing letters for the illiterate, or helping with formal documents they didn't understand.

"He could easily have been a professor or a lawyer, and a really good one," Erica says matter-of-factly. "He simply did not have the help to move forward."

Their mother, Mary, did days' work and small farming. She was also a talented weaver, a skill she learned from her mother, but there was little outlet for her craft in her struggling community.

Fair, and not so fair winds

A decade after Independence, socialist Prime Minister Michael Manley, Norman's son, took the reins of power in Jamaica in 1972, determined to improve the lot of families like themselves, the Virtues believe. As fate would have it, his older brother, Dr Douglas Manley, won the South Manchester constituency and became their MP. He soon arranged for Virtue (the father) to take the civil service examination, which he passed, and was placed at the Newport office of the Public Works Department, now National Works Agency.

By 1975, Walsworth finished the house, complete with running water, which he had started on a quarter-acre lot, purchased while he worked briefly as a painter at ALPART, the bauxite-alumina company in Nain, St Elizabeth. Finally, the family had a safe, pleasing place that became a capsule for their life of "love, joy, care, and struggle", as Marlon describes it.

Erica Virtue, a veteran journalist

His memories include not just the loving, raucous camaraderie of siblings growing up together but of the dogs, birds, chickens, goats, and pigs that were always there. "We all had our own to care for. We learned responsibility and compassion and that has been nurtured and honed through the years."

Alongside their new-found sense of hope, though, an ugly wind was blowing across the nation. Political violence, and destabilising economic conditions – like scarcity of basic food items – induced great anxiety and exacerbated the routine food insecurity the family experienced during the late 1970s.

Following the 1980 election, which Manley's People's National Party (PNP) lost, political victimisation threatened to derail the gains they had made. An established civil servant by then, Walsworth Virtue became the target of calculated harassment designed to force him to quit his job. This included transfer from Newport, seven miles from home, to Kingston. Other than the separation from his family and their fears for his safety, his salary now had to stretch to pay rent in Kingston.

"It was hard," Hazel sighs. "We sometimes went to school without lunch and came home to no dinner but we were still expected to do well."

"I was the youngest," Marlon laughs. "Sometimes the food would run out before it got to me."

Erica recalls their mother trying to assuage their hunger with cups of warm peppermint sometimes. "She always insisted on something hot even if that was all she had."

Education to the rescue

The Virtues soldiered on. A former teacher with the Jamaican Movement for the Advancement of Literacy, Walsworth Virtue invested all he could in the children's education. Their mother played her part, enforcing a structure around school, church, and play in the backyard among themselves, or with friends and cousins who were always welcomed. Visits to approved relatives were also allowed. Everything else required supervision, or not at all.

Marlon Virtue, meteorologist

"There was zero room for deviation from whatever mama said," Richie recalls. "The pressure was intense sometimes, but we were the Virtues and we were expected to behave, and do well."

Adds Sadie: "It didn't help us that she was 'psychic'. She knew about that boy before you even thought about him!"

Today, eight of the siblings are college graduates, most of whom started tertiary education at Church Teachers' College (CTC) in Mandeville, after graduating from Cross Keys; Manchester High School; Wolmer's Girls School; deCarteret College; and St Hugh's High School. Six attended UWI, beginning with Grace who won the Marcus Garvey Centenary Scholarship in 1987, and graduated with an upper second-class honours degree in journalism and social sciences.

Grace went back to teach at CARIMAC where Erica would be one of her first-year journalism students. Erica continues to work in journalism and is currently a senior reporter at The Gleaner newspaper. Grace spent seven years in stellar journalism work, including a stint as a senior reporter at the Jamaica Observer, before looking overseas.

John Virtue, dean of discipline, Frome Technical High

Grace left for Howard University on a fellowship/scholarship from the Inter-American Press Association and the Rotary International Foundation. She graduated magna cum laude with a master's and PhD in the humanities and social sciences, and spent a decade working for the president of the university. Her work earned her the O (Einstein) Visa for immigrants of extraordinary ability. Her story demands its own telling.

Hazel's post-secondary education began at EXED Community College where she studied accounting at nights, while working as a nanny during the days. When she migrated to the United States, she switched to healthcare and completed nursing school at Daytona College in Florida. She is a critical care nurse in Palm Coast, Florida.

John, the dean of discipline at Frome Technical High School in Westmoreland, earned his Master's in Education Leadership from UWI. His siblings describe him as a genius with a photographic memory that would leave them dumbfounded when they were younger.

Aldith graduated from Florida Atlantic University with bachelors and master's degrees in social work. She is founder and president of New Horizon Group Homes in Fort Lauderdale, a social service facility for people with developmental disabilities.

Sadie earned a Master's in English from Clarke University in Worcester, Massachusetts. A gifted teacher, she is currently at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland.

