The final part in my three part series! Part one was about Mary Fillis and Dido Elizabeth Belle in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries respectively and part two concerned Kathleen Easmon and Florence Mills, who were both mainly active in the 1920s. Today we’re looking at Sarah Parker Remond and Claudia Jones, who both spoke out against unjust treatment of Black people – Remond in the nineteenth century and Jones in the twentieth – and were also women who showed amazing fortitude, regardless of what life and society threw their way. I imagine, if they’d ever had the chance to meet, they’d have got on famously! Claudia Jones is also famous to many for her links to Notting Hill Carnival.
Sarah Parker Remond (1826 – 1894)
Remond dedicated her life to women’s rights and suffrage, women’s education, and an end to slavery and racial discrimination. Yeah, she didn’t do things by halves. I think some of this deep sense of justice came from her family and upbringing. She was born in 1826 in Salem, Massachusetts and her family were very active in the American and also the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, and their home regularly served as a meeting place for abolitionists, so Remond grew up in this environment which practised and encouraged speaking out against injustice. Her mother, Nancy, was also one of the founders of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society. Later in life, in a letter which appeared in the English Woman’s Journal, Remond wrote about the important influence her mother had had on her, that “her discipline taught us to gather strength from our own souls; and we felt the full force of the fact, that to be black was no crime.”
Remond was largely home-schooled and self-educated, and learnt a lot from the many books and newspapers which filled her childhood home. The reason she ended up being home-schooled was because of racial prejudice she faced within the school system. In 1835, she started at Salem High School with her sister, but after complaints from white parents, within a week, the segregationist school board decided to remove all Black students and start a separate school for them. Rather than subject their daughters to such discriminatory behaviour, the family left Salem for Rhode Island. Don’t worry, the school also had their comeuppance: in 1841, Remond’s father campaigned against segregated schools in Salem. He won and the family returned to the city. A year later, at the young age of 16, Remond gave her first public speech against slavery, which took place in Groton, Massachusetts with her older brother Charles.
It was also with Charles that she’d attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention a couple of years before in 1840. It was held in London at Exeter Hall (which stood on the Strand until 1907) and Charles Remond was one of four delegates from Massachusetts. Remond was still very young and so was probably joining her brother more for the experience than as an active member of the delegation, but even if she had wanted to take part in the Convention she wouldn’t have been allowed. While women were permitted to watch from the spectators’ gallery, they could not contribute. In solidarity with the excluded women, Charles Remond and another of the Massachusetts’ delegates, William Lloyd Garrison, among others, sat in the gallery with them.
Left: Charles Remond / Right: Anti-Slavery Convention 1840, Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1841 (Both photos: Wikimedia Commons)
In the 1850s, Sarah Remond started lecturing more regularly, mostly against slavery, and this took her all over the United States. By January 1859, this had also brought her to England. Her message and her skill as a lecturer had crossed international waters because she’d been invited over by British abolitionists. This made her the first Black woman to undertake a lecture tour around Britain and many of her UK lectures were delivered to sold out crowds of thousands. Despite her popular reception, while on tour, she was often refused service in hotels and had to stay in private homes instead, including, in London, the home of Ellen and William Craft, fellow abolitionists who had fled slavery in the States.
In her lectures, Remond spoke out against the slavery which remained firmly entrenched in the southern states of the USA. By 1850, four million men, women and children lived in bondage. Remond wasn’t the only one to take up this mantle either: in the nineteenth century, many Americans came over to Britain to denounce the slavery which continued in the States and to generate support for the abolitionist cause. Remond spoke frankly about the sexual exploitation of enslaved Black women – this was really important, because Remond refused to shy away from a topic which many considered off limits for discussion in public. She also lectured about discrimination more widely in the States. Not content with just speaking at people, she sought active participation from them. In 1863, she helped found the Ladies’ London Emancipation Society, an abolitionist group, thought to be the first national anti-slavery organisation for women in this country. She served as an Executive Committee Member. Around this time, Remond was staying at Aubury House in Holland Park, the home of the honorary secretary of the Emancipation Society, Clementia Taylor. It was also at this address in 1866 that a petition was prepared, a very important petition demanding women’s suffrage. It was the first mass Votes for Women petition. Of course, Sarah Parker Remond was one of over 1,500 women who signed, and she is the only known Black woman to have put her name on the petition.
It was presented to Parliament on behalf of the signatories by Member of Parliament John Stuart Mill. Unfortunately it was unsuccessful – the vote wasn’t opened up to all women until 1928 – but it was this petition in 1866 which led to the first debate on votes for women in Parliament the following year.
Another thing which strikes me about Remond is that she had an insatiable appetite for knowledge and constantly sought to further her education. In 1859, she enrolled at Bedford College for Lades. She was one of their first students (it had only been founded in 1849) and was probably the institution’s first Black student. She studied History, French, Latin, Music, English Literature and Elocution in her two years there, although I very much doubt her need for Elocution lessons!! She didn’t forget her lecturing, however, and continued to tour during the school breaks. In 1865, she became a British citizen (documents held in the National Archives) and it was also that year, aged 41, she decided it was time for a career change, she enrolled at University College London, and retrained as a nurse. Her legacy continues there: just last year, UCL established the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism & Racialisation. The following year, she relocated to Florence in Italy and started at one of Europe’s most prestigious medical schools, Santa Maria Nuovo. In a letter of recommendation to the Santa Maria Nuovo, Remond was applauded for her skills, attention and kindness toward her patients. In 1868, she passed her exams to practise obstetrics and midwifery which she continued until her death in 1894. She is buried in Rome.
