The International Picture
The 1930s was a decade shaped by political turmoil on an international scale. The Great Depression and the end of Prohibition, the beginning of the Nazi regime in Germany, the outbreak of the Second World War. The start of the war is usually recorded as 1939, but in reality, this international war had begun in 1935 when Italian Fascist troops invaded Ethiopia, supported by colonial Eritrean forces. Amidst growing tensions, movements and campaigns in civil rights, Black presence and excellence in education and in politics begin to be recognised.
The National Negro Congress was a civil rights organisation that developed from a conference at Howard University in Washington, D.C. United States. The meeting in 1935 included many prominent Black intellectuals and activists, such as A Philip Randolph, John P Davis and James Ford. The organisation started seriously with its first conference, organised in Chicago in February 1936. Hundreds of Diaspora delegates from different associations worldwide gathered to give life to what has been described as the meeting for a charter of Black rights. At the same time in sport, African American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens, won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Simultaneously the dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham established her career and company, producing the first version of her dance composition L’Ag’Ya in 1938, with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson establishing the Black Actors Guild in 1939. Both using arts and sports as a symbol of identity and pride.
The National Picture
Political conflict dominated this decade, with African and African Caribbean people facing extreme difficulty securing employment and housing in the UK at the same time as the economic depression.
Jamaican-born Harold Moody formed the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) in March 1931 in London. Among the members, there were figures such as Jomo Kenyatta, Paul Robeson, Una Marson and CLR James.
CLR James moved to the UK from Trinidad in 1932, at the invitation of his cricketer friend, Learie Constantine. Initially taking a job as cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, before joining a Trotskyist group and moving to London, CLR James became a campaigner for the independence of Caribbean nations and published The Case for West-Indian Self Government in 1933. It would be the 1960s before Caribbean independence would begin to be realised.
In 1936 with the invasion of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, fled to the UK Una Marson served as secretary to Haile Selassie during his time in London. Una Marson was also secretary to the League of Coloured People; she became the first Black woman to be invited to the League of Nations in Geneva and the first Black female broadcaster at the BBC from 1939 to 1946. Marson was a poet, publisher and activist for racial and sexual equality. Marson was the creator of the programme Caribbean Voices, a ground-breaking programme that aimed to highlight and champion authors from the Caribbean.
Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey also settled in London in 1935, although his anti-socialist stance distanced him from many Black activists. Whilst in the city he established a new headquarters for the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and launched a monthly journal, Black Man.
The Regional Picture
In 1930 Leicester welcomed Canadian heavyweight champion, Larry Gains. Gains trained above the Three Cranes pub on Humberstone Gate. He was a much-loved local figure whose approachability and kindness continues to be remembered by the children and grandchildren of people who lived in Leicester during the 1930s. Gains was extremely fond of his adopted English hometown and was known to respond to questions about where he was from by saying he was a ‘Shireman’ – from Leicestershire.
One of his notable fights in Leicester was against Phil Scott in front of 30,000 spectators, at Leicester Tigers’ Welford Road ground in 1931. He defeated Scott taking the British Empire title, although the colour bar was still in place. The colour bar was lifted in 1932 and he cemented his hold on the title with a victory over white South African, Donald McCorkindale, at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Gains was the first Black boxer to fight at the Royal Albert Hall. In 1934 Gains beat Italian boxer Primo Carnera in London, who had an advantage of 60 pounds in weight and four inches in height over Gains. This fight refuted fascist claims of white racial supremacy that was promoted by the National Fascist Party under Benito Mussolini who had governed Italy since 1922. When Gains returned to Leicester after this victory, he was greeted by crowds of cheering local people, who paraded with him around the city centre to the Prince’s Theatre, where he was greeted by the Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Leicester. In his autobiography Gains remembered it as ‘a very good way to come home’.
Gains won the Coloured Heavyweight Champion of the World title again in 1935 against Obie Walker at Welford Road Stadium, Leicester. However, his boxing career began drawing to a close with the advent of the Second War World, during which Larry joined the British army as a physical training instructor and later served as a Sergeant Major in the Pioneer Corps in the Middle East.
Famed African American singer and actor, Paul Robeson, began his British tour on 16 January 1934 at De Montfort Hall, Leicester. He was famous for his political activism alongside his cultural accomplishments. During this period, he became attuned to the suffering of the British working class and colonised people of the British Empire, in turn becoming a role model for many. Robeson was also the first Black actor to play Othello in a British theatre, at the Savoy Theatre in 1930, since Ira Aldridge’s performance in 1825.
Buhle P. (1986) CLR James: His Life and Work. London: Allison and Busby, London
Gains, L. (1976) The Impossible Dream: An Autobiography by Larry Gains. Leisure Publications
Morrison, M. A. (2011) Paul Robeson’s Othello at the Savoy Theatre, 1930. New Theatre Quarterly, 27, 2.
African-American History Timeline 1930 to 1939. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1930-1939-45427 (Accessed on 30 August 2019).
Objectives of the League of Coloured Peoples. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/learning/citizenship/campaign/myh/newspapers/gallery1/paper2/thekeys2.html (Accessed on 30 August 2019).
Ten Little Known Black History Facts. Available at: https://www.pbs.org/black-culture/explore/10-black-history-little-known-facts/ (Accessed on 30 August 2019).
The Africans who fought in WWII. Available at: https://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/8344170.stm (Accessed on 30 August 2019).