Mention the history of African Americans in Paris and images immediately flood of fabled artists, authors, activists and entertainers who found succor and success in the famed City of Light. There is likely no such recollection for the black American presence in London, Europe’s other famed capital city.
But black Americans have made “a big difference to the lives of black people in England,” said the founder of London’s acclaimed “Black History Walks,” Tony Warner. Some were escaping their own persecution in the U.S., while others found a welcome audience for their talents.
For example, Martin Luther King Jr. inspired black Brits to organize boycotts against racial discrimination, Warner said.
“Britain has done a great job in erasing the history of its black residents and their struggles,” Warner said. “If they did acknowledge that history, they would have to recognize that they were part of an international racist system.”
Yet the British have found the space to commemorate at least six historic individuals, two Caribbean-born, all tied to black America, who had an influence in London.
Martin Luther King Jr.
One of the 10 statues honoring important 20th-century religious figures arrayed over the main door of London’s majestic Westminster Abbey is a Baptist minister from America: Martin Luther King Jr.
The seminal civil rights works of King, coupled with his profound influences worldwide, produced his selection as one of the “20th Century Martyrs” commemorated at Westminster, the historic Episcopalian church that has been the site of coronations for British royalty since 1066.
The far-reaching influence of King in England, inclusive of speeches he delivered during visits to that country, is not widely known in America. King’s visits to England began in 1957 when he stopped in London while returning to the U.S. from attending the independence celebration of Ghana from British colonial rule. King’s last visit, months before his April 1968 assassination, took place when he received an honorary doctorate degree from a university in England.
During one 1964 speech in London, King noted that the “world will never rise to full maturity until racism is truly eliminated”—an analysis that rings true today.
When Claudia Jones lived in London, this respected activist-journalist, born in Trinidad and raised in Harlem, expressed a dying wish. She wanted a burial to “the left” of the grave site of Karl Marx, the German philosopher who created Marxism.
The London residence of Jones arose from her holding a ranking position in the U.S. Communist Party and her staunch activism for the rights of blacks and women. Jones’ activism aggravated American authorities, who imprisoned her four times, leading to her 1955 deportation from America and asylum in England.
Jones attacked racism against nonwhites upon her arrival in London. In 1958, Jones founded one of Britain’s earliest black-owned newspapers, the feisty, influential West Indian Gazette. In 1959, Jones launched a series of Trinidadian-style carnivals—now considered the roots of London’s world-famous Notting Hill Carnival, a two-day street festival every August that draws nearly a million people.
Jones died on Christmas Eve 1964. Paul Robeson spoke at his friend’s funeral. Jones got her dying wish: interment next to Marx in London’s historic Highgate Cemetery.
Jones, constantly ranked as one of the greatest black Britons, remains virtually unknown in the United States.
Bill Richmond, born a slave on Staten Island, N.Y., in 1763, literally battled his way into London’s high society circles as a champion boxer—an occupation he didn’t begin until age 40.
In 1821, this boxer, sought-after boxing trainer and businessman participated in the coronation of a British king—an astonishing recognition for a black man during a time when many considered blacks subhuman.
Nicknamed “The Black Terror,” Richmond had an impact on British society that was easily comparable to that of baseball player Jackie Robinson on American society more than a century later. Famous English writers wrote about Richmond, and his image adorned several prephoto “prints” of the era.
Richmond trained another African-American ex-slave, Tom Molineaux, to boxing prominence in London. Richmond also became a member of the first governing body for boxing in Britain.
A British Army general brought Richmond to England in 1777 after he persuaded the Staten Island minister who owned him to free the then-teen.
Richmond sharpened his boxing skills during duel-like fights, beating bigots who insulted him with racist barbs. A tribute to Richmond hangs inside a historic London pub once owned by one of only two boxers to beat Richmond.
Fabled anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass came to England in 1845 to escape feared retaliation for the publication of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass—retaliation that included possible re-enslavement by the Maryland slave owner Douglass had fled seven years before.
The 19 months that Douglass lived in London had profound philosophical, political and personal effects on him. One prominent impact was that Douglass returned to the U.S. in 1847 a free man because two friends in Britain paid for his freedom.
During his London stay, Douglass electrified audiences around England, Ireland and Scotland with his piercing oratory against slavery in America. He rattled cages in England, reminding the British of their “moral obligation” to support the abolition of U.S. slavery that began during British Colonial rule. Douglass also created controversy when he denounced a religious group in Scotland for accepting money from slave owners in the United States.
Douglass lived for a time in the house of an English abolitionist in London’s now-posh Chelsea community, where a historical marker recognizes that event.
There are many sites across London that honor Marcus Garvey, the activist-philosopher who rose from an obscure birth in rural Jamaica to legend, largely through the organization he headquartered in New York City’s renowned Harlem in 1916.
Sites for Garvey across London include a public library and public park bearing his name, plus historical markers placed on Garvey’s last office and residence.
The Universal Negro Improvement Association founded by Garvey is the largest black-rights organization in history, amassing 1,100 chapters with over a million members in 40 countries during its peak in the early 1920s.
Garvey first came to London in 1912, when he took college courses and worked for a newspaper owned by an Egyptian. Garvey returned to London in 1935 after his deportation from the U.S., which followed a two-year imprisonment arising from a now-documented conspiracy by federal authorities to destroy him. London is where Garvey died in 1940.
Garvey, an avid proponent of black nationalism and Pan-Africanism, influenced several key leaders, including Africans who led their nations to independence from British colonial rule like Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana.
A small park along a major street in the south London community of Brixton bears a name that is not British: Max Roach. Yes, Max Roach, the African-American jazz innovator whose storied music career spanned styles from bebop to hip-hop, paralleled by his activism, entrepreneurial endeavors and stints in academia.
In 1986, officials in the London borough that houses Brixton included Roach when they named 27 sites around that borough to acknowledge contributions by people of African descent. One borough official revered the music of the drummer, who played with jazz luminaries like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. That naming honor also recognized Roach’s efforts for equality.
Roach attended the 1986 park-naming ceremony that coincided with his performance at London’s respected Royal Albert Hall during an anti-apartheid concert. Roach performed many times in London, including a 2001 concert with two musicians from China when Roach was 77 years old.
Max Roach Park is located one block from the building that houses a media production program that trains youth and is named after imprisoned Philadelphia journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal—supported by many Londoners as an American political prisoner.
Linn Washington Jr. is a Philadelphia-based journalist and a journalism professor at Temple University, who is currently teaching in London in a study-abroad program.