Claudia Jones celebrated at Highgate Cemetery
The quiet Trinidadian who led a revolution is once again given some of the spotlight she deserves
She was the “Godmother of modern black Britain”, founder of the Notting Hill Carnival and a prominent political figure – yet Claudia Jones has almost been forgotten in history.
To commemorate Black History Month, journalist and historian Steve Martin will discuss Jones’s active and brief life at Highgate Cemetery, where her ashes are buried next to Karl Marx’s grave.
“She was what I consider the Godmother of modern black Britain today but she is little known and discussed in the public sphere, even in the black community,” he says.
Trinidad-born Jones spent 31 years in America before coming to London, where she was a member of the American Communist Party and part of the editorial team on the Daily Worker. After many published articles, including a critically titled An End To The Problems Of The Negro Woman!, her vocal stance led to her being a victim of the McCarthy witch hunts and being deported from the country.
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The peak of her political career came when she arrived in London and took her first steps towards founding the first newspaper of the black British press, The West Indian Gazette And Afro-Asian Caribbean News, in 1958 above a barber’s shop in Brixton. “The climate was really hostile for that community at the time,” says Martin. “She scraped, scrimped, begged and borrowed to bring the publication together. Because of her reputation politically from America, she had a good circle of influential friends like Sam King (the first mayor of Southwark), Donald Hynes and Jimmy Fairweather. These people helped her, but she really had to beg and borrow to start it up. She would have had additional social and political capital given her arrests and activism.”
Hynes writes about his experience of Jones and the paper: “Looking back, it seems preposterous that the only coherent voice from the Black community in Britain was a monthly paper that was so strapped for cash, it often could not find the �100 needed to pay the printers. And, thinking back, it is frightening to contemplate which was in worst shape, the appalling finances of the paper or Claudia’s health.”
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Jones was an incessant campaigner against racism in housing, education and employment. She addressed peace rallies and the Trade Union Congress and visited Japan, Russia, and China. She also campaigned against the 1876 Immigration Act, which would make it harder for non-white people to migrate to Britain.
“She also was the founder of the black hair and beauty shows of the early 60s,” says Martin. “Whatever you think of beauty pageants and shows, these were a key element of black culture and a major historical milestone.”
Perhaps a legacy that most Londoners will identify with is Jones’s creation of what is now known as the Notting Hill Carnival. After the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, she managed to gain access to St Pancras town hall to stage the first “carnival” based on Brazil’s Mardi Gras. “This was a creative response to a political problem and a very Trinidadian art form too,” says Martin. “She said: ‘The art of a people is the genesis of their future.’ I think she would be a bit aghast at the commercial element of carnival today. I think she would be alarmed at the size of it and the variety of the music.”
Although much is known about Jones’s work for the black British community, little is known about her personal life, other than her ill health. She had six heart attacks: the first at 36 and the final one which killed her on Christmas Eve 1964.
“There was a distinct lack of relationships in her life,” says Martin. “I have spoken to people who knew her and asked this question and they looked at me nonplussed. Even people very close to her do not know if she ever had a personal relationship. When she died in 1964, it took a few days before people even realised she was dead. The picture I have gained is of a very solitary figure.”
So why, with all the work Jones contributed to creating racial harmony and enfranchising the blackBritish population and constant cries from academics and journalists to mark her memory, is she little celebrated today – save for a blue plaque in Notting Hill?
“There was no jocular aspect to her and there was no glamour – she was a political heavyweight but not a firebrand,” says Martin. “She was more interested in just getting the job done. There was nothing showy about her.”
Steve Martin will talk about Claudia Jones and her legacy at the chapel at Highgate Cemetery on October 17. Doors open at 7pm, talk starts at 7.30pm (and lasts about an hour). Booking in advance by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets �7 (�5 for students) including refreshments and nibbles.