Updated: Oct 31, 2022
Black History Month UK 2022 'Sharing Journeys' campaign - exploring the lives of Britons with West African heritage
Chief Lapido Solanke was born Oladipo Felix Solanke in the Yoruba town of Abeokuta, in southwest Nigeria around 1886. He was the second child and only son of Adeyola Ejiwunmi and her husband, who had adopted the name of Paley from the Scottish missionary who had raised him. He was educated at St Andrew’s Training Institution in Oyo, Nigeria, and then later went to Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone to obtain a bachelor’s degree in 1922. Later that year he travelled to England, to complete his legal studies at University College London (1923-8) and subsequently qualified as a barrister.
Colonial Britain was not a very welcoming place for students from African and Caribbean nations. Students often faced racism, harassment, and various other forms of discrimination daily. Consequentially, some students sort to culturally adapt to their new and hostile environment.
A proud Yoruba from Western Nigeria, Solanke was shocked by the lack of interest his fellow Nigerian students displayed towards their heritage whilst in London. He took up teaching the Yoruba language to raise additional funds and for a time he worked as a teacher of Yoruba at London University. He also performed Yoruba poetry and in June 1924, he became the first person to broadcast on the radio in Yoruba. Under the moniker, Omo Lisabi, he made some of the first Yoruba records for Zonophone in 1926.
His voice was popular on the radio, where he utilised the Yoruba language to dish out propaganda against colonial rule. He produced and distributed leaflets, written in English and Yoruba, which caused panic within the ranks of the British colonial establishment. But he felt that a greater effort was needed to tackle the racism and discrimination his fellow West African students experienced.
Spurred on by his experiences of poverty and racism, he and twelve other students founded the Nigerian Progress Union the next month in July 1924. With the encouragement and help of Amy Ashwood Garvey (the first wife of Marcus Garvey and leading Pan-Africanist) to promote the welfare of Nigerian students.
Solanke’s career as an activist and political organiser began after he successfully launched a public complaint against the 1924 Empire Exhibition in Wembley. The £20 million exhibition was created to strengthen ties within its “Empire”, stimulate trade and demonstrate “Britain’s greatness at home and abroad after WW1” by displaying the “exotic cultures of the British Empire.” It was a very popular event, attracting 27 million visitors over six months. One display, incredibly, presented a model African village with West Africans on display as curios. Offensive press coverage of the village implied the participants were “cannibals”, with an article in the Evening News (today’s Evening Standard) even claiming that “cannibalism and black magic” had been common in Nigeria until recent years. He wrote to West Africa to complain and his close friend Amy Ashwood Garvey backed his protest too.
As a representative of the Union of Students of African Descent, a precursor to the WASU, Solanke protested against this willful misrepresentation of African people and their customs. In a series of letters, he reminded the colonial authorities that countries like Nigeria had contributed thousands of pounds to an event where African cultures were, in his words, routinely held up to “public ridicule.” His complaint gained enough support to secure the closure of “the African Village” for the remainder of the season.
The racism espoused at the exhibition mirrored the daily reality of African students in Britain at the time. These were students from elite families, who had received a European education in their home countries to train them for positions in the colonial administration. Their familiarity with British culture jarred with the hostile reception they received on arrival, where they were frequently barred from accommodation or abused in the streets – experiences that became known as “the colour bar”. This wave of students had come of age in an intellectual climate shaped by an emerging pan-African consciousness. Fundamentally, they did not see themselves as inferior to the colonial powers and expected to take the reins of government when they returned home.
So not surprisingly, in this atmosphere, Solanke joined forces with Dr. Bankole-Bright in 1925 and founded the West African Student’s Union (WASU). The next year the organisation began publishing its journal, WASU, with many of the articles written by Solanke himself. While a donation from Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey, who supported the students’ pan-Africanist ideals, provided the fledgling organisation with its first temporary premises in 1928. Solanke spent the next four years traveling in west Africa to raise funds for the union and establish WASU branches across Britain’s west African colonies—Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, and the Gambia.
Whilst on the fundraising tour of West Africa, he met and married his wife Opeolu in 1932. Together they returned to Britain, and he became the warden of the WASU hostel that opened in Camden Town in 1933. Because of this tour, WASU branches were formed throughout the region, and Solanke and WASU were able to establish significant political contacts with anti-colonial forces in West Africa, and provide the link between them and the anti-colonial movement in Britain. Solanke also completed a further fundraising tour of West Africa during 1944–8, before the opening of WASU’s third London hostel at Chelsea Embankment in 1949.
Solanke’s activities on behalf of WASU periodically brought him into conflict with the Colonial Office and sometimes with other black leaders in Britain. However, as WASU secretary-general, he was also able to establish the union as a significant anti-colonial and anti-racist organisation in Britain. During the Second World War Solanke established closer relations between WASU and several leading members of the Labour Party’s Fabian Colonial Bureau, including Reginald Sorensen, who subsequently became godfather to one of his children. Because of these links, they established a West African parliamentary committee, with Labour MPs as members, which enabled WASU to act as a more effective parliamentary pressure group.
During the 1950s, due to political differences within WASU, Solanke was gradually marginalised from the central role he had once enjoyed. He continued to run a student hostel in London and formed his breakaway organisation, WASU Un-incorporated, which he led until he died in 1958.
Under Solanke’s leadership, WASU became the main social, cultural, and political focus for West Africans in Britain for just over twenty-five years. It served as a training ground for many future political leaders, including Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, and Nigeria’s H.O Davies, and played an important role in agitating for an end to colonial rule in Britain’s West African colonies.
Sadly, Solanke died two years before Nigeria gained its independence on the 1st October 1960. He died of lung cancer at the National Temperance Hospital, St Pancras, London, on 2 September 1958. His funeral and burial took place on 6 September at Great Northern London cemetery, Southgate.