Jessica Huntley, political and cultural activist dies at 86


London mourns the passing of one of its inveterate activists in the struggle for social liberation and against racism in schooling and education. Jessica Huntley, co-founder and director of Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications and bookstore in West Ealing, passed away at Ealing Hospital on Sunday morning, 13 October, following a short illness. She was 86 last February.

I first met Jessica in 1967 at the West Indian Students Centre (WISC) in Collingham Road, Earls Court, which hosted community meetings on a wide range of issues to do with the Caribbean community in London, including political and economic issues in the countries from which we had not long come. WISC became a rallying point for a community, a platform from which students from the Caribbean engaged with the struggles and social life of migrants in all works of life and a ‘home’ for the Caribbean Education Association which soon morphed into the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association (CECWA).

Jessica and Eric, her husband of over sixty years, established and ran one of only two black publishing houses in the UK. They established Bogle-L’Ouverture towards the end of 1968, after a popular and fierce campaign against the Jamaican Government’s decision, under Prime Minister Hugh Shearer, to ban the late Dr Walter Rodney from ever returning to Jamaica and to his post at the University of the West Indies (UWI). He had taught at the UWI’s Mona Campus after returning from the University of Dar-es-Salaam in 1967, combining his academic work with political activism and worker organisation among workers and peasants in Jamaica. Rodney’s message resonated with the poor and dispossessed in that island and especially with the Rastafarian Movement. The ban led to mass protest in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean, and sparked what became known as the Rodney Riots.

It is small wonder, then, that when Jessica and Eric Huntley and a small committee of comrades who had been active in the anti-ban campaign met and decided to establish a publishing facility and bookshop, they decided to name it after Paul Bogle, a revolutionary anti-imperialist and anti-plantocracy leader of the Morant Bay Rebellion in St Thomas, Jamaica, in 1865, and Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution some seventy five years earlier. Walter Rodney provided the newly formed Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications with his account of the background to the ban, including his work among the working and peasant classes and his assessment of the politics of the day. His seminal work ‘The Groundings with my Brothers’ thus became Bogle-L’Ouverture’s first published title.

Additionally, John La Rose, political comrade and friend of Jessica and Eric, who himself had established New Beacon Books in Hornsey, North London, in 1966, the first black publishing house and booksellers in the UK, provided a stock of books to Bogle-L’Ouverture so they could begin to build a clientele and have books on the shelves for that hungry readership from the black community and its supplementary schools and those progressive white teachers who were eager to do something about the Eurocentric curriculum they were dishing out to children daily.

The name Walter Rodney was to become synonymous with Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications. Walter returned to Dar-es-Salaam in 1969 and continued to teach there until 1974. But he also embarked on a major project while there, one that was going to rewrite the history of Africa and give a new direction to Pan-Africanism and anti-colonialist/anti-neocolonialist struggles. Rodney wrote ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ and in 1972 gave the manuscript to Jessica and Eric for publication. This ‘classic of anti-imperialist literature’ has had several reprints. One writer noted its influence on Manning Marable’s 1983 “How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America”, remarking that ‘although Rodney’s book was not published by Monthly Review, it certainly was seen as a companion volume to such MR classics as Eduardo Galeano’s “The Open Veins of Latin America” and Pierre Jalee’s “Pillage of the Third World”. (Louis Proyect - the Unrepentant Marxist, 2008)

Prior to coming to England in 1956 and 1958 respectively, Eric and Jessica Huntley were members of the People’s Progressive Party of Guyana and active in the West Indian Independence Movement and the movement against colonialism and the ravages of the plantation economy. Their experience of struggle with Britain in Guyana continued on the terrain of London and the UK, while continuing to support the movement in Guyana of which they had been a part. When Rodney returned to Guyana from Tanzania in 1974, therefore, Jessica and Eric maintained a keen interest in his political and academic work. Although the Forbes Burnham government did not force him into exile by banning him from returning to Guyana, Burnham blocked his appointment as a Professor at the University of Guyana, prompting Jessica and Eric and others to set up the Committee of Concerned West Indians in England to protest the academic ban. As in Jamaica, Rodney mobilised workers and peasants, encouraging them to organise in their own class interests and away from the ethnic divisions the main parties were seeking to entrench. Thus, he founded the Working People’s Alliance, a political party of the people that sought to hold the People’s National Congress to account.

