Afro-Caribbean Immigration and the Rise of Conservative Populism in 20th Century Britain

Helen using microfilm reader




Assistant Professor of History

Project Summary

The research I conducted this summer was in support of my honors thesis in the History Department, which I will be completing this fall.  My thesis focuses on the social experience of Afro-Caribbean immigrants in London from the years 1948 to 1968.  Although originally oriented towards the political implications of this migratory movement, I have shifted to what will primarily be a social history examining both positive and negative interactions between the White British and West Indian populations.  This is in an effort to create a more nuanced, historically-grounded understanding of these interpersonal relationships and hopefully draw a clearer distinction between the actions of institutions and systems versus the actions of individual people.

In search of the primary sources that will form the crux of my thesis, this past summer, I travelled to London where I studied materials housed in the London Borough of Lambeth’s Archives and the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s archives, as well as the esteemed and profoundly historic Institute of Race Relations.  I was able to comb through contemporaneous articles in local newspapers, including several issues of the West Indian Gazette, the black-interest publication based in Brixton that the Trinidadian activist Claudia Jones founded in 1958. I also found wonderful compendiums of oral histories that will form a critical part of the West Indian voice that I hope to include in my evidence.  At the Institute of Race Relations, I had the good fortune of finding newsletters and conference minutes from the Student Conference on Racial Equality, a group whose entire existence I was previously unaware of.  I also spoke with an archivist at the IRR who pointed me to their publication, Race and Class, one issue of which provides a helpful analysis of Malcolm X’s 1964 speech at the Oxford Union.  In addition, she took the time to personally explain to me the history of the Institute itself, specifically its evolution from an establishment group run in the interest of British businessmen, to a group focused on liaising with grassroots organizations to help marginalized groups in the country. 

In terms of how this trip contributed to my own education, it provided me with the invaluable experience of taking everything I have learned inside of the classroom at Penn and applying it to original work.  Rather than only operating intellectually within the lecture hall and seminar room, I have now been able to see how a historian uses her knowledge to approach archives and scour microfilm reels on a daily basis.  When it comes to the study of history, no textbook or lecture compares to studying primary sources themselves and I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to do so on such a scale at the undergraduate level.