Oct. 11, 2005 – "A lot of people think that because you are born poor, you don't have opportunities," Bertram Charles mused. "You have to make your own opportunities."
Charles not only believes in that idiom, he's lived it. Born on St. Kitts in 1937, Charles watched his mother toil in the cane fields day after day. By the time he was a teenager, he labored alongside other youth for 12 years picking cotton, but even then he knew that a life in the fields was not his destiny.
"I decided early in life I didn't want to do that for a living," Charles said. So he set out to improve his lot in life through higher education.
Charles grew up on St. Kitts in a board house topped by a galvanized roof. He considered his family better off than others who lived in what locals called "trash houses." A "trash house" was one made with a cane brush roof, he explained.
Charles said he was fortunate that some of his relatives lived in New York City and occasionally sent money home to family members. He said many islanders in those days could not make ends meet if not for relatives living and working in the states.
Charles, with his easy disposition and quick smile, said anyone could overcome life's trials and tribulations. "You have to be positive. It's a mental state of mind," he said. "You have to liberate your mind. If the shackles are removed from your hands and feet, and your mind is not liberated, you are still enslaved."
Charles said it was his deep and abiding faith in God, instilled in him as a child, that helped him make the right choices and lead him to the right paths.
He is the author of three books, one about his life in the army, one about St. Kitts' politics and another that chronicles his life in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Charles left St. Kitts for New York City in 1957. In New York, for the first time in his life, he was faced with racial discrimination. He joined the civil rights movement, meeting leaders such as Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. He continued his education, graduating from Howard Law School and was eventually drafted into the army.
Later, Charles returned to St. Croix and set up a private law practice. He was employed as the U.S. Assistant Attorney General from 1975 to 1979. In July 1989, after continuing his education in Trinidad, Charles became the first Kittitian licensed to practice law in the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis and in the United States. He opened a second practice on his home island.
Later that year, in September, Hurricane Hugo swept through St. Kitts and St. Croix, destroying both law offices. Charles returned to St. Kitts and made an unsuccessful run for a seat in parliament. He was later named ambassador to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan by the St. Kitts Labour Party government while holding the post of legal counsel of Foreign Affairs.
After a bout with prostate cancer in 1997, Charles retired from St. Kitts politics and returned to St. Croix for medical treatment. He joined the congregation of the Medford AME Zion church in Christiansted as a deacon.
Today Charles continues his service to humanity as the pastor of that church. "We feed the hungry and the homeless, have summer programs for children and conduct meetings where teens can express the problems they have in school or at home," Charles explained.
He, like many others, is concerned about the youth of the Virgin Islands. He tries to do his part, mentoring youth and offering advice to parents.
"Guide your children," he said. "Everything is not money. Teach your children to wait and to study. Parents must reorient their children's value system.
"The key to success is education. Education eradicates poverty," Charles said. "Tell your children the real world is not easy."
Coming from Charles, a man who has traveled the world and overcome diverse obstacles, this is advice that should be heeded.
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