Formidable husband and wife team Jessica and Eric Huntley have been at the forefront of black people’s struggles in Britain for the last half a century
Eric Huntley would leave his house every morning to go to work in his job as an insurance underwriter. His wife Jessica would stay behind with their three children, two boys and a baby girl, in the quiet suburban street in west London where they lived.
But there the picture of respectable conventionality ended. The Huntleys were seasoned political activists who spent the best part of their spare time engaged in protests and campaigns and their ground floor flat was a gathering place for like-minded radicals.
When they turned their front room into a left-wing bookshop, a horrified curtain-twitcher a few doors down reported them to the council for lowering the tone of the neighbourhood.
But it was all to no avail. The couple, who arrived from the Caribbean in the 1950s, continued to wave the banner for social and racial justice both at in home and abroad. And as founders of Bogle L’Ouverture books, they helped to spread the word and inspire a new generation of political and cultural activists.
‘We were everywhere,’ laughs Jessica. ‘Even with the bookshop, when it was our job to sell books, campaigning was always uppermost in our minds.’
Although they are frequently honoured as the elder statesman and woman of the black community, they insist they are “not the only ones”.
‘We could not have achieved what we did without the help of other black people,’ adds Jessica.
Now in their eighties, they show little sign of wanting to put their feet up and continue to bring out books as well as teach at a local supplementary school, which they started in the 1960s. But their story as lifelong campaigners begins not in the cold light of an English day but on the other side of the Atlantic in their native Guyana.
Cutting their political teeth as leading members of Cheddi Jagan’s People’s Progressive Party, they became embroiled in the English-speaking Caribbean’s most radical push for independence, seeking not only self-government but socialism too. With the Cold War at its height, the West had no intention of allowing this to take place and Guyana became a target for destabilisation.
In 1953, just months after winning the country’s first general election, Jagan was forced out of power by the British, who feared a communist take-over. Eric, an executive member of the party, was among those thrown into detention as a result.
After being released he decided to make his way to England.
‘I had lost my job in the civil service,’ he recalls. ‘We were at a sort of dead end politically. So I thought it best to come abroad to study.’
Eric arrived in London in 1956 and Jessica followed a year later. ‘I didn’t like it; I didn’t like it all,’ she remembers. ‘The people were so cold and unfriendly. I managed to get a job as a typist but one day my manager came to me and said I would have to go because the bosses didn’t want black people working for them.
‘But because we came from a political situation and didn’t believe in any of that Mother Country rubbish, we weren’t really surprised by this sort of thing.’
Many other radicals from the Caribbean had turned up in London at around the same time and the couple became part of a growing anti-colonial movement that had been lifted by Ghana’s independence in 1957 under Kwame Nkrumah.
The Ghana High Commission and the West Indian Students Centre became the two main meeting places and one of the first campaigns the Huntleys were involved in was a midnight vigil outside South Africa House in protest against apartheid.
But they were also to become increasingly preoccupied by events in Britain itself, where black people faced discrimination on every level in a political climate shaped by tightening immigration laws, weak anti- racism legislation and the pronouncements of right-wing politicians.
Among those bearing the brunt of all this were children. ‘We began hearing about black children being sent to “special schools”,’ explains Jessica. ‘There was nothing special about them, they were schools for the educationally sub normal [ESN] and they were being used as dumping ground for black kids.’
The scandal was to be exposed by a Grenadian academic and teacher living in London called Bernard Coard, who would go on to be imprisoned for his part in his country’s 1979 revolution. ‘Bernard presented a brilliant paper about ESN schools at a conference at the West Indian Students Centre,’ continues Jessica.
‘Afterwards I told him it should be rewritten and published so that more people could understand what was going on. He said he wasn’t a writer – so he and I worked on it together at our home.’
The result was the groundbreaking 1970 pamphlet How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System.
‘It had a tremendous impact because it alerted people what was really going on. The cobwebs started to be removed.’
But parents had already begun to respond to the problem by starting up supplementary schools to give their children the education being denied them by the mainstream. Soon every part of London with a significant black population boasted of such a school, including one in Ealing run by Eric and Jessica.
Supplementary schools did not just teach the three Rs. ‘There were two elements to the supplementary schools movement,’ explains Eric. ‘One arose out of the racism of the system, the other was in response to the demand that black children be taught about their history and culture.’
This in itself was an outcome of the cultural activism that underpinned community campaigns of the day. Many of the Huntleys’ fellow radicals were also writers like trade unionist John La Rose, who set up New Beacon Books in 1966, the Jamaican novelist and broadcaster Andrew Salkey and Oscar Abrams, founder of the Keskidee theatre in north London. Their aim was to establish a black aesthetic that would promote cultural identity and push the boundaries of what was considered to be art.
‘The cultural side cannot be ignored in a political struggle,’ states Eric, who was on the Keskidee’s governing body. ‘In the ‘60s and ‘70s, there were no black plays being performed at all – there was nothing. The fact this is not the case today did not happen by itself.’
The setting up of Bogle L’Ouverture and the Huntleys’ involvement in the International Bookfair of Radical Black and Third World Books, held annually between 1982 and 1995, were all part of this process of disseminating and celebrating cultural and political achievements.
