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IN 1959 Notting Hill was a mostly poor working-class part of west London, ripe with undercurrents of racial intolerance. Rooms to let would often be advertised with “No dogs, no blacks” signs.
A particularly nasty racist murder, the first of a crop of race riots and the intervention of Oswald Mosley and the tiny but evil rump of his pre-war blackshirts along with Colin Jordan and his White Defence League made this a tense and often frightening place to live or work.
Against this unlikely background, a local black communist activist and relatively recent arrival in Britain, journalist Claudia Jones, organised events to celebrate Caribbean culture in what she called “the face of the hate from the white racists.”
Jones’s exciting, colourful cultural events would lay the foundations for what would become the first Notting Hill Carnival in 1964.
Forty-five years on, the carnival is Europe’s biggest street festival, attracting over two million people. It grows bigger and better every year.
The carnival takes places over two days and this year there will be a 72-second silence at 3pm on both days in memory of each of the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
Regular features are the amazing costumed parade and fantastic live music, including reggae, dub and salsa. There are also three dozen massive static sound systems filling the whole area with noise, Soca floats, steel bands and a whole lot of spicy, colourful and delicious Caribbean food.
The carnival spreads throughout W10 and W11 in west London, with all kinds of stalls and events over the areas of Notting Hill, Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park. The main parade begins on Great Western Road, moving its way along Chepstow Road, Westbourne Grove and Ladbroke Grove.
This year’s festivities take place on August 25-26. Sunday is family and kids day and the party starts at 10am with a strict noise curfew at 7pm. The opening ceremony is at 10.30am, before the parade.
Monday’s parade starts at 10am. Judging of carnival’s many bands finishes at 6.30pm. Sound systems play on both days with the same 7pm curfew giving floats and bands time to clear the streets by 8.30pm.
So who was the bold black woman who gave birth to the massive colourful and exciting carnival that more than two million people will enjoy this weekend?
Jones was born in Trinidad in 1915. Her family name was Cumberbatch. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch shares her name but his ancestors, unlike Jones’s, were slave owners who made their fortune from owning slaves like Claudia’s family.
Slave owners often gave their slaves the family name. Today the star actor is horrified by his family’s disgusting history.
As a child Jones migrated with her family to the US. In 1936, aged just 21, she joined the US Young Communist League and by 1937 she was writing for the Daily Worker, the international sister paper of the British Daily Worker, forerunner of today’s Morning Star. Just one year later she was promoted to editor of the Worker’s Weekly Review.
When the Young Communist League renamed itself American Youth for Democracy during World War II, Jones became editor of its monthly journal, Spotlight.
After the war, she took a leading role in the Communist Party USA women’s commission and the National Peace Council. She also made a major contribution through her work and writings for the burgeoning US civil rights movement.
Being an effective communist writer and political organiser led in 1948 to her arrest and imprisonment. It was to be the first of four terms in jail. These periods would break her health but never her spirit.
All this effective writing and campaigning was too much for the FBI and the rest of the US red-baiting witch-hunt machine.
The US authorities had at first wanted to deport her to Trinidad and Tobago. But Governor Major General Sir Hubert Elvin Rance was too frightened to have her back in Trinidad, so she was eventually offered residency here in Britain on humanitarian grounds in 1955.
By 1958 she had founded Britain’s first black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News. From its office above a barber’s shop in Brixton she used the paper to campaign against racism in housing, education and employment.
Through her paper she became a key figure in the rise of consciousness within the black British community. All the while she spoke at peace rallies and the Trade Union Congress, against immigration legislation and for Nelson Mandela’s release.
She visited Russia and China, where she met Mao Zedong.
Just four months after launching her paper here, race riots hit the streets of Notting Hill and some other British cities, including Nottingham.
Jones met many of the members of the black British community to discuss these worrying developments.
She also had talks with progressive black colonial leaders such as Cheddi Jagan of Guiana, Norman Manley of Jamaica and Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago.
Jones decided the black community needed to “wash the taste of Notting Hill and Nottingham out of our mouths.” This was, of course, the awful memories of the ongoing racist violence on the streets of Britain.
She booked St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959 for the first Mardi-Gras-based carnival. Jazz guitarist Fitzroy Coleman and singer Cleo Laine were among the headline acts.
This and five other London events raised money “to assist the payments of fines of coloured and white youths involved in the Notting Hill events.”
Who could have believed those early carnival events would grow into the massive carnival we are enjoying today? From tiny acorns great oaks grow.
Claudia Jones died on Christmas Eve 1964. She had seen her gem of an idea come to fruition in the first official Notting Hill Carnival in the summer of that year.
Jones was buried near Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery. At her large funeral a message from her lifelong friend and comrade Paul Robeson told the many assembled mourners: “It was a great privilege to have known Claudia Jones. She was a vigorous and courageous leader of the Communist Party of the United States, and was very active in the work for the unity of white and coloured peoples and for dignity and equality, especially for the negro people and for women.”
In 2008, Britain’s Royal Mail issued a Claudia Jones postage stamp. In the same year, a blue plaque was unveiled on the corner of Tavistock Road and Portobello Road commemorating Jones as the “Mother of Caribbean Carnival in Britain.”
If you are at this year’s carnival why not take a minute or two to visit the plaque and give thanks to Claudia Jones — mother of the Notting Hill Carnival.
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