“I appeal on behalf of four million men, women and children who are chattels in the Southern States of America. Not because they are identical with my race and colour, though I am proud of that identity, but because they are men and women.”– Sarah Parker Remond, Liverpool, 1859
Claudia Jones (1915 – 1964)
Another woman who dedicated her life to helping others. She fought for racial and gender equality in areas from employment to housing to education. She was born in Trinidad in 1915, but at 8 years old moved to New York and lived there for the next 30 years. She caused quite a stir during her time there: she became a member of the Communist Party USA, was jailed four times for her political activism (or, as it was determined at the time, her “un-American activities”), and was finally deported as a communist in 1955. She was refused re-entry to Trinidad by the colonial governor who was worried that she would “prove troublesome”, and was subsequently offered residency in the UK on humanitarian grounds and was in London by the end of 1955. You can see some of the impact she must have had on communities in New York because 350 people came to wish her farewell in Harlem that December in 1955.
Not one to be perturbed by a complete relocation, ill health (tuberculosis and a heart attack, no biggie), and a racist and fractious Britain, she quite quickly set about changing the world from Brixton, London. She made two major contributions to London life in the nine years that she was here: The West Indian Gazette in 1858 and this country’s first regular Caribbean festival, the precursor to Notting Hill Carnival, in 1859.
While The West Indian Gazette (WIG) no longer exists, it is important to note because it was the first major Black newspaper in this country. While small journals and newsletters within organisations already existed, this was the first newspaper to grace the shelves of high street shops, and it gave a voice and a more cohesive identity to 100,000 Caribbean people who called London home. It came out monthly and featured news from across London, the country, the Caribbean, and the world. It contained pieces by huge names like W.E.B. Du Bois and features on the arts, published poems and stories, and also interviewed people like writer and activist James Baldwin. Despite its importance and the high profile of its writers and features, the newspaper struggled constantly for money, right from the start, often finding it a challenge just to raise the £100 needed to pay the printers for each issue.
The West Indian Gazette was founded in Brixton and its editorial office could be found at 250 Brixton Road, up the steps at the back of Theo Campbell’s record shop. It was founded in a Brixton which had, and still has, a thriving West Indian community, but a Brixton which was also graffitied with the slogan “Keep Britain White” (for example, on the wall opposite St. Matthews Church) and which was frequented by the British Union of Fascists and their Union Flag-draped lorry (at what is now Windrush Square). Racial tensions were on the rise across the country, exacerbated by hostile groups like the Teddy Boys and the White Defence League, and just four months after WIG was announced, on 29th August 1958, these tensions boiled over and the Notting Hill race riots began, with similar incidents in Nottingham. The streets of Notting Hill become a warzone every night for almost a week, as a 200-strong white mob rampaged through Notting Hill armed with weapons, attacking Black homes and businesses, and crying racist slogans. It was a struggle to regain order, and in the end 108 people were arrested, and despite numerous injuries, miraculously, nobody was killed.
It was out of the ashes of the riots that Jones’ second legacy came about: Britain’s first regular Caribbean festival, which was held for the first time in January 1959. Jones intended it as a celebration of Caribbean culture, to heal the scars left on London’s Caribbean community after the riots, and to try and bring Black and white people together. On the front cover of the 1959 souvenir brochure it says, “A part of the proceeds [from the sale] of this brochure are to assist the payments of fines of coloured and white youths involved in the Notting Hill events.”
It was an indoor festival held in St. Pancras Town Hall in January 1959, televised by the BBC, featuring music, steel pans, dancing, amazing food, and a Caribbean Queen beauty contest and costume competitions. The legacy of Jones’ carnival cabarets continued until her death in 1964. While it did not directly inspire the Notting Hill Carnival we know and love today (which started in 1966), I believe it set important groundwork for what is now Europe’s largest street festival.
In addition to running the WIG and organising annual Caribbean festivals, Jones seems to have kept herself busy in all of the in between times as well! In the early 1960s, she organised campaigns against the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill which sought to curb non-white immigration into the UK. On 31st August 1963, in solidarity with Martin Luther King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom during which he delivered his iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Claudia Jones organised an anti-racism march from Ladbroke Grove station to the old US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. All of this despite her own failing health.
Sadly, this was one foe she couldn’t stand against and she died in 1964, aged just 49, of a heart attack. Her West Indian Gazette, which had depended so much on the energy and dedication of its leader didn’t long outlive her; the newspaper shut down just eight months and four editions after Jones’ death. Her gravestone in Highgate Cemetery remembers her as a “valiant fighter against racism and imperialism who dedicated her life to the progress of socialism and the liberation of her own black people.”
The new mural celebrating Claudia Jones just off Ladbroke Grove, painted by Josephine Hicks for London Mural Festival 2020!
Sarah Parker Remond
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