Jessica and Eric mobilised support for Walter Rodney again, in 1979, after he was arrested and charged with arson following the burning down of government offices in Georgetown. The Committee Against Repression in Guyana of which Jessica and Eric were founding members, held meetings and issued bulletins in respect of the Guyanese government’s political repression of Walter Rodney and the unexplained deaths of people who were vocal in their opposition to the Burnham regime.

‘And, finally, they killed him!’

On 13 June 1980, the news came that shocked the world. Walter had been killed by a bomb in his car which had been planted by Gregory Smith, a member of the Guyana Defence Force. The radical black movement in the UK, including Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, the Alliance of the Black Youth Movement, the Black Parents Movement, Race Today Collective and ‘Bradford Black’ Collective, joined forces with others across the world, from Ghana to Grenada, from Tanzania to Trinidad, from Nigeria to New York, to protest what was evidently an assassination by the Forbes Burnham government and call for Gregory Smith to be charged with murder. Smith was flown out by the Burnham regime to French Guiana where he remained until his death in 2002.

Following Rodney’s murder, Jessica and Eric renamed Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications the Walter Rodney Bookshop.

A number of key factors distinguished Bogle (as it came to be known) from the publishers we had come to know and depend upon for books about Africa and the Afriacan Diaspora, especially those written by Africans. Publishing for Jessica and Eric Huntley and for John La Rose whose earlier publishing initiative and political trajectory inspired them, was an act of cultural affirmation and an expression of political belief at the interface of culture and politics in a Britain struggling perennially to come to terms with the legacy of Empire.

The workers’ movement in Britain had for generations organised around labour in the workplace and its relationship to capital. The black working class movement necessarily organised in the workplace and its activities were often targeted at the backwardness and racism of the very trade unions that purported to represent all of their members. But it also had to operate in all other spheres of life, including religion, because racism permeated every sinew of the society. Thus was spawned the black working class movement in schooling and education, the supplementary school movement, the black movement in housing, in theatre and arts generally, in the youth service and much else besides.

The publishing that Jessica Huntley, John La Rose, Margaret Busby and Clive Allison (of Alison & Busby) and Darcus Howe and the Race Today Collective did impacted upon our struggles and upon the society in a number of irreversible ways.

It gave self expression to the creativity and dynamism we possess and with which we engage, describe, interpret and shape the world around us. It is given to every people in every nation to do just that. White supremacy and ideologies of cultural superiority had for centuries claimed those gifts as exclusive only to white folk. Consequently, in post-colonial societies in particular, our creativity, political and cultural organisation and our contribution to humanising society were and are still seen only through the prism of race and resistance to racism. It was necessary for our generation, for Britain and the world and for future generations to be made to abandon that mindset and in the famous words of George Lamming, not imprison us ‘in the castle of (our) skin’.

The political act of publishing that Jessica and those others did also gave direction to our movement. If ‘knowledge is power’, the absence of knowledge and information renders a movement powerless, especially a lack of knowledge of how those who have designs for you see you historically and want to organise and control you mentally and structurally. In a post-imperialist culture, the power that comes from knowledge is also the power that derives from unlearning certain myths about yourself and debunking the ways you have been taught to see and think about yourself. So, when in our work with young children we discovered that black children were typically drawing themselves as white, or expressing a preference for white dolls and seeing white friends as ,nicer’ and more desirable, Jessica and Eric published the eye-catching and upbeat little colouring and story book ‘Getting to Know Ourselves’.

Our community meetings about the schooling experiences of our children and our treatment by schools gave rise to important conferences about the schooling and education system and the damage it was doing to our children. It was at one such conference, organised by the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association (CECWA), of which Jessica and Eric, John La Rose and many others of us were active members, that Bernard Coard presented his paper on the iniquitous process by which children of Caribbean parents were being wrongly assessed through culturally biased tests and the application of racial stereotypes and put in schools for the educationally subnormal. Following that conference, CECWA asked Coard to develop his paper and made it ready for publication. Thus it was that in 1971 John La Rose and New Beacon Books published on behalf of CECWA Coard’s ground breaking book: How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system: the scandal of the black child in schools in Britain.

