West Indian officers in WWI

I read recently on the BBC website about a man of Jamaican descent called David Louis Clemetson who volunteered to join the armed forces in WWI and became an officer in the Yeomanry in 1915 which is today’s equivalent of the territorial army.

The BBC suggests that this would make him the first black officer in the British army rather than Walter Tull although it does admit that Tull was an officer in the regular army which is an important distinction. But these two men along with another man of Jamaican descent called George Bemand (who apparently lied about his black heritage so he could get around regulations which forbid black officers in the British army at that time) were obviously incredibly brave and proud.

In fact according to the BBC article on Clemetson, 16,000 West Indians served in the rank and file in WWI in segregated units like the British West India regiments and I am extremely honoured that these soldiers were willing to die to secure a better future for generations unknown.

I also find it endlessly fascinating that so long ago people who were descendants of slaves were voluntarily fighting for the British and dying for the Empire.

These stories seem to be coming to light more and more because of the centenary of the first World War and I am glad that we are finding out about this rich history which shows the unbelievable contribution people of Caribbean descent have made to this island over many years in blood, sweat and tears.

Check out the full story of David Louis Clemetson on the BBC website – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-31796542

A tribute to Paul Robeson

Yesterday was the birthday of Paul Robeson, an American actor, singer and human rights activist who I didn’t even know about except a theatre in my local library in Hounslow is named after him and because I subsequently came across him a few months ago while doing research for this blog.

I often wondered who the man was behind the name of the theatre as I went by to find books in the library or surf the internet, so when I started finding out about the immense contribution of black Caribbean people to the UK, and his name came up frequently as part of the Claudia Jones story, I was intrigued to understand how this American man who was the son of a slave came to be so well known in the UK.

220px-Paul_Robeson_1942_crop

Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 9th 1898. His father started life as a plantation slave in North Carolina, but escaped in 1860 and eventually become a pastor. In 1915 Robeson became only the third black student to be accepted by Rutgers College after he won a scholarship. He gained a law degree but experienced racism in his chosen career and so spurred on by his wife Eslanda, who would later become his manager, he moved into singing and acting.

The Robeson’s moved to London in 1927 and Paul won critical acclaim after starring in several high-profile theatre productions. While in the UK he also became involved in various human rights issues which fitted in with his communist beliefs including a campaign for better working conditions for miners in Wales.

At the start of WWII the family moved back to the US but in the 1950s they were caught up, along with many innocent others, in the McCarthy hearings and were blacklisted for their communist views.

Paul apparently never recovered from this ostracisation which involved taking away his passport and making sure nobody would hire him for any role. Even when he was given back his passport in 1958 and tried to make several comebacks the effect of the previous years was long-lasting as he suffered from depression and at one stage tried to kill himself.

He died in Philidelphia in 1923 at the age of 77, a reclusive and almost forgotten man.

But now British filmmaker Steve McQueen (who incidentally is of Grenadian descent so will feature on this blog at some stage) is making a film about his life and I hope this will inform a whole new generation about Robeson’s talents.

In my opinion anyone who is interested in black culture in the UK or US should be told about his story as an actor and activist and I am glad that through this blog I have found out about him and his amazing life.

Below is a documentary about Paul Robeson’s life.

References / further reading:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/5345904.stm

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/nov/18/steve-mcqueen-to-make-film-about-paul-robeson

http://www.cpsr.cs.uchicago.edu/robeson/bio.html