Within the rich tapestry of Black British history, certain individuals shine as guiding lights, illuminating the path of progress and equality. Jessica Elleisse Huntley is undeniably one of these luminaries. Born on the 23rd of February in 1927 in Bagotstown, British Guiana, her very birth aligns with the commemoration of the 1763 Berbice Slave Uprising—a poignant and symbolic reminder of the resilience and liberation she would come to represent. As we delve into her life, we uncover a journey marked by adversity, tenacity, and a resolute commitment to shaping narratives that empower the marginalised. Jessica Huntley’s legacy not only etches her name into the annals of Black British history but also inspires generations to come.
Jessica’s early years were not without hardships. The unexpected loss of her father presented challenges, but her mother, Hectorine, provided an unwavering foundation. She instilled in young Jessica values that would drive her future endeavors: fierce independence, an unyielding sense of justice, unfaltering loyalty, and robust resilience. While financial constraints may have curtailed her formal education, they did not dampen her spirit. Making the most of her situation, she attended evening classes, equipping herself with the tools she would need to make an indelible mark on the world. Her role in a garment factory wasn’t just a job; it was an arena where her early activist spirit came alive as she advocated for the rights of her exploited female peers.
1948 was a seminal year for Jessica. This was the year she met her life partner in activism and love, Eric Huntley, a postal worker who matched her fervor for social justice. Their union bore two sons, Karl and Chauncey, but also marked the inception of a partnership in political activism. Together, they fervently engaged with Guyana’s People’s Progressive Party (PPP). Yet, the political landscape in Guyana wasn’t always welcoming. In 1953, a suspended constitution led to Eric’s unjust imprisonment, forcing Jessica to rise as a stalwart leader within the PPP. It was a testament to her resilience and an early indication of her capacity to lead in trying times.
However, the promise of new horizons led the couple to Britain. The journey was fraught with emotional turmoil, including the agonising decision to leave their sons behind until 1962. As they grappled with the intricacies of their new environment, they found solace in a thriving network of Black activists. A noteworthy encounter was with John La Rose, the mastermind behind the UK’s groundbreaking black publishing venture, New Beacon Books. This fortuitous meeting set the stage for the Huntleys’ eminent contribution to Black literature.
By the late 1960s, the couple birthed Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications (BLP), encapsulating their shared vision. This was not just any publishing house. It was a bastion for Black voices, capturing a blend of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and children’s literature often dismissed by mainstream publishers. With renowned authors like Andrew Salkey, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Lemn Sissay, and Valerie Bloom gracing their roster, BLP quickly established its monumental influence.
However, the Huntleys’ impact was not confined to the literary world. Their residence in Ealing transformed into more than just a home; it was a vibrant hub for political and social discussions. As challenges arose, they adapted, leading to the creation of the Walter Rodney Bookshop, which, despite facing overt racism and attacks from entities like the National Front, emerged as a nexus of Black community engagement.
Jessica’s legacy, however, transcends the boundaries of publishing. For over five decades, she remained at the forefront of grassroots movements championing racial and social justice in Britain. The Huntley archives, deposited at the London Metropolitan Archives, offer a glimpse into the vast expanse of her concerns. From supporting pivotal initiatives like the Black Parents Movement, confronting police brutality with the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, to celebrating cultural identity with the Keskidee Centre, her contributions were vast and varied.
Her passing on 18 October 2013 may have marked the end of an era, but the echoes of her influence continue to inspire. Throughout her life, marked by trials and triumphs, Jessica Huntley exhibited an indomitable spirit that has etched her name permanently in the annals of Black British history. As we celebrate Black History Month, her story stands as a luminous testament to the power of persistence, passion, and unwavering commitment in reshaping narratives and influencing cultures.
We salute you, Jessica Huntley, for your unyielding dedication and for lighting the path for countless others.