Black Firsts Blog: Who remembers Cy Grant?

He was one of my first heart throbs when I came to England, and the first black heart throb on UK TV: all my friends in 1959 fancied Cy Grant. We thought he was so, so handsome .. and he was on TV. He was a star.
Cy Grant was a Guyanese-born actor, singer and writer, who in the 1950s became the first black person to appear regularly on British TV on the Tonight news programme with Cliff Michelmore. Most nights he sang a witty calypso commenting on items in the news.
But Cy had many other talents. He was a poet and author of many books, including his 2007 memoir Blackness and the Dreaming Soul.
Cy Grant served in the Royal Air Force during WW II. He was commissioned as an officer after training in England as a navigator. He joined 102 Squadron based at Elshan Woods in Lincolnshire, one of a seven-man crew of a Lancaster bomber.
On his third mission Flight Lieutenant Grant was shot down over the Netherlands during the 1943 RAF offensive, the Battle of Ruho. He parachuted to safety but was captured by German troops and was made prisoner of war in Stalag Luft 111 camp. He was finally liberated by allied forces in 1945.
After the war he qualified as a barrister in 1950. When he was unable to find work at the bar, in spite of his distinguished war record and legal qualification, he took up acting.
Sadly, Cy passed away two years ago, on February 13, 2010. His website is still online www.cygrant.com where you can still read his blog and find out more about his life and work.

Here’s a link to some archive footage showing Cy when I first saw him on the Tonight TV programme in 1959.

Here’s a link to Cy talking about his WW II experiences

Black Firsts Blog: Claudia Jones

Read this newspaper cutting from 1989.

Now here’s someone who deserves to be remembered – Claudia Jones.

She died on 24 December 1964, aged 49, so it’s appropriate to remember her at Christmas.
She was such a very special lady. There aren’t many people who are buried next to Karl Marx, but Claudia Jones, out of a mark of respect from the Communist party, is buried next to him in Highgate cemetery in London..

Claudia was a Communist in America in the 1950s which was a dangerous position to be in at that time. So she was incarcerated on Ellis Island (with Paul Robeson and others), eventually released because of ill health and deported to Britain.

Claudia was a trained journalist. She arrived in Britain in 1955 and became the first Black woman publisher in the UK. She launched and ran the West Indian Gazette which became an important newspaper for Caribbean people of the Windrush generation..

She campaigned for black liberation, women’s rights and against the 1962 Immigration Bill. Her legacy lives on with the Notting Hill Carnival which she was instrumental in establishing.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudia_Jones

Black Firsts Blog: Father Howard James

This newspaper cutting from the Caribbean Times in 1991 highlighted another interesting black first in the UK.

Father Howard James made history by becoming the first British born person of Caribbean decent to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest. I was very interested to highlight a black member of the priesthood.

Father James was born in the UK but his parents took him back to live in Jamaica where he received his early education. He later returned to live in the UK and pinpointed his Jamaican school boy days at St Mary’s College in Jamaica, as laying the foundation for his priesthood.
Father Howard is still active in the church – see this link.
http://www.stjohnsislington.org/OurPriests.htm

Black Firsts Blog: Lydia Emelda Simmons

The 1980s was the decade when black people in the UK started to make their mark in British institutions and political life. We saw black men and women entering politics and local government, education, housing, the justice system and so on.

Mrs Lydia Emelda Simmons was one of these pioneering figures from the 1980s. This cutting from the Voice in 1984 shows Mrs Simmons, who made history by becoming the first black woman to be appointed mayor in Britain when she was inaugurated as Mayor of Slough Borough Council.

Mrs Simmons, who was born in Montserrat, had a full time job and a family. She said that one of the main reasons for becoming involved in politics was because of the lack of facilities for young people in the community, and “I realised that the only place you could have a say was on the council”.

I shall be highlighting more of these 1980s pioneering figures in future blogs.


Black Firsts Blog: Whatever happened to Cory Roberts?

When I came across this story of Cory Roberts (printed in The Voice, August 28, 1989) – the young lad with the friendly face, who was on the verge of becoming the first professional black jockey – I was well pleased because I was keen to find black firsts from as wide a variety of occupations as possible. So I thought here is one sport where the presence of black people is certainly not conspicuous, he’ll make a good role model.

