The Independent's journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission. 

Early 20th-century black British history is as important as Windrush. These are the three lessons whitewashing has denied us

Though some of us are waking up to the history of post-war immigrants, writes Seun Matiluko, shamefully little is known about British imperial subjects migrating to the mainland decades before

Thursday 01 October 2020 14:54 BST
Una Marson was a black Jamaican activist, writer and broadcaster
Una Marson was a black Jamaican activist, writer and broadcaster (Getty)

What is the heritage and history of contemporary black Britain? Well, the vast majority of us are the descendants of 20th- and 21st-century migrants. We are made up of West Indians, West Africans, East Africans, Central Africans and Southern Africans. We are the British inheritance of our ancestors who were born on foreign soil.

Yet this, the history of who we are and where we come from (to quote the popular English football chant “Everywhere We Go”), is often missing from our history books. At a maximum, only 11 per cent of GCSE students study modules that reference black people’s contribution to British life.

And while initiatives like The Black Curriculum have campaigned heavily for black British education to be a permanent fixture in schools, sadly our government has had a rather ambivalent and reticent response. In recent weeks, it has gone further, telling English schools not to use resources or work with agencies that take what it deems to be “promoting divisive or victim narratives”, seemingly deliberately vague guidance that could easily apply to various aspects of black history

As a consequence, for many of us who grew up and are growing up without knowledge of black British history, Wikipedia, non-fiction books and online articles have become ways to fill in gaps of information. As a result, many more people are now aware of the history behind the Notting Hill Carnival and the Bristol bus boycott. However, many are still as of yet uninitiated in early 20th-century black British history. The history not of post-war immigrants, but of British imperial subjects migrating to the mainland some decades before.

At the turn of the 20th century, black people in Britain were predominantly students from the West Indies and Africa, coming to study in the metropole because at the time the empire had not yet prioritised constructing universities in black colonies.  

However, when these students arrived, they soon realised that Britain was not in fact full of streets paved with gold, but a land where racial discrimination was very prevalent. A land where a widespread informal “colour bar” meant that certain landlords refused to rent to “blacks”, employers refused to hire them and organisations, such as the Paramount Dance Hall on Tottenham Court Road, refused black people entry.

As Afro-Jamaican physician and campaigner Dr Harold Moody (recently commemorated in a Google Doodle) discovered upon his arrival in 1904, many employers outright refused to hire black people. Therefore, despite acquiring a medical degree from King’s College London, he was unable to secure a job.

This, among many other events throughout his life in Britain, resulted in him forming the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) in 1931, where “coloured” meant “the Negro Race, particularly those in Africa and the West Indies and under the rule of Great Britain”. The LCP was set up to fight against racial discrimination, improve race relations in Britain and to form solidarity ties with black people worldwide. Therefore, the LCP fought for race equality legislation, campaigned against racial discrimination in the NHS and fought for the protection of mixed race “war children” of English mothers and African-American fathers.

Among the ranks of the LCP were people like Sierra Leonean civil rights leader Constance Cummings-John and Afro-Jamaican writer and activist Una Marson, who directed a play called At What a Price in 1933 which featured players like Stella Thomas, the first African woman to be called to the English bar, and a young Arthur Lewis, who would later become the first and thus far only black person to gain a Nobel Prize in economics.

Marson was a prolific writer, and some of her writings detail how British racism made her feel. In her poem “N****r” she wrote:

They called me “N****r”,

Those little white urchins,

They laughed and shouted

As I passed along the street.

They flung it at me,

“N****r! N****r! N****r!”

What made me keep my fingers

From choking the words in their throats?

Racism was such an issue for black people in Britain that there were a number of black anti-racist organisations nationwide aside from the LCP, including the International African Service Bureau, and the Coloured Workers’ Association.

A particularly well-known organisation was the West African Students Union (WASU), set up by Nigerian Law Student Ladipo Solanke and Afro-Jamaican activist Amy Ashwood Garvey, which had among its allies Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah. Its primary function in Britain was to provide hostels for black African students to stay in “colour bar” Britain. However, just like the LCP, the WASU was also interested in international solidarity, with members attending the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester and even corresponding with famed African-American civil rights activist WEB Du Bois.

While we can read more about this history in books like Kennetta Hammond Perry’s London is the Place for Me and Marc Matera’s Black London, it is sad that this is not all common knowledge. These are the aspects of history that everyone should have access to, particularly in the wake of increased Black Lives Matter activism, because there are several key lessons we can take from it to facilitate effective anti-racist action in the present.

Lesson One: cross-cultural collaboration is important

As St Clair Drake, an African-American scholar who came to Britain in the 1940s to study mixed race families in Cardiff, recognised in the early 20th century, “Many Africans were suspicious of West Indians” and “inter-island rivalries carried over among West Indians living in Britain”. Yet, many of the most effective and active anti-racist organisations in Britain pushed against this division and had members from across the black diaspora in their groups. Harold Moody in particular argued that the “African and the West Indian” should “cease bickering among themselves about things which do not matter … for the good of the race”.

Lesson Two: Internationalism is key

Most black British people have ties to countries other than Britain and it is important that we continue to show solidarity with struggles happening not only in the US (as we currently do) but also those happening in the West Indies, in Africa and across the world. Ultimately, as Una Marson recognised, we “must come together”, it is only “then things will be done”.

Lesson Three: Grassroots activism is a must

At present it seems that, rather unfortunately, we are seeing a rise in “influencer activists”. You know the type, the ones who post a black square on their Instagram for a day, or pictures of themselves at a protest coupled with a black fist emoji, and then never speak out against racism again. Or even the ones who seemingly capitalise on the death of a beloved black icon, exploiting people’s pain in order to sell books. These are the people who speak out because they think it will make them look good or will get them praise and success, rather than the people who genuinely act in order to effect change.

In contrast, activist groups in the early 20th century were, for the most part, driven by a desire for tangible change. Groups like the LCP and WASU worked because they were not full to the brim with careerists but rather with people who listened to marginalised communities and focused on implementing the changes that these communities wanted to see. We would do well to remember this.

As Harvard law professor Annette Gordon-Reed has argued, “the legacies of our history are very much with us”. While we have made progress since the 1900s, the events of this summer illustrate that fighting racism is still very much a work in progress. That’s why it is important that we get a better understanding of our collective past and the activism that shaped it. The more we understand that, the more likely we will be able to absorb its vital messages and make effective progress in the present. By learning more about where we come from, we can ensure the best for where we are going.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in