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Unforgotten Women: Claudia Jones, Activist & Mother Of Notting Hill Carnival

Jessica Morgan
·2-min read

Notting Hill Carnival is one of the most exciting British cultural events of the year. While 2020’s celebrations were held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic, Carnival remains one of the most important street parties for Black Britons and people all over the world. Now famous for its multiculturalism, it was originally an attempt by its founding mother, Claudia Jones, to unify a community torn apart by racism, riots and oppression.

Jones, who was born Claudia Vera Cumberbatch on 21st February 1915 in Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago, dedicated her life to the fight against racial discrimination and oppression, relentlessly championing issues such as civil rights and gender equality.

In 1924 Jones moved to New York City’s Harlem neighbourhood with her parents and three sisters. But her education was cut short by tuberculosis and the damage to her lungs, as well as severe heart disease, plagued her for the rest of her life.

For over 30 years Jones lived in New York where she discovered her passion for writing and journalism, becoming an active member of the American Communist Party, which allowed her journalistic and community leadership skills to flourish. By 1948, she was editor of Negro Affairs for the party’s paper The Daily Worker and had evolved into an accomplished public speaker on human and civil rights.

But her voice landed her in trouble. Following a string of arrests after her controversial political activity in the US, she was imprisoned and deported to the UK in 1955. It was here she continued her impassioned journey to give a voice to the unheard, tirelessly campaigning against the injustices faced by London’s West Indian community.

In 1958, Jones founded Britain’s first major Black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News which, she said at the time, stood for “a united, independent West Indies, full economic, social and political equality and respect for human dignity for West Indians and Afro-Asians in Britain.”

A year later, in 1959, Jones launched Britain’s first Caribbean carnival, a street party celebrating the rich culture and history of Afro-Caribbean people in Britain, in response to the 1958 August bank holiday Notting Hill riots. A plaque sits atop a house on the corner of Tavistock Road and Portobello Road in Notting Hill, cementing her success in the very place where she laid the foundations for celebrating Black culture.

Jones died on Christmas Eve in 1964, aged 49, after suffering a heart attack caused by heart disease and tuberculosis. She was buried to the left of her hero, Karl Marx, in north London’s Highgate Cemetery. The legacy she built connecting Britain’s Caribbean community ensures that she is remembered as the mother of Notting Hill Carnival, a festival still celebrated and loved to this day.

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