Learie Constantine: A champion of racial equality ahead of his time

A recent campaign celebrating ‘100 Great Black Britons’ proved controversial, more because of who was omitted rather than who was included. Learie Constantine, a man whose actions helped paved the way for the first Race Relations Act, was surely one of the gravest omissions.

Learie Constantine by Godfrey Argent 1967 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Used under Creative Commons Licence.

Being a cricket devotee, I have long been aware of Constantine’s prowess as a sportsman but had little knowledge of his life outside the game. That is until I attended an event in 2019 to commemorate 50 years since Constantine became the first person of African heritage to be elevated to the House of Lords. The grandson of slaves, after playing Test cricket for the West Indies he went on to be a barrister, politician, and diplomat. He also successfully sued a leading London hotel for racial discrimination in the 1940s, an era when the odds of winning were stacked against him.

What follows is an exploration of Constantine’s complex relationship with Britain and his lifelong fight against subtle and overt forms of racism. Excelling at cricket as a young man undoubtedly gave Constantine a public profile which enabled many of his later achievements. So too did his engaging personality. Fellow Trinidadian Sir Trevor McDonald, who at the start of his own career as a journalist came to know Constantine well, described him in the BBC’s ‘Great Lives’ programme as ‘a man of quiet dignity and humanity’.

Learie Constantine batting. Photo by Central Press/Getty Images. Used under Britannica ImageQuest Licence.

Born in Trinidad in 1901*, Constantine recalled in a BBC interview much later in his life how one of his earliest memories was of his mother urging him, with genuine fear in her voice, to get out of the road because the white overseers were coming. At a time when slavery on the island was still within living memory, Constantine was always aware of his lowly position in the British colony. 

Following an initial cricketing visit to Britain in 1923, Constantine returned for a second tour in 1928 determined to make such an impression on the field that he would be offered a professional contract. This would enable him, his wife Norma and daughter Gloria to remain in England. Such an offer came from Nelson Cricket Club in the Lancashire League, and Constantine and his family lived in the cotton mill town for the next 20 years.     

The Trinidad historian and political activist C. L. R. James devoted three chapters of his classic book ‘Beyond a Boundary’ to Constantine. James lodged with the family for a year in the early 1930s and he and Constantine became regular speakers at Labour Party meetings. Black people were rare in small Lancashire towns and James recalled how they were repeatedly ‘observed’, probably because of their novelty value. Yet, despite being a successful cricketer for Nelson and therefore a local hero to many, Constantine often received what we would now refer to as ‘hate mail’. Worse was to follow during the Second World War.

Learie Constantine c1940. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Used under Britannica ImageQuest Licence.

Constantine spent most of the war employed by the Ministry of Labour in Liverpool as a Welfare Officer helping African and Caribbean munitions workers. In early wartime Britain, race relations were far from perfect, but blacks and whites socialised in the same pubs and dance halls. Constantine experienced how attitudes changed once the United States entered the war. White servicemen arriving in Britain, particularly those from the South used to segregation and Jim Crow etiquette, were not prepared to fraternise with black civilians or service personnel.

The British authorities largely ignored calls from the American military to introduce colour bars, at least officially. Nevertheless, when Constantine, his family and a white colleague Arnold Watson travelled to London for a match at Lords in 1943, Constantine took the precaution of declaring he was black when booking ahead for four nights at the Imperial Hotel. He was advised that the colour of his skin would not be a problem.

The Imperial Hotel, Russell Square, London. Used under Britannica ImageQuest Licence.

The situation changed on arrival when Constantine was told that he could only stay for one night. The hotel manager used the highly offensive N-word several times and made it clear that Constantine’s continued presence would be unacceptable to American guests. Alternative accommodation was offered at a sister hotel which Watson eventually persuaded him to accept. Still aggrieved, Constantine took Imperial London Hotels to court. With powerful supporters and questions asked in Parliament, Constantine won the case at a time when there were no racial discrimination laws.

Prior to coming to England, Constantine worked as a legal clerk but recognised that he had little chance of climbing the professional ladder in colonial Trinidad. After the war, with his interest in the law reignited, Constantine trained as a barrister and was finally called to the bar in London in 1954. Later that year Constantine moved back to Trinidad just as the campaign for independence from Britain was growing and he became embroiled in the island’s politics.

In the ‘Great Lives’ programme, Trevor McDonald described Constantine as a ‘compassionate radical’ who was not naturally suited to the cut and thrust of politics. In McDonald’s opinion, Eric Williams the leader of the People’s National Movement (and later first Prime Minister of the independent Trinidad and Tobago) used Constantine’s personal popularity to help ‘get things done’.

Learie Constantine with his wife Norma at their London home 1960s. Used under Britannica ImageQuest Licence.

Shortly before independence, Constantine returned to Britain in 1961 as Trinidad’s first High Commissioner. He was knighted and given the Freedom of his adopted hometown of Nelson. Seemingly, Constantine now appeared to have become part of the establishment, but this worked against him as controversy beckoned. In 1963 he publicly backed the bus boycott which arose from the Bristol Omnibus Company’s employment colour bar. Although the company policy was overturned, many considered that Constantine had exceeded his remit as a diplomat and Prime Minister Williams withdrew his personal support.

Learie Constantine’s legacy, in my view, is that the success of the Bristol bus boycott and his own wartime legal victory are now considered two of the key milestones leading to the 1965 Race Relations Act which prohibited racial discrimination. Constantine was also the first black person to be awarded a life peerage. With his health declining, the House of Lords did not witness the best of this remarkable man and he died in 1971.

*Most sources, including an English Heritage blue plaque, state Constantine’s birth year as 1901 but Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack consistently records it as 1902.

Suggested reading

‘Beyond a Boundary’ by C. L. R. James (London, Yellow Jersey Press, 1963).

‘Learie Constantine’ by Peter Mason (Oxford, Signal Books Limited, 2008).

This blog post forms part of my postgraduate studies in Public History at Royal Holloway University of London 2020/21.

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