Ten Things you need to know about the first Black Parliamentarian
This article was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
Warning: This article uses contemporary quotes which contain offensive language that some readers may find upsetting.
- Learie Nicholas Constantine was born in Maraval on the island of Trinidad on the 21st September 1901.
His first name was taken from an Irish friend of his father whose surname was O’Leary. Like many islanders born at the turn of the century he was only a generation removed from slavery. His mother’s side of the family were classed as slaves and worked on plantations until the country’s 1838 emancipation.
- His father, Lebrun was a cricketer who played for the West Indies and was part of a touring party to England in 1900 & 1906.
The young Learie inherited these sporting genes and such was his burgeoning talent that father and son were in the same West Indian team that contested a tournament in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1922.
- When Pathe News profiled a superb individual performance by Learie against England at Lords in 1928 they dubbed him ‘The Coloured Catapult’.
On the same tour he later recalled being taunted by Oxford University undergraduates and being excluded from ‘whites only’ dances. He would stay in England joining Lancashire side, Nelson Cricket Club where he graced their Seedhill Ground for nine years. The town adopted him as one of their own, ultimately receiving the freedom of the borough.
- During World War Two, Constantine was employed by the Ministry of Labour as a Welfare Officer.
His role was to help settle West Indians arriving in Liverpool to work in the munition factories. He also assisted the community of West African seamen who had been living in Merseyside for many years. This led to his appointment as President of the League of Coloured Peoples where he excelled in negotiating with trade unions and employers to accept black people in their workforce and eradicate discriminatory practices. Such deeds didn’t go unnoticed and he was awarded an MBE in 1946.
- In July 1943 Constantine was involved in a race row that would make national headlines.
After playing at Lords he’d pre-booked rooms for himself and his family at the capital’s Imperial Hotel. His biographer David Killingray noted that, on arrival they were refused entry. The manager was then stated to have said, ‘We will not have n*****s in the hotel because of Americans if they try to stay tonight their luggage will be put out and the doors locked’. Such was the uproar that the incident was raised in Parliament by Benjamin Riley, MP for Dewsbury. The following summer Constantine won a landmark High Court case after suing for breach of contract winning the modest fee of five guineas. Acclaimed writer and fellow Trinidadian, C L R James helped chronicle these events in the seminal book Colour Bar that was published in 1954.
- Constantine was constantly striving to better himself and one of his lifelong ambitions was to become a barrister.
This was achieved when he was called up to the Middle Temple Bar at the veteran age of fifty-three. Constantine was also known as a cricket commentator and he was highly valued in broadcasting circles for his smooth tone and unaffected delivery. Despite various approaches he refused to engage in party politics, politely declining the offer to be nominated as Liberal candidate for the Yorkshire constituency of Shipley in the 1950 General Election.
- Like many of his compatriots for Constantine home was always the Caribbean.
He returned to Trinidad to join Dr Eric Williams Government in 1956 as Minister for Communications, Works and Utilities. When he was transferred to a new ambassadorial position of High Commissioner it required him to be posted in the familiar environment of London. Shortly after he was invited again to Buckingham Palace when he received a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours List.
- The 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott saw Constantine travel to the South-West region to lend his support.
Activist Paul Stephenson had organised the protest to end the colour bar in place against employing ethnic minorities on public transport. Despite its success in lifting these employment restrictions Constantine found himself in conflict with President Williams. The Trinidadian leader felt his actions were not in the interest of their country as it was helping mainly Jamaican and South East Asian immigrants. This event was hugely influential in the passing of the 1965 Race Relations Act. One of the tenets of the statute was the formation of Race Relations Boards with Constantine being appointed one of the first Commissioners.
- Several honorary privileges were bestowed on Constantine from the rectorship of St Andrews University to an appearance on ITV’s This is Your Life.
In 1969 he became the first member of the House of Lords from African descent when he accepted a Life Peerage becoming Lord Constantine of Maraval & Nelson. Fittingly he was formally introduced to the chamber by Civil Rights campaigner Fenners Brockway. The Times reported that he had “played a heraldic innings”. He would make only one Parliamentary speech in a debate on the United Kingdom joining the European Economic Community (EEC). His detailed oratory stressed the importance of not neglecting Commonwealth markets and heritage stating;
“I hope to make the case that the West Indian is different from any other colonial in the world. He is a different person. In essence he is a black Englishman, because when slavery took the African into the West Indies, the owners destroyed everything that was Africa. They have not got their original names. My grandfather was a Nigerian, and my grandmother was Nigerian, but I am named Constantine. That name was collected in the West Indies”.
- Just months after this appearance Learie Constantine died after suffering a heart attack.
A state funeral took place in Trinidad coupled with a memorial service at Westminster Abbey for his many friends and admirers. But his memory lived on and English Heritage erected an iconic blue plaque at his former home at Lexham Gardens, Earls Court in 2013. To mark the 50th anniversary of his peerage the House of Lords held a commemorative talk that was chaired by Baroness Benjamin who proudly hails from his native land. She said, ‘tonight is for lovers of cricket and equality’.
Oxford Dictionary National Biography Volume 13 – Learie Constantine’s biography written by Gerald Howat
Oxford Companion to Black British History – Learie Constantine’s biography written by David Killingray
50th Anniversary Talk – Lord Constantine’s Peerage - House of Lords https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eFbHAhMihas&t=1303s
Parliamentary Personalities: Sir Learie Constantine produced by the Parliament of Trinidad & Tobago https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCPu64-iVHg
Constantine – The Coloured Catapult (1928) – British Pathe https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yR2rR_DSvc&t=1s