My parents, like many of their generation, joined the hundreds of thousands of other West Indians who accepted Britain's invitation to help rebuild the war-ravaged nation. My dad, Stephen, arrived in London first – in 1950 – and my mother and my oldest sister made the 8,000 mile trek the next year.
Other members of my family – in search of a better life – sought their fortune elsewhere too. At the turn of the last century, my maternal grandfather, Richard Dixon, first worked in Cuba and later in Panama, where he helped build the canal; and other relatives emigrated to Panama and Cuba, several never returning to the land of their birth. In some cases, fortune was not the catalyst for departing. For example, Uncle Reginald Bell fled Jamaica for Cuba in the 1940s to escape his tyrannical father, and my great aunt Imogene eloped to Panama with her lover.
Moving to England was a way for my parents to significantly enhance their economic prospects because as those of us who live there know, Jamaica has always been a study in contrasts: great wealth jostling up against poverty; deep disparities between Jamaicans of all classes and much more.
And in those days, there was little likelihood of poor blacks making significant strides socially primarily because of their color and class.
Prior to going to America, my father worked as a master builder making about three pounds a week. He and a crew constructed homes in Kingston, north of Half Way Tree in the area known now as Constant Spring. Dad laughed when he recalled that what was once 'open land' in a few years would later boast communities and sub-divisions built to accommodate the growing number of residents seeking places to live.
It was ironic that these sumptuous homes in Kingston's suburbs to be occupied by middle and upper-class residents cost significantly more than my parents could ever afford.
During the World War II, my father was hired to work with the US Army and worked on a massive water canal building project in Sandy Gully in Clarendon. He made seven pounds a week, which he described as a princely sum in those days. He later traveled to the US in 1944 as a migrant worker, picking fruits and vegetables all over the country. When he and a group of guys he worked with sat around discussing what they would do after they returned to Jamaica, eight of them vowed to make their way to London, dad said.
Three of them followed through, including dad who said he began saving money and making preparations to travel because as much as he loved Jamaica, "you can't eat sunshine or drink the sea…"
At age six, my mother, Enid, was sent to live in Kingston when her parents realized that in Mavis Bank, St. Andrew, she couldn't get the quality education they desired for her. She later graduated from St. George's, an exclusive girls' school and was apprenticed at age 17 to a seamstress named Miss King.
From there, she embarked on a career as a dressmaker that would take her from Kingston to London, Miami and New York's famed Garment District over the course of 47 years.
'Miss Enid' was a sensitive, kind woman who was never satisfied with the circumstances in which she found herself. She said her primary focus in her life was to find and provide viable life options for herself and her family. She loved music, had a beautiful voice and was refined and stylish all her life.
In the early days, my parents lived in several tenement yards, including ones on Matthews Lane and Rose Lane, at a time when these areas were much quieter and less prone to the violence that roils those communities now. People didn't have to lock their doors and windows at night. If men has a disagreement they usually settled it with fists, stones or bottles and murders were the exception rather than the rule.
Mom said the tenants would live in small rooms sitting side by side and share water from a single standpipe in the middle of the compound. Most of the tenants, like my parents, had made their way from rural areas to Kingston in search of jobs and a dream.
Bob Marley and other reggae singers capture in graphic and poignant terms the lives that these "strugglers" lived.
"I remember when we use to sit
Inna government yard in Trenchtown
And then Georgie would make the fire lights
while the log wood burnin through the night
Then we would cook cornmeal porridge
Of which I'll share with you…"
My parents were members of the post-Windrush generation. They came two to three years after the MV Empire Windrush brought the first wave of what would be about half a million Jamaicans and West Indians to the British Isles.
On June 22, 1948, the Windrush – a former troopship – unloaded 492 Jamaicans onto the Tilsbury Docks in Essex. The more than 500,000 migrants without families entered Britain between 1948 and 1962. The arrival of the Windrush is now widely regarded as a landmark in the making of a culturally diverse Britain. Today, one per cent of the current British population is of Caribbean background.
Though attracted by the promise London held after World War II, my parents soon found themselves thrust into the forefront of the struggle to desegregate British Rail. In the 1950s, black people were quickly becoming less of a novelty. Post-war Britain, reeling from the ravages of World War II, had opened its doors to its colonies. West Indians, Africans and Indians streamed into the heart of the British Empire offering the manpower to rebuild the shattered nation. However, this was the England of Enoch Powell and the National Front, and the newcomers received a less than cordial welcome.
Friction between blacks and whites resulted in an uncomfortable existence for people of color. Fear and ignorance led to Blacks and Asians being barred from accommodations and jobs, subjected to abuse and derision and suffering acts of violence from white gangs and hoodlums. Pitched battles between blacks and whites, people of color and Teddy Boys were not uncommon, and more than a decade later, my twin brother Stephen and I fought often with white children in Tottenham who didn't want 'golliwogs' in their neighborhood.
"We saw lots of signs that said 'No Irish, no dogs, no blacks," my mom and dad recalled. "We couldn't find rooms to rent and jobs were difficult to come by. We would talk to employers on the telephone who would be excited about our qualifications until we walked in and they saw the color of our skin."
Dad secured a job at British Railway as a carriage cleaner. Yet, he said, something as simple as their attire marked black and white workers as different.
