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.