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Learie Constantine (1901–1971): cricketer and campaigner for racial equality

This Black History Month blog takes a look at Learie Constantine's sporting and political life, drawing inspiration from materials held at the University of Manchester Special Collections including the Brockbank Cricket Collection.

Few could draw the crowds as Learie Constantine. As an outstanding cricketer, he was revolted by the contrast between “his first-class status as a cricketer and his third-class status as a man”

Learie Nicholas Constantine (1901–1971) was a West Indian cricketer, lawyer, politician and the UK’s first black peer. In 1944 Constantine took legal action against a London hotel that refused him access due to the colour of his skin. It was a landmark case and a key step towards the creation of the Race Relations Act of 1965. Constantine made history as both a sporting hero and a campaigner for racial equality. This Black History Month blog takes a look at his sporting and political life, drawing inspiration from materials held at the University of Manchester Special Collections including the Brockbank Cricket Collection.

The grandson of slaves, Learie Constantine was born in Diego Martin, Trinidad in 1901. His father was a foreman on a sugar plantation and a member of the West Indies cricket team. Learie’s childhood was immersed in the game. At the age of 22 he was asked to join the West Indian side to tour England. He made a fantastic impression and he showed remarkable aptitude as both bowler and batsman. In 1928 he became the first West Indian to perform the ‘double’ of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in a season. After such a performance he was hot property. By 1929 he was engaged by Nelson, a Lancashire club, and continued as a League professional until 1948.

Life in the close-knit community of a Lancashire cotton town must have been difficult for the Constantine family, particularly for Learie’s wife Norma. Everyone recognised her as the black cricketer’s wife and, during their early years in Nelson, she was stared at whenever she went shopping. When the Constantine’s were home, children from the local school would jump up at the windows to peep at them. Learie felt that curiosity was the major factor in how they were treated and that rudeness was a cloak for ignorance. Nevertheless, by the end of their first summer in Lancashire, Learie was ready to return to the West Indies and it was his wife Norma who persuaded him to stay and make a home there. After a shaky start they lived in Nelson in the same house, Number 3 Meredith Street, for over 20 years, making life-long friends and becoming part of the community.

Learie was ambitious and, while still a professional cricketer, he began to study the law by correspondence course and, in 1939, was taken into the family solicitor’s office of Alec Birtwell, a fellow Nelson cricketer. Had the war not intervened he would have become articled to this firm and started his new career in the law. Instead he would serve as a Welfare Officer for the Ministry of Labour, based in Liverpool, helping Jamaican technicians find accommodation and mediating work disputes and any racial problems that might flare up as they settled into their new home.

During the Second World War large numbers of servicemen and women from across the Commonwealth travelled thousands of miles to Britain to help the war effort. These included RAF pilots from the Caribbean, lumberjacks from Honduras working in terrible, bleak conditions in Scottish forests, and Jamaican technicians who worked in munition factories in and around Merseyside. These new arrivals would need support. Learie Constantine’s long experience of living in England, and his understanding of the prejudices and difficulties that these Commonwealth citizens would face, made him an ideal candidate for this role.

‘West Indies Calling’ (1944). Ministry of Information film starring Learie Constantine. BFI National Archive

As a charismatic, handsome and widely admired cricketer Learie Constantine was the perfect spokesman for the West Indian community, so it is not surprising that the Ministry of Information chose him for a short promotional film.

‘West Indies Calling’ was commissioned by the Ministry of Information and the film aired in 1944. It featured a group of West Indians, led by Una Marson and Learie Constantine, at Broadcasting House in London describing how people from the Caribbean were supporting the war effort. The film introduced some of these war workers including Ulric Cross, an RAF Bomber from Trinidad. As the opening words demonstrate, the film celebrated diversity and cooperation across nations.

During the war years, we in this country have seen many new faces, people from all parts of the British Commonwealth and Empire and from the allied nations. When they are in the forces we have learned to spot some of them, we know an Australian by his wide brimmed hat, an Indian by his turban, a French sailor by his pom pom and striped shirt but when they are just dressed like anybody else it is not so easy. What about these people, for example, who are making their way to broadcasting house in London. Do you know what part of the world they come from?

The film stresses racial harmony as people from across the world came together to fight fascism. The truth was less simple. Commonwealth men and women faced discrimination and prejudice and this worsened as America joined the war in December 1941. The arrival of 3 million American servicemen imported into Britain racial practices widespread in the American South. The Southern States had ‘Jim Crow’ laws which enforced racial segregation. Around 130,000 African-Americans crossed the Atlantic with their white country men — these servicemen were segregated and subjected to the same discrimination they experienced at home.

