Sir Learie Constantine (1901-1971) – The UK’s First Black Peer

by Godfrey Argent, bromide print, 1 November 1967

At 101 Lexham Gardens, Earls Court, London, you will find an English Heritage blue plaque dedicate to Sir Learie Constantine. He only lived there for five years but this is where he wrote the book Colour Bar (1954). In the UK we like to be smug and compare ourselves favourably to the US when it comes to racial history and institutionalised racism. We did not have legal segregation, no, but nevertheless an informal colour bar did exist here, and Constantine fought against it.

Born in Trinidad, Learie Constantine first came to England as a cricketer, part of the touring West Indies team that visited in 1923 and again in 1928. On this second tour, frustrated by the lack of opportunities in Trinidad, he took the opportunity of a contract with the Nelson cricket club in Lancashire. He found great success in England over the next decade, the club winning the league eight times during that period, and he continued also to play for the West Indies.

War broke out and Constantine was offered a role as a Welfare Officer for the Ministry of Labour and National Service. Since he had assimilated into life in Lancashire so well with his family, it was hoped that he could help assist with the influx of West Indian migrants to Merseyside. He worked with trade unions to help assuage the concerns of the white workforces and was known to use his influence to overcome the resistance from some companies to employ non-white workers. He had been since the 1930s a member of Harold Moody’s League of Coloured People and was seen as a strong figurehead for the West Indian community. Always he preferred to negotiate rather than taking a confrontational or militant stance.

In 1943 the Constantine family endured a humiliating incident which had important repercussions. Learie took a few days leave to take part in a charity cricket match at Lord’s, and booked his family a room at the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury. Well aware of potential issues, he rang ahead and checked that the hotel were aware that his family were black, and was assured that this was not a problem. However, on arrival, the management made it clear that the family was not welcome (some accounts suggest that white American servicemen staying at the hotel prompted this turnabout of opinion) and the Constantines left, spending a night in another hotel owned by the same company.

At this time, there were no laws against racial discrimination and so Constantine claimed that Imperial Hotels Ltd. was in breach of contract. The hotel had not been able to provide a just explanation for their refusal of accommodation and so the judge found in favour of Learie, though only a small amount was awarded in damages. For Constantine this was acceptable. He had brought the case in order to publicise the plight of his community rather than for financial gain, and the case had also been discussed in the House of Commons due to his prominent position and his determination to have it known that such behaviour was unacceptable. This was the first case to challenge racial discrimination and as such is seen as the initial step towards the creation of the Race Relations Act 1965.

Learie Constantine lived in England until 1954, just after publishing Colour Bar, in which he talked about the racism he’d experienced as well as worldwide oppression. To some, the book was not radical enough, but Constantine had aimed it at a white audience perhaps hoping to change attitudes to the growing black population. Soon after, he returned to Trinidad and became involved in politics and joined the People’s National Movement to help them win the 1956 General Elections. He decided not to stand           for re-election in 1961 and instead was offered the post of Trinidad and Tobago’s first High Commissioner in London.

Back in England once more, Constantine was knighted in the New Year’s Honours List of 1962, also received the freedom of the town of Nelson. In 1963 he visited Bristol during the bus boycott and spoke out against the colour bar, condemning the actions of the bus company in refusing to employ black and Asian bus crews. This ultimately led to the Trinidadian government not renewing his term as High Commissioner as it was felt by both his own government as well as the British that he had overstepped the mark in becoming so outspoken over the issue.

For the rest of his life Constantine lived in London. He was variously involved in journalism and broadcasting, became a founding member of the Sports Council and was appointed to the Race Relations Board in 1967. In 1969 he was awarded his life peerage and became the first black man to sit in the House of Lords, his official title being Baron Constantine of Maraval in Trinidad and Nelson in the County Palatine of Lancaster.

Ill health forced Learie Constantine to consider a move back to Trinidad but, before he could make the journey, he died of a heart attack on 1 July 1971. His body was taken back to Trinidad for a state funeral. He was posthumously awarded the Trinity Cross of Trinidad and a memorial service was held for him at Westminster Abbey.

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