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Saturday, September 25, 2021

A deadly peace – the 1919 race riots


Well-read Soca News readers will know that London’s Caribbean carnival had its genesis in the race riots that flared up in Notting Hill between 30 August and 5 September 1958. The legacy of distrust left by the riots led two inspirational women, first Claudia Jones and then Rhaune Laslett, to try to heal some of the fractures in the local community with events that laid the foundations for Notting Hill Carnival.

It may come as a surprise to learn that the Notting Hill riots were not the first to erupt on British soil. Thirty-nine years earlier, battle-weary soldiers and sailors of all races trooped back from the horrors of the First World War to the ‘Mother Country’. Instead of peace and prosperity, they found themselves competing for jobs, housing and women. Within months, West Indians, Africans, Somali and Arab sailors, even Brazilians were swept up in a wave of violent attacks from white working class men and women, who accused them of stealing jobs, undercutting wages and running off with white women.

The trouble ranged from minor scuffles to mass attacks by huge mobs using guns and knives. The worst affected places were seaports, including London, Glasgow, in the north-west at Liverpool and Salford, in the north-east at Hull and South Shields, and in South Wales at Cardiff, Newport and Barry. Five men, black and white, were killed in June 1919.

Horrific as the British violence was, there was far worse to come on the other side of the Atlantic. During race riots in Chicago between 27 July and 3 August 1919, 38 were killed and more than 500 injured. Awareness of those and other US race riots may have informed Claudia Jones’s thinking when she decided to counter the hurt and hatred of September 1958 with a showcase for understanding and pride in January 1959.