On Friday September 5th, 2017 as the killer Category 5 hurricane Irma was barreling across the Atlantic Ocean toward the Bahama Islands leaving death and destruction in her wake, a full scale evacuation was underway in Nassau. Over 150 lives were at risk and there was not a moment to lose. But this would be no ordinary evacuation and they wouldn’t need to go very far for safety. The evacuation was at the only zoo in the Bahamas, the famous Ardastra Gardens. Ardastra’s monkeys, snakes and a host of reptiles and birds were kept in comfort and safety in the manager’s office.
What many will not know is that the Ardastra Gardens was the dream of a horticulturalist named Hedley Edwards way back in 1937.
Mr. Edwards was Jamaican.
Hedley Vivian Edwards, a Jamaican, laid out and developed the Ardastra Gardens west of Nassau, in the are known as Chippingham. It was there in 1937, that Edwards trained a flock of 50 flamingos to obey oral commands in a drill routine. The birds “parade,” muster,” “charge,” and “halt” on command before entranced audiences from all over the world. On the word “retire” the flamingos would race away to their shallow lagoon.
Mr. Edwards named the garden Ardastra. The word Ardastra is derived from the Latin Ardua astrum meaning ardua (steep or attempt) and astrum (the stars or the sky). When they are put together we get the inference of “striving towards the stars”. Edwards felt that the gardens and animals reflected a particular kind of unique paradise where one could restore one’s spirit with peace, beauty and tranquility.
Edwards, was by all accounts, a very wealthy man and considered an eligible bachelor after his divorce. He owned an expansive estate of some 88 acres which was located on the highest point in Nassau according to Jet Magazine in 1964.
Headley Edwards died in Nassau in 1978 from a stroke.
A high profile marriage
Headley Edwards was not only famous for the spectacular attraction he created in the Ardastra Gardens, which gained him international fame and fortune, Edwards also gained a certain international prominence for something else. He married a woman, whose family was prominent in high negro society in New York. Their marriage and by all accounts, a tumultuous divorce, made news in negro publications like Jet Magazine.
Headley Edwards married Mildred Louise Johnson the daughter of composer and musicologist J. Rosamond Johnson. The Johnson’s were one of Harlem’s most prominent families. Her uncle, James Weldon Johnson, was a poet and co-creator with his brother of the Black National Anthem: Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing. James Weldon Johnson is a descendent of Stephen Dillet, who himself gained Bahamian prominence as the first coloured member of the Bahamas House of Assembly. James Weldon Johnson and J. Rossamond Johnson (the father) were brothers. This would make Mildred Louise Johnson also a descendent of Stephen Dillet.
Mildred Johnson Edwards Founded the famous Harlem School.
Ms. Johnson Edwards was born May 25, 1914 in Jacksonville, Fla., to Nora Ethel Floyd and J. Rosamond Johnson. The family returned to New York shortly after her birth where Mildred not only attended Ethical Culture and its high school, The Fieldston School, she was the first black student to graduate from the teacher training department of Ethical Culture.
In 1934, Mildred Johnson Edwards, as a young black graduate of the teacher training program at the Ethical Culture center on Central Park West, Mildred Johnson, could not get a teaching position at any private school in the city. This did not deter her in any way. She decided to started a school of her own. It would become one of the first black private schools in Harlem, with just eight students, most of them children of her friends.
The Modern School, as it was called, came to be respected as one of the best private schools in Manhattan, for children from 18 months old to the sixth grade. Within a few years of the school’s founding, Mrs. Edwards as she would become after her marriage, bought a building on 152d Street, between Amsterdam and Broadway. Enrolment grew to over 200 students.
The Modern School at West 152nd Street was one of the few secular, independent schools in New York serving black children.
The Modern school operated until 2007.
Mildred Louise Johnson Edwards, 93, died in New York city on August 11, 2007 after suffering a stroke.
Excerpt from official obituary
“While Mildred’s father is best known for composing Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing, he also wrote Under the Bamboo Tree and Lazy Moon while his compilation of Negro spirituals is still referenced. He also enjoyed success as an actor and director of quartets and choral groups. Her uncle, James Weldon Johnson, not only enjoyed theatrical success with his brother and Bob Cole, he was the first black person to be admitted to the Florida bar since Reconstruction, was the first secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was consul to Nicaragua and Venezuela. His published works included God’s Trombones, Autobiography of an Ex Colored Man, Black Manhattan and The Book of American Negro Spirituals.
Continuing the tradition, Ms. Johnson Edwards wrote and produced over fifty musicals and two books of poetry, both volumes published by daRosas of Oak Bluffs. The recipient of many awards including an award from President Reagan, Mildred was an active member of the Cottagers, the Girls Club, Jack and Jill of America, Inc. and the New York Chapter of Girl Friends Inc.
Ms. Johnson’s marriage to Headley V. Edwards of Nassau, British West Indies, ended in divorce. She was predeceased by her brother Donald McQuivey Johnson, but is survived by her daughter, K. Melanie Edwards, and the warm memories of a beautiful life on a beautiful Island.”