Highlighting Inspirational British African Women With A South London Twist

Black History

To mark International Women’s Day/Month (IWD/M), Wandsworth Libraries has posted on its Youtube and Facebook pages Battersea Library’s 2020 African History Month Zoom event entitled Exploring The Legacies Of Dame Jocelyn Barrow And Other inspirational British African Women. To mark this year’s IWD/M, history consultant Kwaku, who led the Zoom meeting, provides a potted history of some of the women featured.

Of the women highlighted here, Dame Jocelyn Barrow, is the only one who did not live in south London. However, she’s left an enduring legacy in south London, particularly in Brixton.

The event was inspired as the library’s tribute to Trinidadian-born educationalist and community activist Dame Jocelyn Barrow (15 April 1929 – 9 April 2020), who died last April a few days short of her 91st birthday.

Although a Camden resident, Dame Jocelyn was a patron of Brixton-based Black Cultural Archives, and has a fascinating story about her education and activism work in south London.

She used her profession as a teacher and teacher trainer to develop literacy skills among working adults at community projects. It was on a visit to Brixton to deliver such work that she discovered the colour bar in the local Marks & Spencer. Although there were several African people in the store, she noticed none of the sales staff was African or non-European.

Noticing an in-store publicity for sales staff, she decided to go through the motions of applying for a position. When the manageress said there were no vacancies, not only did she tell the manageress to then take down the vacancy notice, she also made sure the manageress saw a personal letter to her from Lord Sieff, then chairman of the Marks & Spencer.

Suffice to say, it wasn’t long before Africans were being employed in that branch. So we owe the now common sight of people from AAME (African, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities serving in Marks & Spencer in Brixton, and also in the West End, to the efforts of the anti-racism campaigner Dame Jocelyn.

I was blessed to have been invited to her 90th birthday, having built a cordial relationship with her since filming her as one of the seven subjects of my 2009 DVD entitled ‘What They Said I Should Be: The Story of African British Female Movers & Shakers’.

One of the subjects of that video is former south-east London-based fashion entrepreneur and gospel singer Dr Yana Johnson, who joined us from her home in Houston, Texas. Her Yana brand of cosmetics, which is now available online, used to be available from a store in Brixton, and her boutiques in Brockley and Deptford.

She’s not only an accomplished gospel singer and songwriter, but also a public speaker and author. In addition to promoting “economic empowerment”, her parting shot that, like Dame Jocelyn, we must ask ourselves: “What can I do? What have I got to give?”

Someone who literally gave her life to political and community causes was Trinidadian-born Claudia Jones (21 February 1915 – 24 December 1964), one of the greatest British African civil rights activists, ever.

Most readers who know of Jones are likely to locate her activities north of the Thames. She was involved in community activities around Notting Hill, particularly in the aftermath of the 1958 race riots. The indoor Caribbean Carnivals she organised between 1959 and 1964 took place in west and central London. And she lived and died in north London.

But she can also claim to be a south Londoner. Because she’s believed to have lived in two Lambeth locations. The records show that she lived on Meadow Road, near Oval between 1958-60, and possibly at another property close to Stockwell.

However, the organ for her campaigning work across politics, community, racism, feminism, workers’ rights and internationalism, was the West Indian Gazette (WIG). This monthly, which wasn’t, as often erroneously referred to as the first British African newspaper, was nevertheless definitely one of the most influential.

Set up in 1958, Jones run the paper from above Theo Campbell’s record shop at 250 Brixton Road. This was where she held court with politicians, diplomats, academics, community activists, and people for a flair for selling the perennially struggling paper. Of the latter, the late former Southwark mayor Sam King and fellow Windrusher and Croydonite James Fairweather, were circulation manager and advertising manager, respectively.

There can hardly be any form of activism concerning London’s African communities in which Jones was not involved in. The WIG Caribbean carnival of 1959 was partly meant as a fundraiser to help with legal bills for those caught up in the judicial system, following the 1958 race riots in Notting Hill.

She was part of organisations that fought against racism and colonialism. She campaigned against the passing of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which rolled back rights of settlement of, and numbers of, immigrants particularly from the non-Dominion parts of the British Empire.

Jones was famously at the front of the London march to the US embassy in solidarity with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. A decade before, Jones was caught up in the US McCarthyism era witch-hunt against Communists. She was jailed for her Communist membership and deported to Britain in 1955.

When you are next in Brixton library, look above the first floor reception, where you will see a photo of Jones with her comrade in community activism and first wife of pan-Africanism icon Marcus Garvey – Amy Ashwood Garvey, fellow Communist and victim of McCarthyism singer/actor Paul Robeson, his wife Eslanda, and Lambeth Mayor Alderman JW Calder and his wife.

Jones has been erroneously dubbed “Mother Of Notting Hill Carnival”, which was started after her death. This was one of the factoids we tried to put to bed in the Zoom discussion. A more accurate title would be “Mother Of Caribbean Carnival”. However, the most befitting accolade is simply “Civil Rights Activist”, which was how she was described on the Post Office stamp issued with her image in 2008.

Hopefully a reader may be able to answer a puzzling question about Jones. There is a local history and location board in Stockwell Memorial Gardens which states that Jones worked at the Stockwell bus garage. We are keen to corroborate this information. So if there are any readers with long memories who know about Jones working, possibly as a typist, in the bus garage, please let me know.

Also found in Stockwell Memorial Gardens is the Bronze Woman, a statue inspired by the eponymous poem by Guyanese-born poet, educator, and playwright Cecile Nobrega (1 June 1919 – 19 November 2013). Unfortunately Covid-19 put paid to the annual remembrance held by the statue last October.

Luckily, we were joined by the poet’s daughter Eve, who expatiated on her mother’s talents as a composer and pianist, who won several music and short story writing competition prizes in her native British Guiana. There is a plaque on her former Stockwell home in Nealden Street.

The video used, ‘London African History Through Representation In The Capital’, captures a plaque that for now has no home. It’s an Olive Morris (26 June 1952 – 12 July 1979) plaque unveiled by Morris’ mum inside the now demolished Olive Morris House building.

The building is named after Morris, whose short 27 year life belies the amount and range of activism she was involved in, mainly around Brixton. The Jamaican-born activist of the 1970s was a member of the British Black Panther Movement, Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent and the Brixton Black Women’s Group.

She was an ardent squatter rights activist, which makes it interesting that Lambeth Council named one of its buildings after her.Although the eponymous building is no more, Lambeth Council Cabinet Member for Equalities and Culture Sonia Winifred informed the meeting that there’s a possibility of the new building being built on the site having a feature with Morris’ name on it. Meanwhile, a suitable building is being sort where Morris’ plaque can be installed.

Other women highlighted at the meeting were former Attorney General Baroness Scotland, who was at the unveiling of the Bronze Woman in 2008, parliamentarian Dawn Butler, classical music composer Shirley Thompson, PR/promoter Ruth Amankwah, entrepreneur Dounne Alexander, and Guyanese-born Jessica Huntley (23 February 1927 – 13 October 2013), who was a book publisher, community activist and one of the driving forces behind the New Cross Massacre Action Committee of 1981.

P.S. Cllr Patsy Cummings highlighted Croydonite composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and the fact that Bob Marley & The Wailers‘ last London gig at Crystal Palace 40 years ago was recently marked with a blue plaque. Dr Velma McClymont spoke about West Indian Gazette reporter Donald Hinds. We have resources covering these men for another programme, but for now, the focus is on our women!

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