Today, however, I have been searching for Cory but can find no trace of him.

Cory Roberts, 17, “the food-loving pint-sized youngster” as he was described by his colleagues, who never puts on weight, was 4″ 8″ tall, and 7 stones 8 pounds in weight, an ideal size for a jockey. He worked his way up from a table hand riding ponies to a competent rider of thoroughbreds in the space of 18 months, according to the article.

Cory was born in Birmingham but moved to Merseyside to live with his foster mother at a young age. From the age of 14 he had set his heart on becoming a jockey. When he left school he went on a Youth Training Scheme (YTS) at a local stable. His ambition, he said, was to ride a Derby winner.

Back then he was ready to take on the country by the reins and become the only black professional currently on the circuit.

But where is he now?

And an afterthought: I noticed that the photographer’s byline was for Leroy Jones-Hemmings. Come forth Leroy!

Black firsts blog: Barbara Blake Hannah

This week at the Black Entertainment, Film, Fashion, Television and the Arts awards in London, Barbara Blake Hannah received the Beffta Lifetime Achievement award for “opening the doors for black media in England”.

Barbara, who now heads up Jamaica’s Reggae Film Festival and has several films and books to her name, including Rastafari – The New Creation, said: “It’s great to be recognised after all this time.”

I was so pleased when I read about the award because, way back in the late 1960s, I remember the shock, and at the same time, the excitement of walking into the front room and seeing a black woman presenter on the television – Barbara Blake.

This was a first! We had never seen a black presenter before on TV. I was mesmerized. For a while I was more interested in just ‘looking at her’ – feeling proud, and noting the way she dressed, wondering how she managed to keep her hair so nicely in place – and less on what she had to say.

Some years later I had the pleasure of meeting Barbara, in person, when she came to Handsworth, Birmingham.

It was in 1968 that Barbara was appointed one of three on-camera reporter/interviewers on Thames TV’s daily evening news show, Today with Eamon Andrews.

Her TV presence was short lived but her story reveals much of the working climate in those days. About her experiences, she wrote “After nine months my contract was terminated and I was told that the producers were under pressure from viewers who called in daily to say ‘Get that n****r off our screens’. My next job was in a similar capacity with ATV Birmingham’s Today show aired during a time when Enoch Powell had made immigration a major issue. I could not get a hotel room in that city and had to return each night to London and commute each morning by train back to Birmingham, until I finally got a room at the YWCA.”

A true pioneer and one who rightly deserves to be honoured.

You can see Barbara as she appeared on TV in the 1960s here

She also wrote about her early television experiences in this article which appeared in The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/oct/23/television-raceandreligion

Why a black firsts blog?

One of the projects I did a lot of research for when I was in charge of Handprint, but which never saw the light of day, was a book called Black Firsts. The idea was inspired by the very popular series of books by the American publishers Empak, which Handprint distributed in the UK.

The Empak books celebrated the achievements of Afro-Americans in the fields of science, arts and culture and politics. Although the books focused exclusively on black Americans, they proved to be very popular in British schools where teachers were looking for materials that projected positive images of black achievement.

As the Handprint press cuttings library began to grow, I realised that it might be possible to put together something similar about African Caribbean people in the UK.

I had all but forgotten about this unrealised project until I began work on this website. Then, as I began to trawl through the Handprint archives in our spare room, I came across a battered old manilla folder with scores of newspaper cuttings – everything from the first black footballer to play for England (Viv Anderson) to The first black woman mayor (Lydia Emelda Simmons) and much more besides.

The reasons for publishing information about black firsts have changed since the 1980s, of course. Then, the need for positive images of black achievement was critical in the face of the almost incessant torrent of negative reports about black people in the media, which sustained and fueled the institutional racism endemic in almost every section of British society.

Thirty years on, the landscape is clearly very different. But I think there’s a real value in recalling some of these pioneering figures, and the struggles they had to go through to make their mark. So I’m going to be posting some of the contents of that battered manilla folder on a regular basis because, as Marcus Garvey reminds us “a people without a past are a people without a future”.