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Culture and Festivals
In 1772 Lord Justice Mansfield ruled that Black slaves could not be removed from England against their wishes. This had the effect of loosening the ties of slavery in England. During the last part of the 18th century, as the Black population of Britain increased in the wake of the American Revolution, they were able to move into occupations such as crossing sweepers, sellers of tracts, fruit vendors, and entertainers.
By the 19th century the Black beggars and crossing sweepers had more or less disappeared from the streets of British cities, and Blacks, from the Caribbean in particular, were occupied largely as footmen and coachmen, in the army, and overwhelmingly, in the merchant navy. Some Caribbean immigrants were engaged in manufacturing industries such as William Davidson who played an important part in the rise of the labour movement.
Around the time of the First World War, approximately 15,000 Caribbeans from the British Caribbean were recruited into the British West Indies Regiment. Many Caribbeans were attracted to work opportunities in the munitions and chemical factories in various parts of Britain especially the North West.
After the war, white seamen who had been demobilised returned to the service of the merchant navy. At the same time the number of ships decreased and jobs contracted, and soon there were hundreds of Black and white men out of work in the sector. The situation led to racist riots in 1919, which was followed by legislation compelling the registration of Black seamen who were actually British subjects as aliens, thereby limiting their chances of employment.
The years in between the wars were marked by a steady build-up of discrimination against Black workers, and the almost uniform 'colour bar', even in professions like nursing, where Mary Seacole had established a well known and pioneering role.
In 1933 the July journal of the League of Coloured Peoples reported on discrimination in hospitals. 'One young lady applied to 25 Hospitals and was refused by every one on the grounds of "colour". The Overseas Nursing Association to which notice this case was brought said that they had "applied to 18 hospitals in London and the provinces and they all said that could not take coloured probationers at present." Read the special feature on Caribbean nurses in the National Health Service.
This was the tip of the iceberg. In general, Caribbean employment in Britain was confined to professional men, doctors like Harold Moody, or students, entertainers and musicians.
The Second World War brought large numbers of Caribbeans to Britain, mostly as members of the armed forces or as nurses. Caribbeans became accustomed to working in the factories and hospitals in Britain. Despite a growing discontent about colonial rule and instances of racial discrimination in the recruitment of officers, those who were already settled in the country threw themselves enthusiastically into working in occupations like air raid wardens and fire watchers. By the end of the war, a large number of Caribbeans had gained an unprecedented familiarity with working life and working practices in Britain.
The end of the war created a new demand for labour throughout western Europe. Britain was busy rebuilding, and workers from all over Europe and the Commonwealth were pouring in to help with the task. In spite of the traditions of racial discrimination which had flourished in the inter-war years, the government were still considering the recruitment of Caribbean labour on a large scale. - read the government correspondence on proposals to recruit large numbers of Caribbean workers to deal with the labour shortage in some British industries after the war.
At the same time, Caribbean servicemen were eager to return to Britain or unwilling to leave partly because of the traditionally high unemployment and poverty of the region. The arrival of the Windrush in 1948, carrying a group of former servicemen, marked the beginning of a stream of Caribbean recruits into the British labour market. Read about the demobilisation and repatriation of Caribbean personnel in the Royal Air Force after the war.
There were plenty of jobs available, largely in the big cities, as porters, street cleaners, factory and building site labourers. Caribbeans were generally excluded from higher-paid and skilled jobs, especially those that were heavily unionised, for instance, the textile and mining industries in Yorkshire. On the other hand, the public sector industries, hospitals, transport, for example, London Transport and the railways, along with the General Post Office(GPO), offered Black Caribbeans semi-skilled and reasonably paid work. Nursing and hairdressing, for instance, offered Black women secure employment and a pathway to professional status.
Outside of these areas, Caribbean workers faced a general and widespread pattern of discrimination throughout the 1950s, not least from the trade unionists among their colleagues.
In Bristol, for instance, the Transport and General Workers' union faced an uphill task persuading its members to accept Black workers on the buses, in spite of their success in London.
In the GPO, where a substantial proportion of Caribbeans worked, the union was dominated, until the end of the 1960s, by rightwing nationalist politics; year after year branch officials were elected who openly advocated the racist policies of Mosley and Powell. Also during the 1960s, it was the dock workers' march on Parliament in support of Enoch Powell's speeches against anti-racist legislation that gave him the credibility he enjoyed.
The anti-discrimination legislation which accompanied the laws limiting immigration throughout the decade of the 1960s altered the general picture. Black Caribbean workers began moving into the trade unions and finding work in previously restricted areas, such as motor car manufacturing.
Fords in Dagenham and the car building complex in the Midlands became major employers of Caribbean labour. At the other end of the scale, local authorities and services began employing Black people in white collar occupations, as social workers and council officials, for example. At the same time, however, unemployment among young Black people remained at a higher level than their white counterparts, and in the private sector, another struggle over pay and conditions began.
Watch this video interview with Sharon Platt Macdonald of the Kings Fund Black and Ethnic Leadership Programme.
Early in the 1970s, it became apparent that the atmosphere and relationship of the Caribbeans and the workplace had changed radically. The legislation against discrimination and overt expressions of racial hatred in the previous decade had forced a wider recruitment of migrants, and suppressed the more extreme forms of racial harassment at work. Job opportunities for Caribbeans continued to be dominated by transport, communications, health and other public services. During the 1980s, more than 60% of Caribbeans worked in these areas, and this was reflected in the rise of trade union membership among them, but they continued to be largely excluded from professional and managerial roles. Less than half as many Caribbeans achieved the job levels held by similarly qualified whites.
The first migrants from the Caribbean, coming from a region of low employment had been eager to engage in any work available. Their children, on the other hand, tended to compare their prospects with those of their white counterparts. During the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, unemployment among the children of Caribbean migrants ran at three to four times that of white school leavers.
"I bent over backward to get some of the youngsters on courses because I used to know a lot of people at Paddington college, but they not interested. They say 'What's the use going on these courses and when you finished you can't get a job?'."
Cecil Holness worked as a youth worker in Brixton, London from 1970 till 1974. Listen to his memories of working with young people.
Creators: Mike Phillips
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