It was Claudia Jones’ appearance on a UK postage stamp in 2008 that signalled her transition from virtual oblivion to her elevation into the political mainstream as part of the Royal Mail’s ‘women of distinction’ issue.
It didn’t happen by accident. For years there had been a quiet but determined campaign to ensure that she received her proper place in history for the pivotal role she played in the anti-racist campaigns of 1950s following her deportation to Britain during the McCarthy witch hunts in US.
A brilliant organiser and charismatic speaker, the Trinidad-born activist set up a newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, that served as a platform for the civil rights struggle both at home and abroad, and she is credited with bringing carnival to London in response to the Notting Hill race riots in 1958.
Nowadays Jones is a regular feature on the Black History Month calendar and this year is no exception. Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott was guest speaker at the annual Claudia Jones Memorial Lecture earlier this month, while Islington councillor and member of Labour’s National Executive committee, Claudia Webbe, is to take part in a tribute evening organised by Marx Memorial Library.
Sharing the platform with Cllr Webbe will be Winston Pinder, one of the few people still alive who knew Jones. It turns out that Winston, originally from Barbados and like Jones a communist, played an extraordinary but little known role in keeping her memory alive.
As a member of the Communist Party’s Caribbean committee, he was asked to be part of the official welcome when she first arrived in London in 1955. The former Camden youth worker was 24 at the time.
“We had to meet her off the train at Victoria station,” he remembers. “She’d just spent a year in a US prison where she’d been jailed for sedition and we heard they’d given her a really hard time. But this smartly dressed woman came striding along the platform looking like she was ready to get down to work straight away. She was extremely charming and I knew that I was in the presence of someone very special.”
Jones moved near to where Winston lived in Kentish Town and he ended up selling copies of the Gazette outside the tube station. Like many he would regard her as his political mentor, remembering the long discussions they would frequently have together. But he also recalls her lighter side: “Claudia loved to dance and have a drink. She was always fun to be with.”
But Jones’ health had been permanently broken by her time in jail and she died suddenly at her home in Lisburne Rd, Gospel Oak, in 1964 aged 49. Her grief-stricken partner Abhimanya Manchanda, the Gazette’s business manager, led a procession of several hundred mourners at her funeral in Golders Green crematorium before her ashes were interned, at her request, next to Karl Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery.
Without her dynamic leadership, the Gazette swiftly folded and outside of Communist circles, Jones became a forgotten figure. The years rolled by and Winston discovered the final insult – Jones’ grave was unmarked. “I was really shocked – all I could see was a piece of rough ground,” he says.
In 1982 he launched a campaign to raise money for a headstone via the Afro Caribbean Organisation (ACO), a youth group he ran from King’s Cross. Carved out of polished Cornish granite and bearing the inscription “valiant fighter against racism and imperialism”, the stone cost £1,500, a huge sum of money in those days. For two years, fund-raising dances were held while hundreds of individuals and organisations responded to requests for donations, including Ben Bousquet, a west London councillor who used to run errands for Jones as a youth, and Tony Benn, then MP for Bristol South East. The biggest donations, though, came from the Chinese and Cuban governments, which gave £300 apiece.
However, an unforeseen problem arose when Manchanda suddenly informed Winston that he was the owner of the burial plot. “He rang me up and warned me not to put anything on it. Then he took out a writ against me.”
By this time the headstone was almost ready to be collected from Thomas Judd Memorials in Holloway and Mike Siefert, the ACO’s lawyer, offered some quirky advice. “He reasoned that as we didn’t have the money to fight Manchanda legally we might as well go ahead with our plans and wait and see what happened.”
Shortly after a final cheque for £186 was paid to the stonemason’s, a low-key ceremony was hurriedly organised in January 1984 to lay the stone, attended by ACO youngsters, representatives from the Chinese and Cuban embassies and the Morning Star journalist Mikki Doyle who had been deported from the US at the same time as Jones.
The ploy worked and nothing more was heard from Manchanda. But there was to be a fresh twist to the tale. Some years later, Winston received a letter from Mikki Doyle to say she was in fact the owner of the burial plot and was signing it over to him. “Mikki died soon afterwards and
and I’m still scratching my head over it all,” he says. “But at least Claudia got her headstone.”
Apart from a story in the Camden New Journal the little gathering at Highgate’s East Cemetery passed completely unnoticed. But these days, Claudia Jones’ final resting place is listed in Highgate Cemetery’s VIP grave guide and a few years ago two of the original fund-raisers, now with grown up children of their own, planted a red rose bush behind the stone.
“I did what I had to do,” says Winston. “I cherish my memories of Claudia and I am proud that I have been able to honour her in this way and I know the young people who helped me are too.”
This article was first published in the New Journal Enterprises group of newspapers on October 20, 2017