Una Marson was the first black woman to be employed by the BBC, in March 1941. She was Jamaican but much of her adult life was divided between her native country and Britain. Her accomplishments would be heralded as inspirational today, let alone in her own time, and it is a shame that she is not better known.
Born in Jamaica, the daughter of a Baptist parson, Una’s childhood was typically middle class. She won a scholarship to Hampton high school and afterwards worked in Kingston, becoming involved with the Salvation Army and the YMCA. Her main interest was journalism and in 1926 she was appointed assistant editor of the Jamaica Critic. Two years later she was able to use these skills and founded her own monthly journal, The Cosmopolitan. Marson’s journal had a strong focus on women’s issues, its editorial statement: ‘This is the age of woman: what man has done, women may do.’ She also published two collections of poems, Tropic Reveries and Heights and Depths as well as writing her first play.
Marson first came to London in 1932, partly due to her literary ambitions as she knew that she needed a wider audience. She lodged with fellow Jamaican Dr Ronald Moody in Peckham. Moody had founded the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931 and his organisation aimed to address issues of racial division and prejudice. The league had its own journal, The Keys (based on the idea of the black and white keys on a piano keyboard co-existing harmoniously), and Marson became its editor. As well as continuing her focus on women’s rights, she became interested in discussions on race and the colour bar, common problems for recent black migrants.
Returning to Jamaica for a two year spell, during which she continued to write and worked to raise money for the Jamaica Save the Children Association (Jamsave), she was back in London by 1938. In 1939 she was offered work by the BBC with its Empire Service. During the war she was the full-time programme assistant on Calling the West Indies, later developing this strand into the better known Caribbean Voices, a literary showcase. Collaborators during this wartime period included George Orwell and TS Eliot.
Una returned to Jamaica in 1945 and this is when further details of her life become hazy. That year, prior to leaving Britain, she published another volume of poetry, Towards the Stars. Her arrival in Jamaica was celebrated with a special lunch organised by Edna Manley, sculptor and wife of the future prime minister Noman Manley. From then onwards little is officially documented of Marson. There is a suggestion that she travelled to the US for some time and several sources claim that she suffered from mental health issues, spending time in institutions. She died of a heart attack in 1965.
In the 1990s, Marson’s work finally began to be recognised in Britain for its pioneering qualities. In 2009 a blue plaque was unveiled in Brunswick Square, Camberwell, where Una Marson lived for a while. At the ceremony local councillor Adele Morris said: Una was a feminist who campaigned for equality, and was politically active at a time when this would have been difficult for a woman, and doubly so for a black woman.’