The first book fair, jointly directed by Jessica and La Rose, came after the maelstrom of the 1981 Brixton riots, which were to prove a watershed in race relations in Britain. Their immediate spark had been the police’s use of an antiquated vagrancy law known as “Sus” to stop and search a thousand black youngsters in three days. Sus had been the focus of concern for a number of years because of the way it criminalised black youths and the Huntleys found themselves at the forefront of the campaign to get rid of it.
‘Our own children would tell us how they would be stopped in the streets and questioned for no apparent reason,’ recalls Eric.
‘In those days a magistrate could send you down on the mere word of a police officer so these were very serious times for our young people.’
The anti-Sus campaign, like many others, was mobilised in alliance with New Beacon Books and the Race Today Collective, which themselves were umbrella organisations for all manner of action groups. The level of activity and the plethora of initiatives set up are astonishing. So are the Huntleys disappointed by the somewhat muted state of grassroots politics today? Eric brushes the notion aside with a patient smile, taking what he calls the long view.
‘You cannot achieve everything in one go. It is a constant struggle and you can’t struggle up the hill all the time. We get tired and we need to catch our breath.
‘Everything goes round in cycles and each generation faces different problems. They will eventually find the solutions to them – we just have to keep the faith.’
Birth of a bookshop
It is 1968 and the Huntleys are in their front room deep in discussion with a group of likeminded radicals.
They include Maurice Bishop, future leader of the 1979 Grenadian revolution, and their friend, the Guyanese activist and scholar Walter Rodney.
Rodney has just been banned from Jamaica for sedition, sparking off a wave of rioting that resulted in the death of a number of people.
As a gesture of protest, Jessica and Eric have joined pickets outside the Jamaica Tourist Board in London but feel more must be done.
And now here was Rodney in their front room with a pile of lecture papers, which he had delivered in Jamaica.
‘We were discussing what to do with them and I suggested they should be published,’ recalls Jessica. ‘But the problem was money – we didn’t have any. When I suggested asking people for donations, the others just laughed. So there and then I picked up the phone to a friend of ours and straightway got £100 – that was a lot of money in those days.’
In the end, around £800 was collected through donations and fund raising efforts.
With help from John La Rose, who had set up his own publishing outfit, New Beacon Books, two years earlier, they were directed to Villiers Press, a small printing house in north London.
The result was the seminal The Groundings With My Brothers, a series of essays covering African history, Black Power and the ‘reactionary politics’ of Jamaica, with a cover design by Errol Lloyd.
The imprint was Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, hailed by the Huntleys as a ‘total break with the usual tradition of publishing – that of black people passively providing the human material to be written up and published by other people.’
By the time Rodney was tragically killed in a bomb explosion while running for election in Guyana in 1980, Groundings… had gone into the third of its many reprints.
‘That first time we printed a thousand copies and sold most of them at meetings,’ says Jessica.
‘We even gave some of them away. Bogle L’Ouverture was not business – it came out of a political situation and we made very little money out of it. We just wanted to do something we shared with the rest of the people in the country.’
In 1972, Bogle L’Ouverture – named after Paul Bogle and Toussaint L’Ouverture, two slaves who became freedom fighters – brought out Rodney’s most influential work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa in conjunction with the Tanzanian Publishing House in Dar es Salaam.
Three years later, came the groundbreaking Dread Beat and Blood, a collection of verse by a little known poet called Linton Kwesi Johnson.
They also achieved another first with a range of black greeting cards. ‘Our people didn’t like to see their skins and their faces on the cards,’ comments Jessica. ‘They used to be embarrassed.’
In 1974 the couple opened Bogle L’Ouverture bookshop near their home in Ealing, but not before trying to run one from their own home.
‘We built shelves around the front room a partitioned a section off,’ says Jessica matter-of-factly gesturing towards walls now covered with artwork and family photos. ‘It seemed a natural outcome of our publishing work.’
Apart from their own publications, the stock included loans from New Beacon and other publishers.
She remembers the day a group of rowdy school children were passing the house and she invited them in. ‘They were amazed at the books and came round a couple of weeks later to ask to see them again.’
Soon teachers were coming to buy books and interest just grew and grew.
In the end, the Huntleys were forced to look for premises to rent after a neighbour reported them to the council for lowering the tone of the neighbourhood.
Not surprisingly, the bookshop proper proved hugely successful.
‘It was more than a bookshop, it was a community centre as well,’ explains Jessica.
‘If someone’s son had been arrested for Sus, they would come and ask us what to do. If people had problems following the riots in Southall and Notting Hill in the ‘70s, they would come in seeking advice – I almost forgot sometimes we were there to sell books.’
Bogle L’Ouverture became a kind of literary and political Mecca, with poetry readings, book launches and lectures involving people from Britain and beyond, a gathering place for activists who had worked with the Huntleys over the years.
Along with other progressive bookshops in London, it also attracted the negative attentions of the far right, which was particularly active during that period. Usually windows were broken but Jessica remembers a particularly unpleasant discovery when she opened up the shop one morning: ‘I opened the door to find faeces all over the carpet. We also got threatening calls telling us to move or else, but we produced a poster saying “We will not be terrorised out of existence”.
In the end, it was not the National Front but high rents that forced the Huntleys to close down the shop – now renamed Walter Rodney – in 1989.
However, the publishing side of the business continued to include the republication of Donald Hinds’ 1966 book Journey to an Illusion: The West Indian in Britain in 2001 and A Soh Life Goh by Jamaican poet Valerie Bloom this year (2008).
Black History 365/October 2008/ www.black-history-month.co.uk