Have you ever wondered what it means when local authorities give the symbolic key to the city to someone? Well, if you haven’t I have … and in the most random way possible!
During one of my sojourns across the internet (I really don’t remember what I was searching for; but like my mother and YouTube videos, I moved from blog, video, podcast, etc., etc., etc.,) I came across a blog post with a picture of a set of keys as its featured image. And just like that the following phrase popped into my head: key to the city.
This got me thinking about the ceremonial giving of the key of any city to someone and how many keys to our two cities, Kingston and Montego Bay, have been given away to date and to whom. So where do you think I went next? To the Jamaica Gleaner’s Newspaper Archives, of course!
What Exactly does Giving the Key to the City Mean?
The act of presenting the key to the city honours the outstanding achievements of citizens of and honoured guests to a city. Therefore, giving the key to the city is “a symbol of the high esteem in which they are held by the municipality” (The Daily Gleaner, Saturday, November 15, 1952, pg. 1).
The practice dates back to medieval times when cities were literally under lock and key, being protected by high walls and locked gates, as well as many legal restrictions that closely monitored peoples’ movements in and out of cities. Giving the key to the city to an important merchant or diplomat at that time meant that he had the authority to traverse the city at will.
Fast forward to the 21st century: the act of giving the key to the city is now a purely symbolic one since Kingston and Montego Bay have no gates to unlock, and never did really.
The History of Giving the Key to the City in Jamaica
This is a recent introduction in Jamaica’s historical development. On November 14, 1952, a resolution was moved by the then Mayor of Kingston, Edward Henry Fagan, and unanimously approved by the Council of the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation (KSAC), to present the key to the city of Kingston to “worthy and distinguished citizens and or visitors to the city” (The Daily Gleaner, Saturday, November 15, 1952, pg. 1).
This decision was taken to commemorate the 150th (sesquicentennial) anniversary of Kingston, which was incorporated as a city in 1802. The relevant sections of the resolution read as follows:
Whereas it has been the established custom in cities in England to honour worthy and distinguished citizens and visitors by presenting them with the keys to the city, as a symbol of the high esteem in which they are held by the municipality, and…
Whereas it is considered fitting that a city of the size and importance of Kingston should in commemoration of its sesqui-centennial anniversary adopt and conform to this ancient established custom…
Be it resolved that the Council of the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation representing the citizens of the municipality of Kingston and St. Andrew in session this 14th day of November, 1952, in commemoration of the sesqui-centennial anniversary of the City of Kingston doth hereby approve that henceforth eminent, worthy and distinguished citizens and/or visitors to the City of Kingston who by unanimous resolution under seal the Council might name be presented with the keys of the City of Kingston …
The resolution also included “that the symbol of the keys shall be suitably designed with the crest of the city inscribed thereon and handed to the persons so selected in public ceremony by His Worship the Mayor on behalf of the Council.”
The KSAC gave its first key to the city of Kingston in 1953 to Right Honourable Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who visited the country that year. A replica of the key given to Mr Churchill was later presented to the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) in a ceremony held in the IOJ’s Lecture Hall on April 22, 1953. The first key to the city of Kingston was designed by Eric Coverley, F.R.S.A (yes, the same Eric Coverley who was married to Louise Bennett), who held the distinction of being Jamaica’s official calligrapher for over 40 years. The key and the replica of the key were made by a Mr Jack Heath.
Montego Bay achieved city status in 1981, and the St James Parish Council gave its first key to the city of Montego Bay in 1983 to local citizen, Mr Lloyd Young, philanthropist and fitness trainer, considered an outstanding son of St James.
Past Recipients of the Keys to Kingston and Montego Bay
Both cities have given out quite a bit of keys to an impressive list of citizens and visitors since the ceremonial practice began in 1953 in Kingston and 1983 for Montego Bay. Of course, the list of recipients is much longer for Kingston than Montego Bay. The following is a list of several past recipients of keys to the cities, and when they received the keys, compiled from various local online sources, such as the Jamaica Gleaner, Jamaica Information Service (JIS), the Jamaica Observer and the (KSAC). Note that this is definitely not an exhaustive list.
A selection of past recipients of Keys to the City of Kingston:
- Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Right Honourable Winston Churchill – January 17, 1953
- Her Royal Highness the Princess Margaret – February 19, 1955
- His Excellency the President of Haiti, General Paul Eugene Magloire – February 15, 1955
- Carol Joan Crawford, Miss World 1963 – November 26, 1963
- Retired West Indies cricket team captain, Sir Frank Worrel – September 20, 1963
- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – June 20, 1965
- His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I – April 21, 1966
- Brazil’s football maestro Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pele) – January 31, 1971
- Former world heavyweight boxin champion, Muhammed Ali – December 29, 1974
- Former cricketer Courtney Walsh – March 11, 1999
- Former South African President Thabo Mbeki – June 31, 2003
- The Hon. Gladys Bustamante, affectionately called ‘Lady B’ – October 1, 2003
- Herbert Henry McKenley, O.D., C.D. – November 27, 2004
- Eight Olympic gold medalists from the 2008 Jamaican Olympic team – Usain Bolt, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Nesta Carter, Shelly-Ann Fraser, Michael Frater, Asafa Powell, Dwight Thomas and Melaine Walker – October 3, 2008.
- Former Mayors Marie Atkins and Ryan Peralto Snr. – March 10, 2009.
- The Right Excellent Marcus Mosiah Garvey – August 17, 2012. The key was presented posthumously to his son, Dr Julius Garvey, during a civic ceremony on August 17, to mark the 125th anniversary of the National Hero’s birth.
- Paralympian Sylvia Grant – December 10, 2013
A selection of past recipients of Keys to the City of Montego Bay:
- Mr Lloyd Young – 1983 (I couldn’t find the exact date he received the Key to the City)
- International cricket umpire Steve Bucknor – August 15, 2002
- Honorary Consul to Atlanta and chairman of the Atlanta Chapter of the Atlanta /Montego Bay Sister Cities Committee, Mr Vin Martin – May 22, 2003
- Jamaican-born pilot Captain Barrington Irving Jr., the first black and youngest aviator to fly solo around the world – August 4, 2007. He flew around the world in 97 days.
- Archbishop of York, The Most Rev. Dr John Tucker Mugabi Sentamu – October 11, 2007
- Triple gold medal winner from the 2008 Olympic Games, Usain Bolt – October 7, 2008
- Former Vice President (now President) of the People’s Republic of China, His Excellency Xi Jinping – February 13, 2009
- Sprinter Yohan Blake – October 17, 2011
- WBA Featherweight champion Nicholas ‘Axeman’ Walters – January 17, 2013
- Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce – February 8, 2014
Have any of you ever seen the replica of the key to the city of Kingston given to Mr Winston Churchill in the IOJ? This will be one of my missions when I return home in 2015. I’ll keep you all posted!
Until next time…
Mayor will present keys of city. The Daily Gleaner, Saturday, November 15, 1952, pg. 1
First Key of the City: Replica placed in the Institute. The Daily Gleaner, Friday, April 24, 1953, p. 7
Keys to the city reserved for the outstanding. The Daily Gleaner, Tuesday, January 25, 2000
Mughal, Asghar An Old Key photo