This small book remained for many years a challenge to the education establishment in Britain and especially to teacher training institutions and education psychologists and those who trained them. Above all, it became a ‘bible’ for just about every black Saturday/Supplementary school and encouraged the formation of parents groups, community education projects and more supplementary schools. It also motivated more Caribbean students to train not just as teachers but as education psychologists.

One issue that was raised at practically every community meeting on schooling and education was the fact that mainstream schools were mostly suspicious and disapproving of the activities of supplementary schools and certainly felt that they nothing to teach them about how to give Caribbean students their educational entitlement. Bogle, like New Beacon Books, embraced a small but growing group of white teachers (there were hardly any black teachers then) who were keen to change the curriculum in their schools and those schools’ approach to the teaching of Caribbean students. Jessica not only made books available to such schools, but laid on sessions in the bookshop at Chignell Place, W13, where teachers could bring groups of students to touch, feel and browse through books by black authors, books written for them and about them, and buy posters, greeting cards with black images, badges and African artefacts.

Students were privileged to attend readings and talks at the bookshop in Chignell Place by authors such as Andrew Salkey, Sam Selvon, Kamau Braithwaite, Merle Hodge, Petronella Breinberg, Cecil Rajendra, and many more. This gave the impetus to many of them to demand more from their schools, as well as to join supplementary schools.

Dr Petronella Breinburg who had come to Britain from Surinam in the 1960s, made a signal contribution to the black working class movement in schooling and to parents across the nation by publishing a series of children’s books at a time when it was virtually impossible to get books with images and stories that black children could identify with and white children could see, read and regard as a normal part of their reading choices. Her famous children’s book, My Brother Sean, beautifully illustrated by Errol Lloyd and published by Bogle, became a ‘must have’ for young children and found its way on the shelf of just about every Saturday/Supplementary School.

In this connection, Jessica did something else, too. She ensured that the Teachers Centres or Professional Development Centres run by the outer London boroughs and Inner London Education Authority (and after its abolition in 1990 by the individual inner London boroughs) had Bogle-L’Ouverture catalogues and organised book exhibitions and seminars so that she and her band of volunteers could enlighten them about the provenance of that literature and how they might use it in curriculum design and delivery.

Bogle-L’Ouverture also became a ‘drop in centre’ for parents, school students and teachers who came for guidance, for counselling and for direction with respect to issues concerning their studies, essays or theses they had to write, their job applications, employment, career prospects and/or their experience of racist institutional cultures or/and racist managers. Many such readily acknowledge their debt to Jessica in regard to her impact upon their decision making or career choices.

In 1975, Willis Wilkie, a veteran community activist and social worker himself, joined Clare Sobers, Mollie Hunte, Ingrid French, Colvin Fitt and John Campbell and founded the Caribbean Parents Group. Clare Sobers was its first Chair. The CPG was launched in August 1975 at the Southall Community Centre by Bruce Pitt (now Judge Pitt), standing in for his father, the late Dr David Pitt. The group soon became a powerful voice and advocate for Caribbean parents and students, with a particular focus on the way the schooling system was failing African-Caribbean children. Willis and the CPG were ably guided by Mollie Hunte, who was at the time one of the few black psychologists in the country and the only black educational psychologist in Ealing. The group was well served by the unwavering efforts of the Jessica and Eric and curricular material provided by Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications.

In 1980, the CPG with a number of voluntary education workers and parents in the community established a Supplementary School as a natural development of its work. The school was run by a committed body of hardworking volunteers, teachers, parents and senior students. Although operating on a shoestring, principally at St Anselm’s church hall in Southall and the Oaktree Centre in South Acton, the school raised its own funds, occasionally receiving small grants. It helped parents across the borough of Ealing to set up parents groups; it organized important conferences and brought together eminent educationalists to engage with parents and young people, it organized cultural events and parents’ and young people’s social outings and educational trips. Again, the success of the school was enhanced hugely by the involvement of Jessica and Eric and the curricular materials they organized and inputs they made for and in the school.

