Black History Month: A Brief History of the African-Caribbean Community in Leeds

  • by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

Since the publication of this article on the 16th of October, 2015, new research has been undertaken, which takes the story into the 1980s. A BA dissertation by Tom Woolmore, a student at Queen’s University in Belfast, entitledKeep On Moving: Black Responses to Racism and Government Policy in Chapeltown During the 1980s” – which utilised primary resource material available in our collections – has recently been added to stock in the Local and Family History department of the Central Library.

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The contributions of the African-Caribbean community to the history of modern Leeds are many and varied. Even so, this history, in its earliest years, remains – in many respects – a ‘secret’ history: the arrival in Leeds of settlers from the Caribbean during the post-war era and the subsequent struggle of that first-generation to carve out a meaningful life in unfamiliar and often-unwelcoming new surroundings.

As Melody Walker has written, the “greatest weapon” of those first settlers “against feelings of alienation and displacement was unity”; that is, community. And that community spirit would ultimately become crucial to the Leeds story; not as something extra, or additional, to the ‘mainstream’ of Leeds’ history – but as a vital and essential part. Who now can imagine the cultural life of Leeds without the West Indian Carnival? That festival is justifiably known throughout the city and beyond, but it is only one part of the wider story: so, to mark Black History Month, we bring you a brief history of African-Caribbean Leeds.

While there is some scattered evidence of African people in Leeds stretching back to 1749 – when local schoolmaster John Lucas commented, in his diary, on the arrest of Thomas Mawson, an army drummer – the real history of this community begins in 1948 with the arrival of economic migrants from the Caribbean Islands.

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Extract from the diary of John Lucas, 1749
Attracted by the promise of work in the burgeoning post-war economy and the establishment of the NHS, these pioneers raised the numbers of Black people in Leeds from around 1,000 in 1951, to around 4,000 in 1961 (by 1971 there were estimated to be 11,000). Most of these early settlers were single, under 40-years of age and had backgrounds in skilled trades: carpenters, masons, tailors, seamen, mechanics, painters, electricians, clerks and teachers were among the first arrivals.

Even so, the world encountered by these individuals was, quite often, not as promised or as expected. The weather was cold and damp and grey; housing was cramped and inadequate; and jobs were hard to come by, even for those individuals with the necessary qualifications. Many of these problems with housing and employment were, it is almost certain, the consequence of ignorance or outright racism on the part of the indigenous white population; some trade unions were hostile to the presence of workers who they felt were in competition with their current members, while unscrupulous landlords took advantage of settlers’ need for accommodation by exploiting the run-down Victorian housing of Chapeltown and Harehills to its fullest extent. One tenant, living in the Leopold Street area of Chapeltown, was reported as telling the Director of Housing for the Council that “the houses at the side of me are boarded up, we have no kitchen, just a place under the steps, with snails always up the wall, just enough room for one person at a time, they aren’t really fit for pigs to live in.”

2nd February 1954 View from Reginald Street junction across Chapeltown Road to number 176, Reginald Stores on the corner with Back Newton Grove. Taken from www.leodis.net
2nd February 1954 View from Reginald Street junction across Chapeltown Road to number 176, Reginald Stores on the corner with Back Newton Grove. Taken from www.leodis.net

But that very clustering of the African-Caribbean population into a specific area had its positive consequences too: the fostering of a spirit of unity leading directly to the creation of clubs and organisations playing a central role in giving a strong voice to that community. The earliest was the formation, in 1946, of the Caribbean Cricket Club, which became far more than ‘just’ a sports club, filling – in part – the vacuum of social welfare provision for the African-Caribbean population. Two founders of that Club – Errol James and Glen English – were later instrumental in the creation of the Aggrey Society, a housing association, and the United Caribbean Association, which would give evidence before a House of Commons Select Committee on race relations in 1972.

The growth of such organisations was exponential. By 1975 a Community Directory would list 15; 1982, 41; and, by 1992, 110 groups catering for the needs of ethnic minority groups would be recorded. Problems and issues – such as racism at the Cowper Street School in 1973, or the clashes between youths and police in 1975 and 1981 – were tackled through community forums and action groups. Cultural and social issues were prominent: the West Indian Brotherhood, formed in 1962, taught Black History classes from Veryl Harriott’s house in Harehills, before Veryl herself went on to initiate the formation of the Chapeltown Citizen’s Advice Bureau. In 1972 a community newspaper – Chapeltown News – was launched and, in 1967, Arthur France, a founding member of the UCA, initiated the Leeds West Indian Carnival.

25th August 1980. Crowds are gathered in Chapeltown Road on August Bank Holiday Monday. Taken from www.leodis.net
25th August 1980. Crowds are gathered in Chapeltown Road on August Bank Holiday Monday. Taken from www.leodis.net

By the late 1970s, African-Caribbeans were playing an active role in local politics, with trade-unionist leader Norma Hutchinson being elected a local councillor in 1991. Like Norma many of the early community activists were from a Jamaican background. Six of these – Nettie White, Travis Johnson, Errol James, Elizabeth Johnson, Lizette Powell and Yvonne English – felt the need of an organisation that would meet the specific needs of the Leeds-Jamaican community. In 1977 they launched the Jamaican Society, which was to become one of the most respected of all such societies in the Jamaican diaspora. This group did not restrict itself to any arena, taking on social welfare issues, initiatives related to health and crime, cultural activities, children’s events and community fundraising. Since 1989 the Society has been based at Jamaica House, 277 Chapeltown Road – a lasting tribute to the strength and resilience of the Afro-Caribbean community in Leeds.

The [Jamaican] people who came in the 1940s to the early 1960s are, in my eyes, heroes and heroines: whether it was their presence on the larger public stage of local and national activism or the personal sacrifices they made for their families and communities.” – Melody Walker

If this snapshot has sparked your interest in your own ancestry, why not attend an African-Caribbean Family History workshops being held at the Library as part of Black History Month? If so, a session will be taking place on the 21st of October, from 10.30am-12pm.

Please contact us via localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk or on 01132 478290 for further details or to book a place.

Bibliography

These items are all available to view in our Local and Family History library:

  • Max Farrar – On The Move: An Introduction to the Migration and Settlement of the Black Communities in Leeds (1993)
  • Farrar, Max – Racism, Education and Black Self-Organisation (1993)
  • Leeds International Council – ‘Strangers in our Midst’: Report of a Conference convened to study the Relations of White and Coloured People in Leeds (1955)
  • Oates, Jonathan ed., – The Memoranda Book of John Lucas: 1712-1750 (2006)
  • Walker, Melody – A Journey Through our History: The Story of the Jamaican People in Leeds (2003)
  • Zulfiqar, Mohsin ed., – Land of Hope and Glory? The Presence of African, Asian and Caribbean Communities in Leeds (1993)

 

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