Angellique Virtue, secretary to the governor general

Richie, an environmental specialist with the city of Dallas, Texas, is completing his MSc in Public Health at the University of Texas, Arlington, this year, and plans to go on to the PhD next year.

'Baby' Marlon has bought his own food working as a CVM Television meteorologist for nine years, and an operations manager at UWI for 12 years. He holds a master's in geography from UWI, and is on target to complete a second in sustainability and environmental management from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

A wealth of experience

A dignified path forward, a way to sustain themselves, and the opportunity to experience life with more security than they were born into, was the motivation behind their pursuit of education which has been the stepping stone to a wealth of life experience from reading, travel and professional associations.

Work, loans, scholarships, and occasional gifts from relatives, provided funding for them. Crucially, they reached back to help each other.

As they tell it, while a teacher at Manchester High School, Erica took Neil, then a first former, to stay with her, to cut down on the cost and hassle of commuting. As the last three siblings came through, her status provided them with subsidised school fees. Sadie would be one of her pupils at one time as well.

Grace used her first month's salary, as a teacher at Knox College, to pay John's first-year school fees at CTC, and used the second month to pay for GCEs/CXCs that he needed to retake. Later, she took Sadie to live in Kingston with her so she could attend sixth form at St Hugh's High School.

Richard Virtue, environmental scientist

When Sadie found herself drowning in student loan debt after UWI, Dean used his windfall $1-million lotto winnings to repay the Government and have her pay him back, at no interest. Aldith continues to look out for all her siblings and her nieces and nephews.

The three brothers who did not to attend college are all self-sustaining. Neil has been with the National Water Commission since high school. Ian and Dean worked with ALPART and laid excellent foundations for themselves and their families. Their children are mostly all college graduates and working professionals.

Angelique, Ian's eldest daughter, is press secretary to the governor general of Jamaica and host of CVM at Sunrise. She is a 2022 recipient of the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative Fellowship, a US Department of State programme for young entrepreneurs across the Americas and holds a master's in communication from The UWI.

"The great thing about being a part of this family is that someone always has your back," says Marlon. "It does not mean we always get along. It means someone else is always there to help you out…"

Hazel Virtue, critical care nurse

This applies to the third generation as well. Among them are graduates of UWI, and UTech; University of Maryland, College Park; University of Connecticut, Storrs; Princeton University, New Jersey; and Yonsei University, Korea.

Influencers and helpers

The siblings credit their teachers, and school staff, from kindergarten through university for helping on their journey as well. The most blessed of all, Grace says, were those who never took the usual caste-class approach but instead constantly reveled in their capabilities as if they were their own children.

In this regard, Miss Lou Morgan, infant school teacher to Erica and Grace; Barbara Walters, Girtis Reid, Joan Lawrence, and Adlyn Hutchison at Cross Keys High School; and Kenneth Thaxter, recently deceased former principal of CTC, hold pride of place.

She also credits their paternal grandmother, with whom she believes their story really began; and Clover Barnett, chief technical director at Dunn, Pierre, Barnett & Associates Company Limited, her former colleague and housemate at Knox College.

"Clover demystified UWI for me. She made me believe I could do it. I did, and largely as a result, five of my siblings followed. I adore her!"

Jamaica at 60, and giving back

A stickler for precise use of words, Grace again resists casual use of terms like "giving back" because of what she sees as questionable presumptions behind it. She says, however, if it means contributing to society, beyond working for a pay cheque, they do it in the same way their father did, and more.

Aldith (left) and Sadie Virtue

While admitting that publicity can inspire others to action, they are against using marginalised people as props in what, quite often, are self-serving narratives. They are adamant that the dignity of the individual must always be protected.

Institutions are different, however, and they encourage donations to the Caribbean Christian Centre for the Deaf in Manchester; and others that serve the needs of vulnerable communities. Outside of charity, they are exploring ways in which they can further contribute to national development and see training in multiple areas as a good fit, with some projects planned for later this year.

Like many other Jamaicans, they revel in the country's many accomplishments to date, but are concerned about the astronomical levels of crime that is contrary to what they knew. They also worry about a perceived lack of urgency, among the authorities, to take action to reverse some of the most dangerous trends in the society and address acute developmental gaps.

While they are mostly ambivalent about greater political activism, Richie plans to enter the leadership fray in one area or another. "Our family has a lot to contribute," he offers. "We have lived experience. We have paid our dues, and we have done so honestly. We are committed to a greater good. We are qualified."

The struggle is by no means over for them, the siblings say, but neither is their story. There is no simple or single narrative to explain the challenges, triumphs, and where they are in their lives today, they say. But they are comfortable and resting on a solid foundation on which they continue to build, honestly and ethically.

In this regard, they are mindful of their parents' values, and they are forever united by a powerful name that they see as their north star.

By Desmond Allen Executive editor – special assignment allend@jamaicaobserver.com

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