War blitz: Forgotten black British history remembered


As London suffered the full force of the German Luftwaffe bombing raids 70 years ago this week the story of Nigerian Ita Ekpenyon has been uncovered by the City of Westminster Archives.

The blitz and the response of Londoners is now the stuff of legend and the story of Ita demonstrates that integrity, responsibility commitment and sacrifice are not qualities confined to the English.

Ita Ekpenyon is the personification of London’s Blitz spirit and he along with over 15.000 Africans living in London at the time are for the first time being recognised and their bravery acknowledged.

Ita Ekpenyon was one of over 200,000 Londoners who volunteered as Air Raid Protection (ARP) wardens.

Black British experiences from the Blitz, is now being told by City of Westminster Archives in a new project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Ita arrived in London from Nigeria in 1921 at the age of 28. When war broke out in 1939 he was living at 146 Great Titchfield Street, near Oxford Circus, and studying to become a lawyer.

At 46, Ita was too old for military service but his sense of civic duty led him to volunteer for civilian defence duties. On 5 February 1940, Ita was enrolled as an ARP Warden with D Section, St Marylebone Borough Council Civil Defence Volunteer group. According to his unit’s records, he experienced raid after raid, putting out incendiary bomb fires, giving first aid and conducting population counts as the bombs fell all over the capital.

Ita was welcomed by most, however he records one incident where an angry group of Londoners were about to throw some black people from a bomb shelter. They complained that they should not have to share a bomb shelter with such people.

Ita stood his ground and forcefully managed to make them see sense arguing that racism had no place in the shelter when fascist bombs were pounding London into dust.

In a call that still resonates today, Ita called for all Londoners to unite together regardless of their colour, creed or nationality with ‘friendliness, co-operation and comradeship’ against a common enemy.When the war ended Ita worked as a London postman until his death in 1951.

Because of his exceptional bravery, dedication and commitment Ita was asked to write and broadcast for a BBC series called ‘Calling West Africa’. The programme aimed to demonstrate to Hitler that all parts of the Empire were engaged in the struggle against fascism.

The irony was of course that although British colonial subjects flocked to defend the mother country against the fascist threat, the British considered black people as sub-human not worthy of human rights or fair treatment.

Ita Ekpenyon played his part in the struggle for race equality even in the context of the blitz, by doing his job in an outstanding manner and confronting racism when he saw it. Ita understood the threat that fascism posed. He wrote:

The People of the word are divided into two camps, one camp trying to enslave the world, the other camp fighting to have peace and freedom in the world. In this struggle, civil defence is very important… I am delighted that I belong to a post in a division in London which has shown conscientiousness to duty, courage and determination in the face of danger.

Ita’s daughter Oku Ekpeyon OBE, is a prominent black historian. A play telling her father’s story was performed by Westminster primary school children earlier this week at the Churchill War Rooms.

Oku Ekpeyon told BBC London:

I am proud of what he did because people like my father, the contributions they made to the war effort and their willingness to serve, are all too often overlooked and forgotten. Their commitment both during the years of conflict and those immediately after the war were vital to Britain. The reconstruction during the post war years was in no small measure due in part to those people of colour who supplied the labour force that was important to Britain’s recovery. There is a whole generation of young Britons who do not understand how people of colour helped to shape the nation. This is something which should be remembered as we mark the 70th anniversary of the Blitz.

The sad fact is some 70 years on the sacrifice and contributions of African, Caribbean, Asian and other Commonwealth soldiers during the second world war have little public recognition or acknowledgement from either the public or the Government. Ita’s story can help to change all that.