One of the most enthralling street parties in the world would never have happened without Claudia Jones, but she was also a talented journalist and a tireless campaigner for human rights.
Born in Trinidad in 1915, Claudia Jones grew up in Harlem, as at the age of eight her family decided to escape the post-war recession that had taken hold of the Caribbean island. Their fortunes didn’t fare much better in the US however, and things got worse when Jones’ mother passed away when she was just 12 years old.
She was academically bright, but suffered from tuberculosis from a young age which affected her studies. When it came graduating she was unable to attend her own ceremony as her dad couldn’t afford to buy her a gown.
Jones took a series of menial jobs like working in a launderette, until the case of the Scottsboro Boys inspired her to join the American Communist party. These nine black teenagers were wrongfully accused and convicted of raping two white girls on a train, and the Communist Party had helped to get them a proper defence for their re-trial (despite this all served lengthy jail terms, with just one of them being pardoned while still alive). Here was a political party that dared to defy the racism ingrained in the establishment, and Jones wanted to be a part of it.
Identifying herself as a Marxist-Leninist, Jones’ eloquence led to her becoming one of their spokespeople as well as the editor of the party’s newspaper. By the age of 25 she was the National Director of the Young Communist League; she also travelled the country giving public speeches, and wrote for the Daily Worker and the Weekly Review, both left wing publications. But this was the 1940s, when McCarthy’s witch hunt was in full swing and communists were enemies of the state. Jones was sent to prison on more than one occasion, but she refused to stop campaigning. Eventually she was deported, and in 1955 she came to the UK.
Once in London, the British Communist Party showed little interest in the contributions of a black woman. In 1958 she decided to found her own newspaper, one that spoke about the rights of Afro-Caribbean people. The West Indian Gazette was born, covering civil rights and social injustice as well as world politics and the arts.
This was also the year of the Notting Hill Riots. The 1950s saw the first wave of immigrants arrive from the Caribbean, as the British economy was starting to flourish after years of post-war depression. The British government welcomed the new arrivals who came to fill the gaps in the workforce, but this sentiment wasn’t echoed across the nation. Many settled in Notting Hill, but unfortunately this was also the home of the National Labour Party, a far right political group set up to oppose non-white immigration.
Although not quite as hostile as the US, London in the 1950s was not kind to black people. A wall by St. Matthew’s Church in Brixton boldly proclaimed “Keep Britain White”, and white and black people were largely segregated on public transport and in pubs and bars. The Race Relations Act, which put in place laws against discrimination based on race, didn’t come into effect until 1976.
The west London neighbourhood became a hot bed of tension and violence, culminating in the riots and the killing of Kelso Cochrane, a young carpenter from Antigua. He was assaulted by a group of white youths who were never caught, and although the police quickly classed the case as robbery, it was widely believed the crime was racially motivated.
In 1959, the year after the riots, Jones was keen to set up an event that promoted West Indian culture in a bid to build bridges between communities, and put the troubles in the past. The idea of a mardi gras was suggested, although it was winter and therefore had to be held indoors. The first event was an evening of Caribbean music and dancing which took place at St. Pancras Town Hall, and Jones arranged for its broadcast on the BBC. It was repeated for the next few years, until the first outdoor Notting Hill Carnival was organised in 1966. Today the carnival draws a crowd of around a million people on each of its two days, second in size only to the famous Rio de Janeiro parade.
Claudia Jones died of a massive heart attack in 1964 at the age of 49, after a lifelong battle with health problems. Her funeral was a huge political ceremony, and she was buried in Highgate Cemetery next to her ideological hero, Karl Marx.
The carnival originated at a time of great polarisation, and the parallels between 1950s Britain and today’s divided post-EU referendum nation are clear. Jones’ legacy serves as a reminder of what multiculturalism has given this country – a healthy labour force that helps keep the economy ticking along, and a wealth of food, music and cultures that enrich our day to day lives.
This is an updated version of the feature originally published on All In London
Notting Hill carnival photo by Cristiano Betta, under CC BY 2.0