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Immigrants: ‘We’re here to stay’

This article is over 18 years, 4 months old
Berlyne Hamilton spoke to Socialist Worker about what life was like for black immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s and the need to continue the fight against racism today.
Issue 1865

I grew up in Dominica in the West Indies and came here in 1960. You couldn’t miss the discrimination. People told you to get back where you come from, but not so polite. You couldn’t get a job. I spent two years out of work. Then Harold Wilson brought in a law saying everywhere employing a certain amount of people had to have ten of the workforce non-white. This opened doors for us.

Of course, it was only for jobs in factories and things like that. They assumed you weren’t fit for a decent job. When I came over, my family told me to join the army, for queen and country and all that. You had to be in England for six months before you could join up. So I went to get a job in Chadwell Heath. You had to go there, then phone from a hut. I phoned and they asked what nationality I was. I said, ‘British’ – that’s what’s on my passport.

They said, ‘Yes, but what part of the world are you from?’ I told them the Caribbean. They told me to wait, but no one came down. Then a white woman came in, and they rushed straight down. I got the message and walked out. I thought, why am I pretending to be British? My first job here was in a sweetie factory in Upton Park. I was sacked after six weeks. It wasn’t a sanitary place. We made toffees, but there were no covers, so it was full of juicy flies.

I went to the foreman and showed him the flies in the toffee. He said, ‘People like you are the last people to complain. We allow you over here and now you’re telling us how to run things.’ I said, ‘I thought I came from an ignorant part of the world, but you’re worse.’

Next day, I got my cards. A friend of mine went for a job at Yardley cosmetics in Stratford. Black women used their products, because they were cheap. A man at the gate told my friend, ‘Don’t bother. We don’t employ blacks here.’

My friend said, ‘I am not black, I’m fucking Jamaican.’ That made us laugh. The first person that set up a stall on Green Street in east London was a Jamaican chap called Bob Hamilton. On a regular basis, racists would raid his stall and tip it over, all through the 1960s.

If you go to Green Street now, it’s all black, Asian, everyone is accepted. So things have moved on a long way, but we haven’t reached the end of the road. The worst racism was at Ford’s. I started there in 1973, on the production line. About 40 percent of the employees were non-whites. In 1975 there were two black foremen out of 5,700 people.

When I left there in 2001 there were still only four or five. As far as decision-making was concerned, forget it. You didn’t have a voice. I was the first black person on the union works committee. We had a press-shop manager, a Scottish fellow. If he was a racist he camouflaged it very well by being a bastard to everyone.

He saw us during a break in production and said, ‘Give these bastards a broom and let them sweep up.’ I said, ‘Who the fucking hell are you calling a bastard?’ He said, ‘I wasn’t fucking talking to you.’ I said, ‘No, because if you were this place would have come to a standstill, you Scottish bastard.’

I said, ‘My grandfather was Scottish. He had a plantation, and if I could get hold of his bones I would put them together and put my hands round my neck and strangle him.’ That manager never so much as looked at me sideways again.

The foundry’s union convenor was a white South African. He used to talk about the ‘nigger in the woodpile’. I was the only black person at the joint union meetings and everyone else just ignored it. Now they can’t pick on the Irish, or the West Indians. If you go to Aldgate, or Whitechapel, now it’s the Bengalis they are picking on, saying they are getting the all the houses.

In the 1960s we got exactly the same. My digs was me and my brother in a little box room, with every room filled with people, a cooker on the landing and a shed in the back with a tin bath. It’s the same for the refugees like the Kosovans. It’s the same for people coming here now as it was for us. It’s just the race that’s changed.

Years ago I walked the streets protesting against the National Front. I started taking an interest because of what happened in Notting Hill Gate, where black people were attacked and beaten. It was after that that the carnival really found itself. Carnival was about standing together and being counted.

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