Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Blue plaque for Claudia Jones, activist and ‘founding spirit’ of carnival

An anti-racism activist who overcame chronic ill-health and deportation from the US to become a galvanising figure for London’s black community is being commemorated with a new blue plaque.

The plaque, which will be unveiled today, marks the terraced house in Vauxhall that was the home of Trinidadian journalist and civil rights campaigner Claudia Jones for almost four years. While living there, she founded the West Indian Gazette, the first mass-circulation black British newspaper, and organised an event that is viewed as a forerunner of the Notting Hill Carnival.

Claudia Jones, photographed in the US. Photo: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The “Caribbean Carnival” was held at St Pancras Town Hall on January 30, 1959, and televised by the BBC. It came only months after vicious racially-motivated riots in London’s Notting Hill that started when a mob of hundreds of white youths attacked black immigrants. Jones’ idea was to raise morale in the black community and improve race relations through the medium of popular culture.

As she wrote in a souvenir brochure: “Our Carnival symbolises the unity of our people resident here and of all our many friends who love the West Indies.”

Newspapers reported that, besides “massed steel bands”, the “strong cast” included singers Cleo Laine and the Mighty Terror, vocal group The Southlanders and guitarist Fitzroy Coleman. Jones was subsequently involved in organising other indoor carnivals at venues such as Seymour Hall in Marylebone and the Lyceum Ballroom, off the Strand. These events helped to pave the way for and inspire other carnivals in Britain, including the Notting Hill Carnival, which started with a street “fayre” in 1966 and evolved in the later 1960s and 1970s.

Given Jones’ untimely death in 1964, descriptions of her as Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival are disputed. The new plaque describes her as “a founding spirit”. Controversy around such claims involves concerns that they may distract from other, incontrovertible achievements in Jones’ extraordinary life.

She was born in Trinidad in 1915 and moved with her family to Harlem, New York, aged eight. As a young woman in the US she joined the Communist Party, wrote for Marxist publications and was active in fighting for civil rights and the liberation of “super-exploited” black women in particular. Having been arrested and imprisoned several times during the 1950s McCarthyist “Red Scare”, she was deported to Britain in 1955, already suffering from tuberculosis and heart disease.

“A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom”

Claudia Jones, 1959

At the time, she said: “I was deported from the USA because as a Negro woman Communist of West Indian descent, I was a thorn in their side in my opposition to Jim Crow racist discrimination against 16 million Negro Americans in the United States… I was deported because I urged the prosecution of lynchers rather than prosecution of Communists and other democratic Americans who oppose the lynchers and big financiers and warmongers, the real advocates of force and violence in the USA.”

A young migrant from the Caribbean at Waterloo Station,1962. Photo: Studioplace/Howard Grey, under license CC BY-SA 4.0

Despite her health problems, she continued her activism in Britain, founding the West Indian Gazette, with an office above Theo’s Record Store on Brixton Road. The newspaper had a circulation of around 15,000 at its height. It was intended to give a voice to West Indians of the Windrush generation who came to Britain answering calls to plug labour shortages and seeking a better life. In spite of their part in rebuilding the country, many experienced racial discrimination and squalid living conditions.

Explaining her vision of the paper’s role, Jones wrote in 1964: “The newspaper has served as a catalyst, quickening the awareness, socially and politically, of West Indians, Afro-Asians and their friends. Its editorial stand is for a united, independent West Indies, full economic, social and political equality and respect for human dignity for West Indians and Afro-Asians in Britain, and for peace and friendship between all Commonwealth and world peoples.”

As a result of these far-reaching aims, Jones met in London with the likes of Jamaica’s Norman Manley, Guyana’s Cheddi Jagan and Martin Luther King Jr.

As for her domestic life in the terraced shared house in Vauxhall’s Meadow Road, Howard Spencer, senior historian at English Heritage, which runs the London blue plaque scheme, said: “She lived there with Manu Manchanda — a fellow activist. They were an item for a while but had a rather fractious relationship and apparently argued about the state of the house. Her room was tidy and his wasn’t, but he accused her of being disorganised. The landlord, interestingly, was a man called the Rev Hewlett Johnson, who was known as the Red Dean of Canterbury. He obviously was sympathetic to what she was doing, but she bounced a check on him for rent in July ’59 and I think that’s probably the reason she had to leave [around April 1960] — he got tired of late rent payments.”

Spencer said Jones’ part in bringing carnival culture to London reflected her broader approach. “She understood the importance of culture in politics, and also that in order to make a point, you need to leaven it a bit. For example, with the West Indian Gazette, she was very keen to include things like book reviews and a beauty column, so it wasn’t all about racial injustice. That was what she was using it to highlight, but it wasn’t all about that — there was lighter and more positive stuff, too. I think that’s very important.”

The new blue plaque to Claudia Jones at the terraced house in Vauxhall where she lived for almost four years. Photo: English Heritage

Broadcaster and cultural historian Gus Casely-Hayford, a member of English Heritage’s blue plaques panel, said: “Jones’ part in bringing carnival to London; her founding of the West Indian Gazette, which was almost certainly the first black newspaper in Britain to appear on newsstands; her unrelenting campaign for racial and social justice; all this and more made her a uniquely galvanising figure for the black community in London.

“Culture — whether music, art, or dance — will always provide opportunity to open minds and drive change and Claudia saw this better than anyone. In the programme for that first event back in 1959, Claudia wrote ‘a people’s art is the genesis of their freedom’; a sentiment that still rings true today, as we commemorate her legacy with a blue plaque.”

Jones died on Christmas Eve 1964, aged 49, while living in Gospel Oak, North London, and is buried close to Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery. Despite the popularity of her Gazette, it struggled financially and ceased publication eight months after her death.

English Heritage said that, currently, only 4.6 per cent of plaques within the blue plaques scheme are dedicated to black and Asian figures. The charity has been working to encourage more nominations for BAME individuals and, since 2016, has commemorated Bob Marley, the 18th-century anti-slavery campaigner Ottobah Cugoano and suffragist Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, among others.

Another blue plaque to Claudia Jones — not part of English Heritage’s scheme — was erected by the Nubian Jak Community Trust and Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea in Notting Hill in 2008.

The image at the top of the article shows the carnival organised by Claudia Jones at St Pancras Town Hall on January 30, 1959. Photo: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

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