The gist: Feminist. Communist. Journalist. Public Speaker. Activist.
Born: 15 February 1915- 24 December 1964 (Aged 49)
Country of Origin: Trinidad, then New York City
Who was Claudia?
I’d heard of Claudia Jones before. Not much. It was usually a vague mention of her at the bottom of bog-standard articles about Notting Hill Carnival every August Bank Holiday. In my mission to learn more about her, I realised many have done Jones a disservice. In the UK, she is usually summarised in a paragraph as the ‘Mother of Notting Hill Carnival’ and the founder of the West Indian Gazette. Both are fantastic achievements but the first is only partly true. And there is so much more to this outstanding woman, who led a short but inspirational life across 3 different countries.
The (whole) story of Claudia Jones
Her life was full of tragedies.
A big tragedy; She moved to Harlem, NYC from Trinidad with her family when she was just 8 years old to escape economic unrest. Unfortunately, they were met with more. Her parents lived a similar life to other immigrant families, working extremely hard to survive. Five years after they settled in New York Jones’ mother died of exhaustion while working in a factory.
She even contracted Tuberculosis which damaged her health for the rest of her life.
She was bright and full of academic potential so she persevered, finished high school and grew into a politically engaged young woman, keenly aware of social issues. What today we’d call woke.
Claudia Jones became a big fan of Karl Marx and his communist ideologies. So much so that she joined the Young Communist League. Communism was quite popular amongst Black Americans at the time, largely due to its anti-establishment, anti-imperial teachings.
But they had something in common- Black people and Communism were both widely hated in America.
Jones didn’t concern herself about the consequences of associating with the party. She busied herself and rose through the ranks. She became an editor of a New York communist newspaper the Daily Worker.
Communism is a dirty word in the US, even now, almost 70 years on. But then it made you an outcast and a criminal. The FBI stalked her for over 10 years.
But again, Jones got even better. She was popular and respected. She became a powerful public speaker.
She spoke to a crowd of over 14,000 people at Madison Square Garden.
She was a star.
But then it all caught up with her. She was arrested several times. The final time, her supporters protested on her behalf until she was released.
But then another big tragedy (for herself and the black American community): They decided to deport her.
She was not a US citizen, but a citizen of the British colony of Trinidad.
The British colonial governor of Trinidad Sir Hubert Elvin Rance was terrified. Terrified at the prospect of a powerful black woman on the small island and of how she could galvanize her fellow Trinidadians. So, they deported her to the UK on humanitarian grounds in 1955. Ironically, they thought she couldn’t really make an impact here.
Despite the trauma of deportation and starting a new poor life, she very quickly integrated into the Black British community. Claudia Jones looked for ways to continue her activism in the UK. She only spent the last 9 years of her life in the UK but made a lasting impact on the Black British community. She was one of the pioneers of Black British Media, decades before the MOBOs and Choice FM.
West Indian Gazette
250 Brixton Road was the home and headquarters of London’s first black newspaper ‘The West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian News’
Launched in 1958, the monthly paper not only published news affecting the black community in the UK but also across the world. It also showcased black performers, artists and novelists and published short stories and poetry.
Jones developed the Gazette with Amy Ashwood Garvey, the first wife of Marcus Garvey.
The Gazette, in its prime had a circulation of over 15,000.
Claudia Jones was one of the first to give black people and other ethnic minorities a platform and a voice at a time when racial hatred was high and rising.
The newspaper ran for 7 years, dying not long after Jones herself did. However, the doors she opened for black media still remain.
The Real Mother of Carnival
The most well-known version or the more simplistic version of Notting Hill Carnival’s origin story is that Claudia Jones was the creator of the event that we have today. Though she did have a large part to play in its development, this is not the full picture.
Wherever there is oppression, rioting is often not far away. In the 50s and 60s, a ‘Keep Britain White’ campaign was sweeping the country. Black and other ethnic minorities were victims of appalling treatment. In 1958, Notting Hill was the impoverished home and centre of the black and Asian community. It was also the backdrop of the infamous Notting Hill riots.
As a response to these events, Claudia Jones wanted to create a sense of unity in the community with a carnival. Her first carnival-style event was held in St Pancras town hall in January 1959. It was a winter affair, held at that time of year to coincide with some of the Caribbean carnivals. She sold a souvenir brochure in which the proceeds were used to pay fines for “coloured and white youth” that were involved in the Notting Hill riots. Several of these indoor celebrations took place until she died.
A few years after Jones death, Rhaune Laslett, the President of the London Free School (an adult education centre) had the vision of an outdoor festival that celebrated all the ethnic minority communities. She called it the Notting Hill Festivals and one of the first acts was a Caribbean musician with a steel band parading the streets of Notting Hill. Though the intention was multicultural, the Caribbean leanings of that first festival took hold and grew.
It could be said that Claudia Jones brought the first Carnival to London and that after her death, another attempt at a unifying carnival was made which was closer to our modern form.
The fact that she didn’t single handedly create Notting Hill Carnival does not discredit her. She accomplished more in each decade of her adult life than most achieve in a lifetime.
However, her life was cut short on Christmas Eve of 1964.
The West Indian Gazette ran for 7 years, an amazing feat for its time.
Today, the National Union of Journalists hosts a free event in her honour every year during Black History Month.
Notting Hill Carnival takes place over two days every year in London with over 1 million attendants, one of the biggest events of the year.
Today she is buried to the left of her hero Karl Marx in Highgate cemetery in North London.