Jessica and the Walter Rodney Bookshop performed a similar function in respect of another Ealing based group. In September 1993, Descendants, a youth group with a focus on education and culture was formed by a local committee led by Margaret Noel, with aims that included: to create an environment where children and young people, primarily but not exclusively of African and Caribbean descent, aged 4-18 years, can learn together to appreciate each other’s cultures and traditions; to instil in them a sense of identity and to develop a true sense of pride in their heritage; to engage with children, young people and parents; to engage with schools on aspects of culture and black history and to counteract as far as possible negative images of the black community portrayed by the media. Jessica worked tirelessly with Descendants in support of those aims, encouraging young people to learn about the experiences of their forebears in the African Diaspora and here in Britain and to reach for the stars. She attended most of Descendants’ performances and open meetings, encouraging volunteers, young people and parents alike.

Another key function Jessica and Bogle performed was in encouraging and facilitating other black publishing and bookselling ventures. When in 1978, for example, I started Education for Liberation book service in Manchester, Bogle and New Beacon Books both provided my first stock and a number of local clients (libraries, teachers centres, organisations, etc). What distinguished those pioneers and their attitude to publishing and to building our own institutions in the service of our communities and for the advancement of our struggles is their total absence of competitiveness, but rather the strength of their commitment to collaboration and to building a mass movement.

This was epitomised most of all by the establishment of the International Bookfair of Radical Black and Third world Books at the beginning of the 1980s of which Jessica Huntley and John La Rose were Joint Directors. It is worth recalling the first call to the Bookfair which was held at Islington Town Hall, London N1 and opened by CLR James:

The organisation of this First International Bookfair of Radical Black and Third World Books is intended to mark the new and expanding phase in the growth of radical ideas and concepts and their expression in literature, politics, music, art and social life. These have burst forth from the failure of the post war settlements to satisfy people’s urges and aspirations…

The International Bookfair of Radical Black and Third World Books will be a meeting of the continents for writers, publishers, distributors, booksellers, artists, musicians, film makers and the people who inspire and consume their creative productions.

The organisers, Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, New Beacon Books and Race Today Publications, have been pioneers in radical Black books and magazines publishing and in international bookselling over the last 15 years. On the basis of our experience, we are confident that the Book fair will be a significant international event.

This call was co-signed by John La Rose and Jessica Huntley.

There were ten annual book fairs from 1982 to 1991, followed by two biannually in 1993 and 1995.

In 2005, Jessica and Eric provided their archives to the London Metropolitan Archives and in that same year LMA hosted the first Huntley Conference. The LMA states that:

The Huntley archives were the first major deposit of records from the African-Caribbean community in London presented to London Metropolitan Archives….

The Huntley archives consist of two collections; records of Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications Limited (also known as Bogle-L’Ouverture Press), radical black publishers and booksellers (LMA/4462); and documents from 1952 – 2010, concerning personal and family, campaigning, educational and environmental initiatives, and other business ventures of Eric and Jessica Huntley (LMA/4463). - LMA Information Leaflet Number 21

In 2012, the Seventh Annual Huntley Conference was held with the overall theme:

Arts and Activism: Culture and Resistance. The programme for that year incorporated the First Huntley Youth Conference: Step Forward Youth. One year after the massive social unrest that followed the shooting dead by police of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, North London, the youth conference sought to revisit ‘The August 2011 Riots – what happened & why?’

This year, the Eighth Conference, which coincided with Jessica’s 86th birthday in February addressed the issue of ‘Educating Our Children: Liberating Our Futures’. The flyer noted:

The eighth conference is reassessing the past and interrogating the present to find answers for the future. How do African Caribbean communities educate and care for their children, supplement mainstream education, provide guidelines for their young people, and answer the question ‘Why is education important?’ Speakers include Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Dr. Beverley Bryan and the young people themselves.

The Huntley Archives and the Annual Huntley Conference were a fitting monument to Jessica in her own lifetime. I dare say both will continue to be a platform for building upon her life’s work and moving ahead with that rich legacy she has left us.

We give thanks for Jessica’s long and purposeful life, a lifetime of selfless giving and unwavering commitment to the struggle for human liberation.


Gus John