Windrush Pioneer: Dame Jocelyn Barrow

Dame Jocelyn Barrow was a British educationalist, community activist, and the first Black woman to be a governor of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). She was also a pioneer in the Windrush generation, which refers to the wave of immigrants who came to the United Kingdom from Caribbean countries between 1948 and 1971.

Well I was brought up with great confidence. I was brought up to feel that nobody could prevent me from doing what I wanted to do. There are changes that you can make without being confrontational, without causing chaos or shouting or screaming. There’s no point shouting and screaming because nobody listens.

We had formed a campaign against racial discrimination in 1964, when Martin Luther King passed through this country. We got the Race Relations Act of ’68, which covered employment. And we were looking at ways to enforce the legislation. One of our sponsors was Lord Sieff, the owner of Marks & Spencer, and he was a great supporter of ours. They’re a Jewish family and he understood the discrimination. Because the Jews, even at the time that the blacks came here, lots of Jewish people told me they were glad the blacks came because it took some of the discrimination that they suffered away.

There was a time when people did not want black people to touch their clothes, or to touch them, even in hospitals. He agreed, if we found some pretty West Indian girls, he would employ them.

The whole of the Oxford Street, Regent Street area began to look at employing black people in different ways. And, that was a great breakthrough for us. After that had happened, I went into Marks & Spencer in Brixton high street and there was a notice up for a large number of vacancies. And I looked around the shop and there were black customers, white salespeople, white cashiers. And I phoned and asked, applied for a job and I was given an appointment. And then I went in at Saturday morning and said I was here to see Miss So and So. She went in, and I don’t know what she told this lady, but this lady came out and told me, with her face highly flushed because she was embarrassed: all the vacancies are filled. And I had a letter from Lord Sieff. And I just took it out of my handbag and just showed her the top of it. And I allowed her to see up to there: Jocelyn Barrow. If she would had a bad heart, she would have fainted. She was puce: come and sit down. And I said: no I’m not sitting down, I’m here to tell you two things. Take that sign down or fill them with black people. I give you six weeks, otherwise I’m reporting you to headquarters. And left.

Although the main store on Oxford Street was employing black people, she in the heart of Brixton was running her own fiefdom, in a way. And it’s that sort of curious thing that we had to work through. Because you couldn’t relax. You had to be vigilant across the country. If you want to achieve something, you can’t let people who are pulling at your skirt pull you down. Or laying traps to throw you down, prevent you from achieving what you set out to achieve.

About the late Dame Jocelyn Barrow

Born in 1929 in Trinidad, Barrow moved to the UK in 1959 to study for a diploma in Youth Leadership and Community Work at the University of London. She later went on to become a teacher, lecturer, and professor of education.

Barrow was a founding member of several influential organizations, including the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) and the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), which later became known as Liberty. She was also the Chair of the National Organisation for the Development of Associations of the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and the Commission for Racial Equality.

In addition to her work in civil rights and education, Barrow was also an advocate for women’s rights. She was a member of the Women’s National Commission and the Women’s Consultative Committee on Race Relations.

Barrow was awarded a CBE in 1976 and was made a Dame in 1992 in recognition of her services to education and race relations. She passed away in 2020 at the age of 90.

Dame Jocelyn Barrow’s contributions to education and civil rights in the UK have had a lasting impact and she remains an inspiration to many people, particularly those from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds.