“I can remember it clearly – the shocking realisation that he was offended that I had qualifications and a vision,” recalls Beverley Campbell. She is too generous to call the offence racism but it is hard to judge what happened as anything less.
Campbell, 64, was just 15 when her boss at a summer job recoiled after she told him she had plans to go to university – he clearly expected nothing so ambitious from somebody who was black.
She loses no sleep over this form of prejudice today, as it was just one of countless examples that didn’t hold her back. She went on with her studies after the summer job and excelled, later being accepted into Cambridge University.
Campbell recently curated an exhibition at Goldsmiths, University of London involving 60 black professionals who were part of the first young people of the Caribbean diaspora to successfully pass through the British educational system – and go on to become the UK’s first black middle class professionals.
The exhibition, called 60 Untold Stories, examined the stories of these people and their experiences of education, both negative and positive.
“Back then, there was a lot of talk around the difficulty of educating the West Indian child, a lot of talk about how we were educationally subnormal, but that certainly wasn’t the case,” says Campbell, who went on to become a successful secondary school English teacher.
“I looked at my peers and realised how many had just sailed through the education system in spite of all of those issues of being black in a predominantly white society. It concerned me that during every Black History Month, we tended to look across the waters when talking about people from a black background who have made an impact.
“There is a focus on Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela… I wanted to show that we have heroes; we have history makers who are black British. This project set out to focus on these people.”
The exhibition featured 60 portraits and 60 oral histories taken from these professionals. Among them was Paul Philp, the first black man to play basketball for Great Britain at an Olympic level, educator Cynthia Eubank OBE and the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson.
Life was tough for the first wave of West Indian people to arrive on British shores; prejudice was open and constant.“The other schoolchildren used to ask me where I kept my tail,” recalls Campbell. “They said they wanted to rub my skin to see if the chocolate would come off.” In spite of the taunts, Campbell and her generation ploughed on with dogged determination.
“In primary school, I was conscious that I was ahead of the other children, and then I became fascinated by secondary school. The thing that enthralled me most was the library. I can remember reading Dostoevsky when I was still fairly young. Secondary school was amazing and actually created me and my love of education.”
So, Campbell’s generation blazed a trail for those who came next, but did life get any easier, did prejudice diminish over time?
School children from Evelyn Grace Academy, Brixton, were involved as volunteers in this project. Devon Hanson, their Head teacher, is from the generation just below Campbell’s. He says prejudice was still prevalent while he was growing up – there was only a small gap between his and Campbell’s generation. The notion that there was a difficulty in teaching the West Indian child was still around when Hanson was going through education.
“I remember making a phone call to get an interview at a company and at the end of it telling them I was black, there was a pause on the other end of the phone,” says Hanson and was told to still come in but he says: “I have never felt so low in all of my life. I felt that I had sold myself out and I was making an excuse for who I am.”
After this, Hanson would implement what he had learned from his role model and hero Mohammed Ali as well as Campbell’s generation; confidence, presentation and calmness. “I used to stand back and watch, I liked their calmness, I liked the way they presented themselves,” he adds. “They used to dress immaculately, they were immaculate with their manners, and with the way they carried themselves, in a sense I modeled myself on them.”
Now Hanson is in a position of major influence and is passing down what he has learnt from the generation before him, together with what he has discovered from his own journey.
Some of his pupils reflected on the effects that earlier generations had on their experience today. Thirteen-year-old Savannah Anderson said: “I think it has made our lives better. They have proved that even though people tried to put them down because of their colour. They still stood up and they overcame the obstacles they had to face.”
14 year old Devaunte Robinson, a student of Hanson says “He has opened so many opportunities for us all inside the school to extend ourselves and our education, so we can be the best we can be.”
Has prejudice disappeared or is it just less overt? This is hard to say, but one thing is clear – previous generations have given us the tools and knowledge to know that obstacles can be overcome.
By Malachai Hamilton