Jessica Huntley - political reformer, women's rights activist and pioneering British publisher
Updated: Oct 31, 2022
Black History Month UK 2022 'Sharing Journeys' campaign - exploring the lives of Britons with North and South American heritage
Jessica Huntley was born in the Latin American country of Guyana (formerly known as British Guiana) in the small village of Bagotstown in 1927. She was the only daughter and youngest of five children of James Carroll and his wife, Hectorine. When her father died, she was just three years old, and her family had to move to the low-income area of Charlestown in the county’s capital Georgetown. Despite the hardships of living in a tenement yard, her mother strove to instil the values of independence, discipline, justice, and loyalty in Jessica and her siblings.
Jessica showed early academic promise, and a talent for public speaking, but financial constraints meant that she left secondary school before sitting exams. She took evening classes in shorthand and typing, skills that enabled her to find a job in a garment factory with the promise of a clerical position. Instead, she chose to side with the exploited women on the shop floor, articulating their grievances to the management. That instinct to confront situations of injustice and discrimination remained with her throughout her life.
In 1948, she met Eric Huntley, a postal worker active in the trade unions. They married in 1950 and their sons, Karl (named after Marx) and Chauncey, were born in the subsequent two years. The marriage was underpinned by political involvement, whether in the village of Buxton, where they initially lived, or at a national level.
In January 1950, Jessica Huntley co-founded the first national government of Guyana, elected through mass suffrage, alongside Leaders Cheddi Jagan, Janet Jagan, Eric Huntley, Eusi Kwayana, and Ford Burnham, and other members of the People’s Progressive Party. She was appointed as the organizing secretary of the PPP and stood as a candidate in the April 1953 general election, but was not elected.
In May of the same year, Jessica co-founded the Women's Progressive Organisation to represent women's issues in the PPP's fight for national liberation. The party’s radical social reforms to transform the Guyanese economy and improve living standards of its working classes unnerved its neighbours in North America and drew ire from the colonial British government. Six months into their administration, the colonial British government sent in troops to remove the democratically elected government, claiming there was a threat of a Marxist revolution. In October 1953, the British suspended the constitution and instituted a state of emergency. Her husband Eric, and other PPP members, were arrested for minor misdemeanours and imprisoned for a year.
General elections were held in 1957, by which time the PPP had split into two factions, which competed against each other at the elections; the PPP faction led by Jagan won nine seats, whilst the Burnham-led PNC faction won three.
Disillusioned and unable to find permanent employment after his release, Huntley’s husband Eric left Guyana and travelled to Britain in 1957 to study. While Jessica became the organising secretary of the PPP and was persuaded to stand as a candidate for election. Her defeat, despite popular backing, freed her to join her husband in England in April 1958.
Once in the UK, Jessica continued her activism, mainly through the power of publishing.
When, in October 1968, the Guyanese radical historian Walter Rodney was banned from re-entering Jamaica to resume his post at the University of the West Indies, after attending a conference in Canada, the Huntleys were among those who mobilised support in the UK. Spurred on by this, they founded the ground-breaking publishing house Bogle-L'Ouverture Limited which was named after black revolutionaries Paul Bogle and Toussaint L’Ouverture. Later opening a bookshop under the same name. Rodney's The Groundings With My Brothers (1969) was the first title to be published by BLP, which also published his influential work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972). They went on to publish and popularise Maya Angelou, George Jackson, Valerie Bloom, Frantz Fanon and first published the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson and Lemn Sissay.
Their small radical publishing house was initially located in the living room of their home at Coldershaw Road in West Ealing until the council objected. A vacant site in a local cul-de-sac was instead set up as a bookshop, and – despite racist attacks on the building by the National Front – remained open for 18 years, renamed the Walter Rodney Bookshop in 1980 after his assassination. The place soon became a visitors’ hotspot, central focus for Black and migrant communities, becoming an informal drop-in advice centre and hosting poetry readings, book launches and school workshops.
On 13th June 1980, Guyanese historian, political activist and academic, Walter Rodney was killed by a bomb in his car which had been planted by Gregory Smith, a member of the Guyana Defence Force. The radical Black movement in the UK, including Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, the Alliance of the Black Youth Movement, the Black Parents Movement, Race Today Collective and ‘Bradford Black’ Collective, joined forces with others across the world, from Ghana to Grenada, from Tanzania to Trinidad, from Nigeria to New York, to protest what was evidently an assassination by the Forbes Burnham government and call for Gregory Smith to be charged with murder. Smith was flown out by the Burnham regime to French Guiana where he remained until his death in 2002.
In his obituary of Jessica Huntley, Gus John described Bogle L’Ouverture Publications as ‘an act of cultural affirmation and an expression of political belief at the interface of culture and politics in a Britain struggling perennially to come to terms with the legacy of Empire.”
The political act of publishing… gave direction to our movement. If ‘knowledge is power’, the absence of knowledge and information renders a movement powerless, especially a lack of knowledge of how those who have designs for you see you historically and want to organise and control you mentally and structurally. In a post-imperialist culture, the power that comes from knowledge is also the power that derives from unlearning certain myths about yourself and debunking the ways you have been taught to see and think about yourself. So, when in our work with young children we discovered that black children were typically drawing themselves as white, or expressing a preference for white dolls and seeing white friends as, nicer and more desirable, Jessica and Eric published the eye-catching and upbeat little colouring and story book ‘Getting to Know Ourselves’.
For more than a half-century Jessica and Eric Huntley, were at the heart of grassroots struggles for racial and social justice. They were closely involved with the Black Parents Movement, which campaigned against the controversial SUS laws that particularly targeted young Black people, and organised legal defence for Black and Asian people arrested during the Southall riots of 1979, the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, organiser of the 1981 Black People's Day of Action march that attracted 20,000 Black Britons from all over the country and was the largest protest march of Black Britons to take place in Britain, and patronage of the Keskidee Centre, Britain's first African-Caribbean cultural centre from the 1970s to the 1990s.
In 1982, she helped set up the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books with the Huntley’s close friend and political comrade, John La Rose, to bring together Black publishers, intellectuals and educationists. The ethos of the Book Fair was "to mark the new and expanding phase in the growth of radical ideas and concepts, and their expression in literature, politics, music, art and social life."
Soon after she teamed up with Margaret Busby, co-founder of Allison & Busby publishing house, and Britain’s youngest and first Black female book publisher. Along with others, they founded the Greater Access to Publishing (GAP), a voluntary group campaigning for greater diversity within the mainstream publishing industry. Jessica and her husband were also active in international campaigns to end the South African apartheid regime, political repression in their home country Guyana and free American, former Black Panther and radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal who was on death row in Pennsylvania.
On the 13th October 2013, Jessica Huntley passed away at Ealing Hospital, following a short illness at the age of 86 years. She and her husband were highly respected within the British Black community as elders for their longstanding commitment, contribution and participation in radical movements and organisations that articulated the interests of the UK Black community.
In 2005, papers relating to the business of Bogle-L'Ouverture, together with documents concerning the personal, campaigning and educational initiatives of Jessica and Eric Huntley from 1952 to 2011, were deposited at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). In that same year LMA hosted the first Huntley Conference, and since 2006, the Huntley Archives at LMA have inspired an annual conference on themes reflecting different elements of the content of the collection.
A blue plaque, organised by the Nubian Jak Community Trust and others, was unveiled in October 2018 outside the Ealing home of Jessica Huntley and Eric Huntley to commemorate their work in founding Bogle-L'Ouverture and eventually giving Huntley the recognition she deserved.