Jessica and Eric Huntley embody a formidable force that contributed to the social, cultural and political consciousness of African people, particularly those in the UK diaspora.
Their activism was shaped by key historical moments and experiences. Both were born in the 1920s when the Harlem Renaissance was reaching Africans everywhere who were in search of cultural sustenance. The abolition of slavery was relatively part of a recent memory; more recent were the two world wars and the struggle against colonialism, which was ignited by figures like Marcus Garvey. They experienced the rise of the cold war, civil rights in the US and the surge for independence as the political landscape of the world was changing.
Guyana, then British occupied was no exception to this drive towards independence. The young Jessica and Eric were immersed in the struggle from the outset – and were founding members of the Peoples Progressive Party, then led by Cheddi Jagan. It might be said that they were born for the path of activism – Jessica’s birthday on 23rd February is aligned with the Berbice Uprising in 1763, the same date that the country became a Republic after achieving independence. The spirit of revolution was a guiding principle, their daughter Accabre was named after one of the Leaders of the rebellion. The naming of Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, which they co-founded with others was inspired by revolutionary leaders Paul Bogle and Toussant L’Ouverture. Observing the working conditions as a young post office worker, led Eric to become the Assistant Secretary of the Workers’ Trade Union, marking the start of his political activities.
They embraced radicalism as a commitment to eradicating social and political injustices. Though shaped by their experiences in colonial Guyana, they were forced to pursue the same fight for freedom in the UK. They sought equality for Black people facing trials of racism and discrimination in all forms. They initiated and participated in a number of movements set up to better the social conditions of working class people. It is thanks to their brand of activism that Black children are no longer declared “educationally subnormal” and sent to “special schools.” Their involvement, among other parents, teachers and senior students in establishing Black Supplementary Schools during the 1970s is an invaluable legacy. Stop and search tactics and multiple forms of institutional racism persist in our communities but the Huntleys helped organise campaigns against the SUS laws that targeted primarily black boys and young men.
They initiated and inspired others to establish a number of community projects with the emphasis on alleviating injustice and marginalisation. Jessica was also part of the development of the Keskidee Centre, one of the UK’s first African Caribbean cultural centres. Along with John Le Rose of New Beacon Books, Jessica directed the 1982 inauguration of The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. The Huntleys were therefore integral to the Black Power Movement in the UK. Jessica, in the picture above, is at a meeting organised by the British Black Panthers to host Angela Davis who came to thank them for campaigning for her release when she was imprisoned in the USA.
Despite the ambassadorial, even “regal” profile within the African community and their impressive contribution to the world by publishing works by a range of writers including Andrew Salkey (Anancy's Score), Linton Kwesi Johnson (Dread Beat and Blood) and Walter Rodney (Groundings with My Brothers and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa), Eric and Jessica remained down to earth, modest and humble people. Their involvement in community activism is documented at the London Metropolitan Archives, ensuring their contribution is well recorded and accessible across generations. The annual Huntley Conference was established in their honour.
The bookshop they set up in Ealing was a hub of cultural activity and inspiration for a generation of young people who were introduced to social and political works like Garvey and Garveyism by Amy Jacques Garvey. The bookshop stayed open for 18 years, in spite of racist attacks during the 1970s. They remained focused on the need to uplift and empower Africans in the community, particularly through education.
Jessica and Eric Huntley were partners in business, political and community activism, marriage and homebuilding. They walked, talked, lived “grass-roots” and understood the importance of “grounding” with people – the wellbeing of the people was always their motivation for activism. They shared this conviction, neither desiring to outshine the other. They were committed to working together in true partnership which spanned 60 years.
The Nubian Jak Memorial Plaque is a timely recognition of the contributions made by Jessica and Eric Huntley to Black British experience for more than 50 years. The Memorial was recommended to the Nubian Jak Community Trust and is fully supported by the Huntley family. The unveiling of the Plaque will take place on Saturday 13th October 2018 at the Huntley's home in Ealing. This date marks five years since the passing of Jessica Huntley. Their first publication, Groundings with my Brothers by Walter Rodney is in its 50th year of publication. A reprint will be available at the memorial.