Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The third Londoner in the series would probably get on well with the previous Turbulent Londoner, Charlotte Despard. Claudia Jones was a black equal rights activist, and is known as the mother of the Notting Hill Carnival.
Claudia Jones was an influential campaigner for London’s Caribbean community from the mid-1950s until her death a decade later. She is known as ‘the mother of Notting Hill Carnival’, and founded The West Indian Gazette, the first newspaper printed in London for the Black community. Born in Trinidad, she was deported to the UK from America after being imprisoned for ‘un-American activities.’ She continued to campaign right up until her death in 1964.
Claudia Jones was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1915. Her family emigrated to New York City when she was 9, where they unfortunately remained poor. When she was 17, Claudia caught tuberculosis, which irreparably damaged her lungs, troubling her for the rest of her life. Despite this ill health she became a committed campaigner, joining the American Communist party in 1936. She proved to be a talented journalist, in 1945, she became the youngest staff member for the Daily Worker, as the ‘Negro Affairs’ editor.
As well as writing, Claudia organised youth, Civil Rights and religious groups as well as immigrant rights committees. She was a victim of McCarthyism after World War II, and was deported in 1955. Trinidad refused to accept her, and she was eventually offered asylum in Britain in October.
Claudia arrived in the UK at a time of massive immigration from the Caribbean. Many of the new immigrants were discriminated against by landlords, shopkeepers, employers and even the government because of their colour. Finding that many British Communists were hostile to a black woman, Claudia became a key leader in the African-Caribbean community, organising access to basic facilities, as well as taking an active role in the early campaign for racial equality.
From her work in the US, Claudia knew it was important for minority groups to have a voice, so in 1958 she founded The West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News, and edited it until her death 6 years later. Anti-racist and anti-imperialist, the paper provided a forum for the discussion of civil rights, and reported news that was frequently overlooked by the mainstream media.
In August 1958 racial riots occurred in Notting Hill in London and Robin Hood Chase in Nottingham. Claudia and several other leaders of the British black community were concerned by the racist analysis of the riots in the British media. She recognised the need to improve relations between different local communities, so she helped to organise the first Mardi-Gras style Caribbean carnival in St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959. It was a big event, and televised nationally by the BBC. Claudia and The West Indian Gazette also arranged five other annual indoor Caribbean Carnivals in London, which are seen as precursors to the Notting Hill Carnival, one of the most popular events in London’s calendar.
Claudia died on Christmas Eve 1964, when she was just 49. Despite struggling with the impacts of tuberculosis for much of her short life, she faced the dual disadvantages of being female and black with confidence, becoming a successful journalist and respected community leader and activist. She didn’t chose to move to London but she embraced her new home with gusto, fighting hard to make the city a better place for its burgeoning black community.
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