005: Amy Barbour-James & the League of Coloured Peoples 1942

Miss Barbour-James, probably around 1960
Miss Barbour-James, probably around 1960

Amy Barbour-James was born in Acton, west London in January 1906. Her parents were from British Guiana (today: Guyana) with her father John working in the post office in the Gold Coast (now: Ghana) from 1902 to 1917, with leaves in London where his wife Caroline and their five children were joined by Amy and two other siblings. John retired in 1917, aged 50, and was active in black affairs in England for twenty plus years. Caroline died and he remarried Edith Rita Goring, a Barbados-born school teacher who worked in Cape Coast (Ghana) in 1920. Their numerous contacts included West Africans, Caribbeans, and the Jamaica-born, London-qualified Harold Moody (1882-1947) who founded the League of Coloured Peoples in London in 1931. A remarkable man, large in stature and abilities, Dr Moody was very active in Christian work, had a sizeable family, ran a medical centre in south east London, and had several medical qualifications.

He involved his family in the League, was well known to other medical practitioners of Caribbean origin including fellow Jamaican James J. Brown (who did not like Moody) and the Guyanese H. J. A. Dingwall who was a committee member, and younger students and visitors, some of whom stayed at his home and practice, 164 Queen’s Road, Peckham until they found other accommodation.  Una Marson, a Jamaican poet and broadcaster, stayed with the Moodys for example.

John Barbour-James had been an official until 1938 when he and Edith went to the Caribbean for a lengthy visit, extended by the war (he died in Georgetown in 1954).

In naming Amy Barbour-James as ‘(British Guiana)’ on a 1942 letterhead (see A Letter from the League of Coloured Peoples page 002 on this site), Dr Moody innocently helped in the formation of a stereotype – that people of African descent are ‘from somewhere’ and not ‘born in Britain’. In fact she made her first visit to the Caribbean in the early 1950s although her sole surviving sibling, Muriel, had lived in Trinidad since the 1930s.

Named as an executive member was Antigua-descent, St Lucia-born W. Arthur Lewis, a brilliant student who went on to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1979.

In his letter to Miss Barbour-James Dr Moody mentions ‘Carter’ who was John Carter (1919-2005), born in British Guiana and a law student in London from 1939 to 1942. That year there arrived large numbers of black American troops. Carter was the League’s general and travelling secretary. His legal skills helped resolve the numerous incidents of racial discrimination – often violent and at the hands of white GIs. (It was said that one Briton remarked he liked the American troops, but ‘not the white ones’.) He returned to Georgetown in 1945, became Sir John Carter in 1966, and represented Guyana in the U.S., Canada, the U.N. and in 1970 in Britain.

The end of the letter refers to ‘Constantine’, a Trinidad cricketer who had settled in northwest England in the 1930s. Learie Constantine also became a lawyer, was knighted, then became Lord Constantine. He headed the League after Moody’s death in 1947 but it fizzled out, lacking the vibrancy of Moody and his colleagues.

The death of Dr John Alcindor in 1924, aged 51, had a serious impact on the black rights group the African Progress Union (founded 1918) and had he lived longer the League of Coloured Peoples would not have been founded as the APU’s role covered similar ground (see page 025). Moody was skilled at marshalling support and funds, and it is said that white members outnumbered blacks in the LCP. The story of Moody and the League of Coloured Peoples is being written by David Killingray, who has been permitted full access to the papers of the Moody family.

The letter to Miss Barbour-James was treasured by her, and rescued from her home at 57 Christchurch Avenue, Kenton, Middx (sic) after her death when it was found, 40 years old, protected by a plastic sleeve. See “A letter from the League of Coloured Peoples, 1942” on this site – jeffreygreen.co.uk


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