"When I dressed to go to work in the mornings, my uniform was crisp and neat. I was as sharp as a Gillette Blue Blade," he said, referring to a razor he used to shave each morning. "All of us who were black dressed like that. In comparison, the uniforms of my white counterparts were shabby and dirty. We prided ourselves on looking good and working hard."
That outlook apparently paid off. One day, out of the blue, dad was summoned to the offices of the top managers. It turned out they were desperate to find an employee suitable for a job that would change the face of British Railways. This was in 1953, one year after dad was hired.
The bosses sitting across the table from my father were white, but united in the belief that it was past time for the rail system to change. They were committed to removing the barriers to the middle and higher ranks of the business that had been closed to black and brown people for decades. In the past, they had recruited six other black men to try and break the color bar and all had failed because they could not withstand the pressure of the task. Their question: Would he be willing to step into the breach?
Dad, then 33, listened as the bosses explained their strategy, the expected outcome and the dangers. This was not for the faint of heart, they cautioned, but they were encouraged because of how my father carried himself.
"They thought I had the will, the temperament and the character to do this," dad said.
"Was I scared? That was something I never really thought about," he said. "When I was that age, I was fearless and thought I was invincible. I was much more concerned about Enid and Blossom than I was for myself."
And in the midst of the furor, dad said, he scarcely thought of the larger implications of what he agreed to do.
However, my mom told me before she died that she fretted constantly and had lots of sleepless nights. Yet, she was very aware of what could and would result from all that swirled around her, and was quietly proud of the journey on which her husband had embarked. To illustrate the depth of the problem, a responsibility as simple as a fireman – shuttling coal to feed the train's engines - was denied to Blacks and Asians.
At the appointed time, rail officials announced that my father would be promoted from a carriage cleaner to a shunter at the Kings Cross Station. As word trickled through the rank and file, anger became outrage as the white workers made it clear that they would never work with, or answer to, a black man.
Union leaders then called for a general strike which led to the shutdown of the national train system for a week.
My father's sister, Aunt Naomi, lived in Bronx, New York, at the time and saved newspaper clippings of the incident. One headline read: Railroaders Strike When Negro Hired. "The story was in newspapers around the world," she said. "I remember reading the stories. I was scared for Lloyd but proud of what he was doing."
Both my father and his sister say that his willingness to stand against racism and discrimination came from examples set by their parents. Their father, Thomas Albert, was a farmer, tailor and shopkeeper in Richmond, Manchester.
"Every white person in Jamaica called black people by their first name but my father commanded so much respect that they addressed him as 'Mas (Mr.) Albert'," Aunt Naomi said.
"And at a time that black Jamaicans routinely lowered their eyes in the presence of white people, he always told all of his children to never bow to any white man," dad added.
My grandmother, Mary Elizabeth, was of mixed-race, a tall, sturdy woman with a legendary temper. Dad told us of one incident where a white man insulted her one day as she walked on the street and she knocked him out with one left hook.
"We were taught never to back down," dad said.
Back at Railway headquarters, travel came to a standstill.
"The shunter promotion caused a ruckus," dad explained. "On the first day that I reported for the job, they went on strike."
Disgruntled workers were picketing Kings Cross (station). As the national strike wore on, feverish meetings went on behind the scenes between strike leaders and their bosses. The bosses stopped the strikers in their tracks when they pulled their trump card: dad was a dues-paying union member, and as such, they by their own bylaws, could not strike against a fellow union member.
"They were stunned," dad said. After that, the strike fizzled out and rail workers returned to their jobs. "But they wouldn't talk to me so I just sat down and read every day. This happened for six months and then I applied to become a guard."
Dad is proud but self-deprecating when asked if he's aware of the implications of refusing to be forced out and ultimately changing the company's culture. When pressed, he says he did what any thinking black man would do.
"I credit my boss, Mr. Green, Tom Willoughby (a manager) and their peers for pushing to desegregate British Railways," he said. "They supported me in every way. They threatened anyone who tried to give me a hard time and were not afraid to sanction and fire those who would not fall in line. It makes me feel good when I go to London and see all the blacks and Asians driving buses and trains, working as conductors and doing jobs that at one time were only reserved for whites."
Dad had to learn a whole new range of skills as a shunter. In that position, he directed drivers to different parts of the rail yard to load and unload the trains. He also switched, closed and opened tracks so that trains could go to one part of the yard or another. My father said his training for this job was shorter because instead of riding a train, he worked in the rail yard.
"Blacks and Asians were allowed to work with British Railways immediately after I broke the color bar," dad said. "From a black man being a sweeper, all positions in the company could be occupied by non-whites. There was no one stopping you from achieving."
Moving up to become a guard meant a salary of 45 pounds a week and Dad traveled day and night on the Flying Scotsman between Kings Cross and Scotland. He traveled on the Royal Train, the bullion trains carrying millions of pounds, and as he did in much of his life, he operated on his own terms. After 20 years on the job, dad left the railway and migrated to New York.
My father is the reason why BR's employees now resemble a rainbow of colors and ethnicities. I am so very proud of him and my mother for what they did to make a meaningful contribution to life in England for people who don't know them and never will. My parents managed to do more with their lives than their origins might have suggested possible. And for me, that has made all the difference.