Obituary: Ivor Cummings
Friday 04 December 1992
WHEN the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in June 1948, Ivor Cummings was one of the first waiting to greet the initial shipload of Jamaicans arriving to help rebuild war-torn Britain at the government's behest. As a civil servant in the Colonial Office with special responsibilities for Commonwealth citizens, he was there in an official capacity. But the diligence and sensitivity with which he pursued his lifetime's work in the service of people of African descent were rooted in his own difficult background and personal experience.
Cummings was born in West Hartlepool in 1913; his mother was an English nurse, his father a doctor from Sierra Leone. They met at Newcastle's Royal Victoria Infirmary where she was a young junior matron and he, one of several African professionals on Tyneside, a senior house officer. Discouraged from studying medicine by her father, 'an awfully silly man', Joanna Archer had followed women's traditional route, but she broke convention when she had a child out of wedlock with Ishmael Cummings. He, the son of a wealthy African merchant, had two siblings who married Taylors, thereby establishing the prominent Freetown family of Taylor-Cummings and making his own child a relative of the black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
Growing up with his mother in Addiscombe, Surrey, where they were befriended by Coleridge- Taylor's widow, Ivor got to know his cousins Avril and Hiawatha who followed in their father's musical footsteps. Coleridge-Taylor had confronted prejudice in Croydon; a decade after his death, Cummings suffered similar treatment when other boys at Whitgift School set light to his curly hair.
His father, who had gone back to Freetown, thought Ivor might fare better in Africa, and arranged for him to continue his education there. But he found himself an outsider in a society already split by the historical differences between its indigenes and the Krios, descendants of repatriate slaves and recaptives - returned to Freetown from slave ships intercepted by the British Navy - from other parts of the coast. He returned to England and showed academic brilliance at Dulwich College but, unlike his half-brothers and sisters in Sierra Leone, was prevented by his mother's poverty from becoming a doctor.
After a brief spell as a clerk with the United Africa Company in Freetown, Cummings came back again to England, medicine still his ambition, but with few scholarships available he was forced to abandon his plans. In 1935 he found employment as Warden of Aggrey House, a centre for colonial students set up by the government in Doughty Street, in Bloomsbury, central London. There he was skilful and popular, overseeing meetings and lectures and arranging dances and social events to which he invited the small contingent of black British women in an attempt to make life more pleasant for his almost exclusively male charges.
Diligently espousing racial uplift, he was a prolific press correspondent; the merest hint of a slur against people of African descent caused him to lift his pen. He even had an indirect hotline to the monarchy through the good offices of Edwina Mountbatten, a supporter of the 'coloured cause', who would report back the King's displeasure at incidents of discrimination.
A dedicated bon viveur and night-club habitue, Cummings sought out his constituents wherever they might be. But he saw himself as one of 'the group', an exclusive coterie of black academics and intellectuals with a responsibility to uphold the integrity and good standing of the African. They included entertainers and artists who made their mark in 1930s Britain, such as the American singer John Payne and the British composer Reginald Foresythe, to whose Nigerian family Cummings's father was doctor in Lagos. Like these two and many others in the social and diplomatic circles in which he moved, Cummings was gay at a time when openness about homosexuality was impossible.
With the onset of war, he joined the Colonial Office and rapidly earned the reputation of someone who would help any person of colour, whatever their social standing. He narrowly missed the 1941 bombing of the Cafe de Paris that killed his good friend the Guyanese dancer and bandleader Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson, but was on hand to organise the funeral and obtain exemption from munitions work for band members injured in the bombing.
With the arrival of the first Caribbean RAF volunteers, his responsibilities grew, and he travelled widely to combat difficulties arising from racial prejudice. Initially minimal, these increased when the segregated US forces appeared.
After the war, when extra nurses were needed, he recruited these via his family in Sierra Leone. He continued in the Colonial Office and was on close terms with many future political leaders. He was appointed OBE and spent time in the United States on a fellowship, co-authoring a survey of colonial students there. Invited to become Colonial Secretary in Trinidad, he opted to join Kwame Nkrumah, training diplomats in the newly independent Ghana. He was widely tipped to be the country's first black governor, but was posted instead to the Ghana High Commission in London to recruit West Indian professionals including the present Trinidad High Commissioner, the distinguished war veteran Ulric Cross.
Another Sierra Leone period followed, as training officer at Yengema Diamond Mines, then he joined the London-based distillers Duncan, Gilbey and Matheson as public-relations adviser. He was planning to visit West Africa when poor health intervened. Throughout a long battle with cancer, his sense of irony remained intact. I met him towards the end of his life, but he never ceased to make me laugh, despite his obvious pain.
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