‘Life is a two-way street’
In Black History Month, Angela Cobbinah joins the remarkable campaigner Dame Jocelyn Barrow at her 90th birthday bash
24 October, 2019 — By Angela Cobbinah
Jocelyn Barrow with Moira Stuart at the party. Photo: Brian Quavar
THE voice at the other end of the line belonged to a woman who’d just turned 90 and I was surprised at its firm tone giving me brisk instructions of where and when to meet. But I should have known better. It was Jocelyn Barrow, who’d made a career out of snapping at the heels of the establishment for more than 50 years and refusing to suffer fools gladly.
As general secretary of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (Card) in the 1960s, Trinidad-born Jocelyn helped pave the way for landmark race relations legislation; as an activist teacher she was one of the pioneers of multicultural education, while her appointment as a governor of the BBC saw Moira Stuart plucked from the relative obscurity of Radio 2 to become a prime-time television news presenter as a result of her efforts to diversify the corporation.
Closer to home in Camden, where she has lived for the best part of her life, Jocelyn headed up the Community Housing Association (CHA) and was vice-chair of the borough’s community relations committee in the 1970s. She was made a dame in 1992. One could not think of her being anything but, and today she is frequently referred to as “DJB”, short for Dame Jocelyn Barrow.
We meet at South Africa House, where her 90th birthday celebrations are about to take place compliments of South Africa’s high commissioner Nomatemba “Thembi” Tambo, daughter of prominent anti-apartheid couple Oliver and Adelaide Tambo, whom Jocelyn befriended during their years of exile in London. I am ushered into an ornate conference room where she sits waiting with her husband Hendy, looking every bit as resplendent as her surroundings. We discuss her life’s works, difficult in the allotted time, given her achievements.
But later in a speech to the 150 or so guests who had assembled for the party earlier this month, she said: “I have received many honours in my lifetime but it is my greatest honour that my community thanks me in this way for what I have done on their behalf.”
There were a number of fulsome tributes on the night. Fellow Card campaigner Chris Mullard described her as a “vibrant and inspirational presence” and Trinidad and Tobago high commissioner Orville London welcomed her into the country’s “illustrious” hall of fame.
Jocelyn Barrow was born to a well-to-do family in 1929 in Port of Spain. A pioneer member of the People’s National Movement that would take on the reins of government come independence, she trained to become a teacher before travelling to Britain in 1959 for post-graduate studies at the Institute of Education.
Her experiences at the chalkface led her to set up Each One Teach One, helping black children and their families navigate a hostile education system. But schools were only part of the problem for early migrants.
“They couldn’t get jobs much less promotion, they couldn’t get proper housing and had to put up with people telling them to go back where they came from or refusing to serve them in shops,” she tells me ruefully. “It was very depressing, especially as the government was pretending that there wasn’t any problem with discrimination.”
A turning point came in 1964 when she and a small group of activists, among them Camden GP David Pitt, arranged a meeting with Martin Luther King during his visit to England.
“King was warm and charming and wanted to give us an idea of what we should be doing. It helped crystallise our ideas and we went on to form Card.”
Card lobbied the government to introduce legislation outlawing racial discrimination in 1965, which was tightened up in 1968 to cover the vexed issues of housing and employment. “Card was a very effective organisation though it wasn’t as grassroots as I would have liked it to have been.
It was led by people like me, Lord [David] Pitt and Anthony Lester, a QC. The people at the bottom were too busy trying to survive though some did join.”
Jocelyn become a public figure and was made a member of the government’s newly established Community Relations Commission before becoming a governor of the BBC in 1981. She was also founder of the Broadcasting Standards Council and a member of the EU’s Economic and Social Committee.
“I have been a campaigner all of my life, right from my teenage years in Trinidad and my parents brought me up to feel that nobody could stop me from doing what I wanted to do,” she says.
A mixture of bossiness and charm, she was by all accounts a formidable operator with a practical approach to getting things done. Her time at Camden Committee for Community Relations highlighted the social problems caused by poor housing. Her solution was to help set up CHA, securing funding from the council in 1974 to buy up 89 houses on the former Calthorpe estate, off Gray’s Inn Road.
On the employment front, she got together with Marks and Spencer owner Lord Sieff to open up jobs to black people in his stores. It proved a success but when Jocelyn visited the Brixton branch there were no black staff to be seen despite a sign advertising vacancies.
“I decided to apply myself but was told by [the manager] that all the vacancies had been filled. I told her, take the notices down then. She said it was none of my business. I said, yes it is, and I produced a letter Lord Sieff had written to me. If she had had a bad heart she would have collapsed,” she recalls.
Jocelyn retired from public service in 2013. Looking back at her more than five decades of campaigning she feels pride at the progress made, though it is qualified.
“There are times I feel satisfied when I see some of the things I have done benefitting people,” she begins. “We have made great strides but we are still stuck in some of the same problems, and that immigrants-go-home mentality is rearing its head again.”
She adds: “My biggest worry is for young people who are bearing the brunt of cutbacks in youth services, schools and councils as well as lack of housing. Too many young black boys continue to be excluded. However, we as a community could do more to help ourselves. Life is a two-way street.”
Black History Month
Music A celebration of African and black British composers with the Decus Ensemble, who will include chamber music by Godwin Sadoh, Segun Akinola and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. 2-3pm, Southwark Cathedral, London Bridge, SE1 9DA. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk
Film Screening of A Viable Candidate, short film about a charismatic MP who is tipped to be the first ever black PM. Followed by a roundtable discussion with director Orson Nava. 7pm, Bernie Grant Arts Centre, Town Hall Approach Road, Tottenham Green, N15 4RX. Tickets £8 in advance available at berniegrantcentre.co.uk
Talk Black Georgians, an illustrated talk by historian SI Martin to coincide with exhibition at Bruce Castle of same name. 12.15pm (doors open noon), Bruce Castle Museum, Lordship Lane, N17 8NU.
Talk Britain and the 1834 Slave Compensation Payments. Author and genealogist Paul Crooks draws on his own experience of tracing his West African roots using Jamaican slave registers to tell the story of how slave owners were compensated for loss of “property” after Britain abolished slavery. 6.15pm, Willesden Green Library, 95 High Rd, NW10 2SF. Free but book via ancestrytalks.eventbrite.co.uk
Architecture Join RIBA to celebrate its next generation of black architects with a range of guest speakers. 6.30pm, Royal Institute of British Architects, 76 Portland Place, W1B 1AD. (Event also takes place on October 31 at 9.30pm.) Tickets £10 via www.eventbrite.co.uk