December 1961 became a particularly difficult period for Bahamian actor Sir Sidney Poitier. Indeed, this was so for the entire Poitier family. As the inevitable sands of time began to shift under their feet, a double tragedy struck.
Their much revered family patriarch, who had been ill for some time, had died. Then, just two weeks later, while still in mourning for father and husband, a brother dies unexpectedly, and tragically.
Death brings sadness and change. It also often brings unexpected expenses. As was entirely customary, such unforeseen expenses like funeral costs, would be, quite naturally, passed onto family members who were most able to bear such debts.
By 1961, Sidney Poitier had already made world history. He starred in the movie The Defiant Ones (1958), earning his first Academy Award nomination as Best Actor.
Poitier played the character Noah Cullen, a black prison inmate chained to a white inmate, Jack, played by actor Tony Curtis. The men were two escaped convicts, white and black chained-together who had to learn to get along in order to elude capture.
By Bahamian standards, anyone’s standard really, son of the soil Sidney Poitier was successful, talented, sought after, handsome and rich.
Poitier’s success however, had not come easy. He was a native of Cat Island, Bahamas, where his mother, Evelyn Outten Poitier, and father, Reginald James Poitier, were farmers. Sidney was born, two months prematurely, in Miami when his parents, went there to sell their seasonal tomato crop.
As the son of a farmer and later a taxi driver, Poitier grew up in relative poverty. For the Poitier’s, of Cat Island now living in Nassau, this economic state was not an uncommon condition at all. Everyone near and around them would have been part of the same economic strata – poor.
When Poiter emigrated, in his teens, to Miami to live with an older brother, his family were largely left in Nassau.
Reginald James Poitier (1884-1961) father of Sir Sidney Poitier
Reginald James Poitier died at the Princess Margaret Hospital, in Nassau, New Providence, Bahamas, at 5:25pm on Sunday, 3rd December 1961. Poitier died from cancer of the bladder. He was 77 years, 8 months and 11 days old.
Patriarch Reginald James Poitier and family lived on Deveaux Street south. This would be in what is historically called Bain and Grant’s Town, part of the Over The Hill area of Nassau, New Providence, Bahamas.
Reginald was born in Arthur’s Town, Cat Island. Importantly, we learn that his father’s name was March Poitier (1873-1902) and his mother’s name was Emma Jane Evans. These would be Sir Sidney’s grandparents on his father’s side. Both were from Cat Island.
The Poitier family were Roman Catholic. Reginald’s funeral was held at Our Lady’s Church. A customary small thank you, in this instance, a £5 check was given to officiant Father Charles Coakley for delivering a a comforting and sympathetic funeral service.
Reginald James Poitier was laid to rest on Sunday, 10th December 1961
At 77 years old, born in 1884, born before the turn of the 20th century, Reginald James Poitier, a tomato farmer and taxi driver, would have been been a hands on, down to earth man necessarily sensible to the nature of life.
Poitier would have been sadly aware of his illness for some time. Bladder cancer is quite painful. He had already appointed an executor to see after his affairs in the event of his death. Reginald Poitier appointed Dr. Jackson Burnside as executor. Funeral and burial costs totalled £320. Of this £50 was paid in cash in advance and a cheque for £270 was paid the day after interment by executor Dr. Jackson Burnside.
Tragic death of Cedric Aden Poitier, brother of Sidney Poitier, just 11 days after funeral of father Reginald
In 1961, Cedric Aden Poitier was a mechanic, working at a company in Sea Breeze Estates, located in the eastern district of Nassau. He was the older brother of Sidney Poitier (1927-2022) by two years.
He was a married man with a large family of seven children who, quite naturally, depended on him both emotionally and financially.
Large families were not uncommon in The Bahamas at that time. Just a generation ago, the average family size was four or more. A generation before that, the average family size consisted of at least six or more children.
Cedric also lived on Deveaux Street, in the Grant’s Town area, possibly quite near his parents Reginald and Evelyn, whose house was on Deveaux Street south.
Cedric was married to Eva Colebrooke Poitier and father to five sons and two daughters. Cedric Poitier also had eight siblings – four brothers and four sisters. One of these siblings was, of course, younger brother, Sidney Poitier.
On Thursday 21st December 1961, tragedy struck the Poitier family once again, when Cedric died as a result of a workplace accident. Cause of death was determined to be carbon monoxide poisoning.
Cedric Aden Poitier born 28th August 1925 was 36 years, 3 months and 22 days old when he died. He would be buried on Christmas Eve 1961.
Four years of unpaid funeral expenses begins
With the tragic death of Cedric coming just 11 days after laying his father to rest, the Poitier family were understandably stretched in terms of financial resources. Funerals were as expensive then as they are now.
Reginald Poitier’s funeral expenses, some £320 Sterling, were paid from his estate. Undoubtedly, due to the progressive nature of the cancer which afflicted him, Reginald had prepared for eventualities, by appointing a trusted executor to pay his funeral costs, so as not to unduly burden his family. However, the untimely death of son, brother, husband and father Cedric Poitier presented an unexpected expense.
At that time, Sidney, now a critically acclaimed actor, movie star and celebrity was living in Pleasantville, New York. The call was made. Sidney would stand guarantor for his brother’s funeral expenses.
Father Charles Coakley, the officiant at Reginald Poitier’s funeral was called upon again to officiate the funeral for Cedric Poitier. As was custom, a £5 check and a letter of thanks swiftly accompanied the burial.
April 1962 – A reluctant letter to Sidney Poitier in New York from funeral home director in Nassau
As much as Sidney Poitier became a celebrated hero in The Bahamas, it did not preclude certain practicalities. One particular practicality was asking for the settling of outstanding debts to which he was attached.
In April 1962, some four months after Cedric Aden Poitier’s funeral, a rather reluctant funeral director in Nassau, writes to actor Sidney Poiter in Pleasantville, New York.
Knowing the high stature Sidney Poitier held, among the negro population in Nassau and his growing clout in America, carefully chosen words were used, and in closing a very humble,… “you will, I am sure forgive the intrusion.”
Sidney Poitier writes back
One thing must be said of the times, the mail system in the early 1960s, was extremely efficient. A letter written to Sidney Poitier on 19th April 1962 destined for New York was sent, received, replied to, posted and received in Nassau on 26th April 1962.
Poitier writes to the funeral director to say that the delay is due to the court case against his brother’s employer for negligence.
Sidney then goes on to write that if the court case is not settled in the following week or so, he would personally send a check to cover any remaining expenses.
It appears that promised check from Sidney Poitier never arrived.
Three years later 1965
Interestingly enough, the total cost of Cedric’s funeral was £150 Sterling, however not a cent was paid until 1963.
There was £20 paid in cash. Then, a further £30 was paid by check, both in June 1963, by Dr. Jackson Burnside, executor of Reginald Poitier’s estate.
That left £100 still unpaid going into the year 1964.
And then, some four years after Cedric Aden Poitier was laid to rest, finally in November 1965, a settlement is reached with the funeral director.
It is unclear which party, lawyer and labour leader Randol Fawkes represented in the matter. What can be ascertained is that despite being owed £100, the funeral director reluctantly settled for £80 in order to bring a rather long matter to an end.