Two teenage friends, Leonard Dixon and Amos Ali, were using a launderette in MacKenzie Rd, Islington, when another customer took issue with them being there, causing an altercation. The police were called but the customer protested, “Look officer, I am white, it’s these black people come here to spoil the country.” With that, a police officer grabbed Dixon by the arm and pushed him against the wall. Four others arrived as back up and dragged him into a police car, hitting him against the doorframe in the process. He was taken to Caledonian Road police station and charged with assault.
This sorry tale is part of a witness statement to the local branch of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (Card) in March 1969 that would form part of Dixon’s legal defence. It is among a raft of papers that have been kept in boxes all these years by Norma Ashe-Watt, one of the founders of the branch in north London, which found itself on the frontline of tackling blatant acts of racism within the community. After arriving from Trinidad a few years earlier, she was living in Barnsbury when she heard about the work of Card in trying to highlight the discrimination being suffered by black and Asian migrants.
“A friend and I, Oscar Abrams, decided to form an Islington branch alongside a group of white socialists,” Norma tells me in her precise way of talking. “Although I was in a privileged position with a good job and a comfortable place to live in, I could see what was happening. There was a landlord who rented slum accommodation to black and Irish people, youngsters were falling through the net at school and facing police brutality on the streets, and they couldn’t get work. We just had to do something.”
The initial focus was on housing but the plight of young black people began to take centre stage. “Some had come to join their families from the Caribbean but couldn’t fit in. Some were born here but felt they didn’t belong in Britain,” recalls Norma, who was working as an accountant for British Rail at the time. “At school, teachers didn’t expect them to achieve much but their parents were too busy trying to earn a living to check on how they were doing. When their kids dropped out of school or were expelled, they threw them out. Young girls became pregnant and found themselves trapped on their own. I was appalled by the stories I was hearing.”
In an attempt to engage with local youth, a number of meetings was held, addressed by well-known figures. David Pitt, one of the movers and shakers behind national Card, was one, another was the scholar CLR James. “CLR was very knowledgeable but he went way above the youngsters’ heads,” says Norma, chuckling at the memory. “They would say, ‘what’s he on about?’ Pitt was better but when a young man asked him if he’d ever been to a blues dance and he answered ‘no’, he was told ‘well, that’s where it all happens’.”
It had greater success with visiting US civil rights firebrand Stokely Carmichael who was given a superstar’s reception. Another hit was Michael X, aka Michael de Freitas, a one-time rent collector for rogue landlord Peter Rachman over in Notting Hill, who had become a Black Panther leader along the way and set up the Black House commune in Holloway Rd.
National Card was more a lobbying organisation, seeking to bring about anti-racism legislation. Its Islington branch took its campaign out on to the streets. In one demonstration against bully-boy policing outside Islington Town Hall, Vernon Martingdale, a black Islington councillor, was arrested.
Its Hemmingford Rd HQ was a room in a private house, where Norma was living with friends. Here people could come for advice and meet. A spare room was also used as emergency accommodation for homeless youngsters, while help with finding jobs was offered to all comers.
It was Norma’s encounter with an 11-year-old boy that saw the organisation spread its wings. “The boy could not read and write, not even his own name,” she recalls. “I was shocked.” A weekly supplementary school was started at the Movement for Colonial Freedom’s offices on Caledonian Rd. With no council support, Islington Card held fund-raising parties and “island” dances hosted by popular entertainers of the day like Nadia Catouse and Horace James.
Norma, now aged 89 and living in Petherton Rd, Canonbury, shows me a batch of branch newsletters with their faded Gestetner ink and hand-drawn logos, like relics from another age. They are a mix of information, advice and news, from the dangers of paraffin oil heaters to new Home Office entry requirements.
It was the search for a larger venue to discuss the government’s 1968 immigration bill that led Islington Card to morph into something much bigger. “On our travels we discovered an old church hall on sale for £9,000 and we decided to buy it.” Abrams, an architect from Guyana, led the fund-raising charge and in 1971 the Keskidee Centre opened in Gifford St, off Caledonian Rd, later spawning the theatre for which it became nationally famous. Norma became one of its trustees, alongside Abrams, witnessing its steady expansion. In 1974, a glowing feature appeared in the Evening Standard describing the Keskidee as a “children’s refuge”.
“Keskidee meant we had more space and resources to make a really big difference to the local community, both black and white,” says Norma, with evident pride. “Everyone did and everyone gave. It was wonderful. But without Card there would have been no Keskidee.”
This article first appeared in The Review on October 14, 2020