Under pressure from American military officials some British pubs and hotels began introducing ‘colour bars’ in which black customers were refused admission. It was in this context that Learie Constantine and his family found their four-night room booking at the Imperial Hotel, London, would not be honoured. In late July 1943 Constantine was in London to play a charity cricket match at Lord’s. He had been told by the hotel, at the time of booking, that his colour would not be an issue. But on arrival he was told that he, his wife and their daughter could only stay for one night as their presence would offend the white American servicemen who were also staying there.

Arnold Watson, a colleague from the Ministry of Labour, tried to intervene, stressing that Constantine was a British subject and that he worked for the government. But to no avail. The manager at the Imperial Hotel refused to budge and the family found another hotel. The experience deeply affected Constantine because his family were involved and because he was revolted that he could be lauded as world-class cricketer and yet still be demeaned as a man. How could it be right that a cricketer who would shortly represent the British Empire and Commonwealth at Lord’s be subject to such degrading treatment? There was an outpouring of sympathy for Constantine including a cartoon by David Lowe which attacked the Imperial Hotel for making a mockery of the Commonwealth vision of a ‘family of free and equal peoples’.

In September 1943 Learie’s case was raised in Parliament and by this point he had decided to take legal action. Although there was no law against racial discrimination in Britain at the time, Constantine argued that the hotel had breached its contract with him. After a two day hearing the judge, after praising the way Constantine had handled the situation, found in Constantine’s favour. The court case was widely reported in the newspapers and Learie was supported by the general public and the government. It was the first court case to bring racial discrimination to wider attention and it established a precedent that black people could bring legal cases to challenge racism. The Imperial Hotel case is widely seen as a key milestone along the path to the Race Relations Act of 1965.

‘Colour Bar’ by Learie Constantine (1954)

Learie Constantine continued to campaign for racial equality and did much to counter prejudice and improve community relations. In 1954 he wrote ‘Colour Bar,’ an important book which discussed his own experiences of racism and the state of race relations in Britain before tracing worldwide racial oppression. Learie would be knighted in June 1962 and he was given the freedom of the town of Nelson around this time too. His connections with that modest Lancashire town were cemented further when, in 1969, Learie Constantine was made the UK’s first black peer taking the title ‘Baron Constantine, of Maraval in Trinidad and of Nelson in the County Palatine of Lancaster’.

Further information

All the books in the Brockbank Cricket Collection can be found in in Library Search. For extensive collections on race relations please visit the website of the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre at The University of Manchester. This library and archive tells the story of race, diversity and multiculturalism in Manchester, the UK and America. It incorporates oral histories, local studies and archives focusing on local Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community history, as well as significant national collections, such as papers of the Commission for Racial Equality and the Institute of Race Relations.

Information for this blog was drawn from Gerald Howat’s book Learie Constantine (1975) and Learie Constantine’s book Colour Bar (1954). For more details on Learie Constantine’s war work and the many nationalities that fought with the Allied forces in the war, see Wendy Webster Mixing It: Diversity in World War Two Britain (2018).

2 comments on “Learie Constantine (1901–1971): cricketer and campaigner for racial equality

  1. James Brennan

    In 1963 I saw Learie Constantine bat at the Oval for a team he had raised to play in a charity match against Frank Worrell’s West Indian tourists of that year. He hit a lusty cover boundary and then skied a ball to be caught, (as a deliberate compliment, one handed) by White. At the time (and this should have been mentioned in the blog) he just happened to be Trinidad High Commissioner in London. He addressed the crowd as such in the lunch interval, and I still remember his insistence in that speech that “integration must come”. I also remember a well-lubricated group of Rhodesians in front of the old scoreboard whose support of an innings by one of Constantine’s side, JP Fellows-Smith, which helped ensure a draw, was liberally salted with (between themselves) racist remarks. So it’s worth mentioning too, that the captain of the Commonwealth side which played in the Victory Test Matches in England in 1945 was Learie Constantine.

  2. Janette Martin

    Thanks for that comment James – I am very envious that you saw Learie Constantine play. I agree entirely that I should have included his role as Trinidad High Commissioner. I also wanted to talk about his part in the Bristol Bus dispute. There is so much more to be said on Learie as both a sporting hero and a political giant. A fascinating man and I really should do a follow up blog

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