Claudia Jones: Social Activist and Pioneer

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Image: Wikipedia Commons

Frankie Chappell is a member of TEDxUCLWomen’s Curation team. She is currently working for UCL’s Widening Participation Office, doing research and activities around supporting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into university. She studied Ancient History at UCL, focusing mostly on the ancient Near East. Her interests include history, education, museums and everything in between.

Claudia Jones, the founder of the original Notting Hill Carnival, was a journalist and political activist who felt the need to unite the West Indian community in London that she found herself to be a part of. More than a million people descended on the streets of West London over the August bank holiday for the famous Notting Hill Carnival. The event received a lot of (both positive and negative) press in the lead up, but, as always, not too much attention to its history.

Jones was born in 1915 in Trinidad, migrating to Harlem, New York nine years later. Early on she became a communist, joining the Young Communist League at age eighteen. While in the party, she criticised it for what she saw as an inability to effectively confront issues around race and gender. While she believed, like her colleagues, that the lower status of women was at its root caused by “exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class”, she also believed that the struggle for peace and equality could not be successful without women (especially working-class and black women) at the forefront. She elucidates this idea in her essay An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!. Jones climbed through the ranks of the Communist Party of America (CPUSA), and used her journalistic skills to become the editor of the Weekly Review. But her position on the issues of race and gender was not without controversy within the party. It has been said that the lack of support from her peers led her to self-organise, using her own tactics and developing her own theories – an early indicator of her persistence and grassroots spirit. 

In 1955 after serving time for communist activities, Jones was deported and came to London where she would spend the rest of her life. She saw a West Indian community which had become isolated from their history and felt the urge to engage them. In 1958 she founded the West Indian Gazette, a paper which made news from the diaspora available, campaigned for social equality,  as well as commenting on the arts at a time when black performers were struggling to find work. In the late 1950s, large numbers of West Indians travelled to the UK as part of the Windrush generation. Tensions built in England – black people were barred from fair access to housing and jobs. The situation escalated and in 1958 there were riots in Notting Hill and Nottingham. As a response, with the intent of healing some of the pain in the West Indian community, Claudia launched the Caribbean Carnival, a televised event at St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959 which celebrated West Indian culture and heritage. This grew into the carnival we know today.

Claudia Jones’s plaque in Notting Hill (Wikipedia Commons)

Claudia Jones is part of a myriad of accomplished Black women erased or ignored by British history – Olive Morris and Jessica Huntley to name but a couple. She was at heart an activist – always taking action when she saw something needed to be done, whether in America or in Britain, where she helped to create outlets to foster a sense of community amongst Black and Asian people at a time where they often felt unwelcome. She died of a heart attack on 24th December 1964 (aged 49), following years of health problems.  Jones was buried to the left of Karl Marx, someone she greatly admired and was inspired by, in Highgate Cemetery, where she remains today. She continues to be an inspiration to those supporting their communities. 

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