December 8th, 1880 – Dame Georgianna Ellen (Nellie) Robinson DNH, was born to George and Margaret Robinson in St. John’s. Her early childhood years were spent on Newgate Street before being sent off to the United States of America (USA) where she enrolled in school. While in the US, Robinson also earned her keep as a child nurse, governor and domestic helper from age 13.
Upon returning to Antigua at age 14, Robinson continued her education at Coke College which was located on East Street at the time. Despite that school’s closure in 1897 due to lack of funding, she continued to pursue academic studies mostly on her own successfully completing her Senior Cambridge exams in Mathematics and French and her Music certification (theory and practical) with music teacher Mrs. Lamond.
From her teenage years Robinson grew increasingly frustrated with the education system of her homeland. Socio-economic barriers, chief of which was the illegitimate father status of many children, were restricting entrance of black male students to the Antigua Grammar School (AGS), the noteworthy secondary institution of that era. Robinson would make numerous representations to the Archdeacon in charge of the school at the time, Archdeacon Branch, to reconsider this discriminatory practice to no avail.
At the age of 18, in April 1898, in an effort to open up secondary education access to a wider pool of black children in particular, Georgianna Robinson started her own school, the Thomas Oliver Robinson (TOR) Memorial School, named in honour of her brother who had died at a young age. TOR Memorial accepted students of ALL races, religious denominations and socio-economic standing. Her first group of enrollees were her siblings and the children of family friends. In addition to accepting males from all walks of life, the school also accepted females.
In a relatively short period the reputation of the institution became widespread and the TOR Memorial under Nellie’s guidance went on to shape the educational and social landscape of the country and beyond. Enrollment extended to children from territories such as St. Croix, Montserrat, Panama, Tortola, St. Kitts among others.
Robinson served as the headmistress of the institution from its inception in 1898 until 1950. During that period once resources permitted, Nellie would direct scholarships to black students from poor economic circumstances. The school also catered for curricular activities, especially music.
As the national education system expanded, in particular the number of public secondary schools under the universal secondary education mandate, the TOR Memorial School reorganised its focus to primary education and continues its service to education to today.
Apart from her work in education, she was also an active member of the community in other areas . During World War I, Nellie was the only black woman to serve on the Mobilisation Committee which was responsible for recruiting young men to join the war effort and was also successful in negotiating better living conditions for them on their journey to Britain.
Through her membership on the Water Preservation Committee (1912), Robinson was instrumental in the process of expanding access to pipe-borne water in the country.
Robinson was also a founding member of the Girl Guides movement in the country and was an active member within the association. As a member of the Anglican church, she served in a number of capacities to include Sunday school teacher, as well on other committees within the church.
She spearheaded the first Arts and Cultural Committee in Antigua performing in, and directing, a number of productions. She was a part of the pioneer grouping that began the annual Antigua Carnival festivities.
To mark the celebration of Antigua and Barbuda’s 25th anniversary of independence in 2006, Robinson became the first and only woman thus far to be recognised as a national hero, Dame Georgianna Ellen (Nellie) Robinson was posthumously bestowed as Dame Companion of the Most Exalted Order of National Hero (DNH).
Previously Robinson was recognised twice by the British Monarchy. In 1935 she received a medal from King George V to commemorate Their Majesties’ Silver Jubilee and in 1941 she was accorded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) in recognition of her sterling contribution to education in Antigua and Barbuda.
Dame Georgianna’s legacy, TOR Memorial School, still continues today as a Primary school catering to students 4 to 11 years old under the motto ‘I press toward the mark’ and will celebrate 125 years of existence in 2023.
She died on April 29th, 1972, age 91 years.