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Billy Strachan with his wife, Joyce Smith

Legends of Windrush: Influential Caribbeans who made Britain their home

Image: Flight Lieutenant Billy Strachan and his wife, Joyce Smith | Public Domain

In this guest article, Tony Warner, the founder of Black History Walks and author of Black History Walks Volume 1, highlights several inspirational figures associated with the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush.

It is now 75 years since the famous Windrush ship arrived at Tilbury Docks, ushering in what is now known as the ‘Windrush Generation’. Of course, there has been a Black presence here since Roman times 2,000 years ago, but the term Windrush has come to define the presence and experiences of Black people post World War II.

Here is a short history of a few people who were present before and after 1948 to give a flavour of the Black experience. It also gives some context for the so-called ‘Windrush Scandal’ which should really be called the ‘Home Office Scandal’.

Flight Lieutenant Billy Strachan

Billy Strachan was a Jamaican who fought for Britain in WWII, first as a gunner on RAF Wellington bombers. Unusually, after 30 flying missions he was re-trained as a Lancaster bomber pilot.

After the war, he trained as a lawyer and due to the increasing racism Black people experienced, got heavily involved in the Black British Civil Rights movement. He published a newspaper called Caribbean News which campaigned for equality as a direct result of the colour bars faced by the Windrush Generation.

He was a founder of London’s Caribbean Labour Congress which lobbied for universal suffrage in the West Indies. He used his wartime experience and legal knowledge to fight against imperialism and teamed up with Dr Harold Moody’s ‘League of Coloured Peoples’.

Baron Baker

Baron Baker was another WWII veteran and a military policeman. He was one of the first Black people to move into Notting Hill from Jamaica in . After experiencing the colour bar in accommodation with signs that stated, ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ to men who had just risked their lives fighting for Britain, Baker set up an ex-servicemen’s club to help them find places to stay.

When he heard the Windrush was on its way in June 1948, he immediately knew they would have a hard time. He, therefore, lobbied the government to open the deep, air-raid shelter at Clapham Common and use it as accommodation for the many WWII military veterans on the ship. The nearest labour exchange/job centre to Clapham was in bombed-out Brixton. This directly led to the establishment of the Black community in Brixton. At the time Baron, was known as the godfather of Brixton.

His community activism carried on into the 1950s when fascist Oswald Mosley and the Teddy Boys encouraged racist attacks on Black people in Notting Hill. Baron Baker formed a Black self-defence group of ex-World War II veterans who would patrol the streets, escort people home and give them advice on how to deal with bricks through the window or arson attacks.

In August 1958, his headquarters was surrounded and attacked by 300 white hooligans baying, ‘Let's lynch the n*****s! Let’s kill the n*****s!’ Baron Baker and his soldiers knew all about countering terrorism. From the time the ‘n word’ was shouted, a barrage of petrol bombs sailed down from the rooftop causing the racists to scatter.

Baron Baker was arrested and beaten but his second in command took over and the soldiers spilled out into the streets of Notting Hill and defended the Black community.

Beryl Gilroy

Beryl Gilroy arrived in Britain from Guyana in 1951 and struggled to get a job as a teacher despite her qualifications. She became one of the first Black headteachers in Britain in 1969 at the Beckford primary school in Camden. Her 1976 book, Black Teacher, was refused by mainstream publishers as it was ‘too raw’.

Ms Gilroy went on to diversify the curriculum at a time when such terms were brand new. She also wrote children’s books with Black characters in them which was revolutionary at the time.

Her own children received a stellar education and went on to be pioneering educators. Professor Darla Gilroy is now Associate Dean at Central School St Martins. Professor Paul Gilroy heads up the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Race and Racialisation at University College London. The centre was born out of student protests of the eugenics history at UCL.

Professor Gilroy grew up being called racist names in the streets of London and is now one the most respected academics in the fields of race, history, culture and politics. He has published a library of critically acclaimed books on the subjects including There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack (1973), The Black Atlantic (1993) and Black Britain (2007). In 2019 he was awarded the Holberg Prize for outstanding academic contributions.

Jocelyn Barrow

Trinidadian Jocelyn Barrow came to England in 1959 and was made a Dame in 1992 for her outstanding anti-racist community work. Among her many achievements was breaking the colour bar in the West End. In the late 60s and early 70s, shops in Oxford Street and Regent Street had a colour bar against Black people in customer-facing roles. You could be a porter or stack shelves in the warehouse, but handling food, clothes or shoes was a bridge too far.

Dame Jocelyn lobbied for and achieved a meeting with the head of Marks and Spencer. She persuaded him to employ some Black girls thereby breaking the colour bar. Other stores followed suit especially as Dame Joycelyn threatened them with legal action backed up by the 1968 Race Relations Act which she had just successfully lobbied. As a qualified teacher, she also teamed up with Dr Beryl Gilroy to fight racism in education.

She campaigned against the discriminatory The Black and White Minstrel Show which portrayed harmful, negative stereotypes of Black people on the BBC right up to 1978 when it was finally cancelled. In 1981 she became the first Black governor at the BBC when Black people were hardly on TV. She cleared the way for many of the Black journalists/presenters and actors we know today.