Campaigner for ex-servicemen
Tuesday 17 January 2006
Rene Sylvanos Webb, postal worker and campaigner: born 17 October 1919; (three daughters); died London 15 November 2005.
The Caribbean contribution in the two major wars of the last century has only recently received recognition - in large part because of the campaigning of the West Indian Ex-Servicemen's Association (UK), of which Rene Webb was secretary and chairman.
He was born in Trelawney parish, Jamaica, in 1919, the only son of a grapefruit farmer, and trained as a teacher. Nevertheless he, like many young men of his generation from throughout the British Empire, heeded the call to defend "king and country" during the Second World War, joining the RAF, then settling in Britain in 1947. That service counted for comparatively little in the aftermath of conflict. If the homes (and social conditions) of the post-war era were generally not "fit for heroes to live in", they were even worse for the early immigrants from the Caribbean.
Webb's campaign began at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, addressing the issues of housing and unemployment, and continued for the next 60 years. In that he was unusual. The majority of West Indians, recruited in large numbers by London Transport, and in the building and catering trades, to get Britain "on its feet" again after the war, preferred to put up with discrimination and disadvantages because they believed that their stay would be temporary.
Webb, whose experiences form part of The Windrush Legacy: memories of Britain's post-war Caribbean immigrants (1998) produced by the Black Cultural Archives, witnessed the antagonism of Teddy boys towards the black citizens they encountered on the streets - which led to the Notting Hill "riot" of 1958 - and gave his ready support to the radical United Coloured People's Association and the militant Black Power movement.
When it became evident to most West Indians that they would be staying on longer than they had anticipated, they sent for their wives and children to join them. The "immigrants" became British and demanded an improvement in their status. Webb, who was employed in the Post Office for many years, was instrumental in the setting up of several of the numerous associations and organisations to enhance their social and economic standing, and to build bridges with the host "white" community.
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