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The incredible woman who convinced Oxford Street shops to let black people work on the shop floor

Dame Jocelyn Barrow was one of the most important activists the UK has ever seen

Dame Jocelyn Barrow (Image: 1000 Londoners and Chocolate Films)

The nightmare year that was 2020 took a lot of brilliant people. One such person was Dame Jocelyn Barrow, who died in April less than a week before her 91st birthday.

The Trinidadian-turned-Londoner was one of the most important activists the UK has ever seen.

She dedicated her life to fighting for racial equality in the UK, and was a founding member of CARD, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination.

In her stunning interview for 1000 Londoners, a digital portrait of the people who make up the city, Dame Jocelyn Barrow – or DJB as she was known – explained her pivotal role in getting shops in Oxford Street to employ black people on the shop floor, rather than hidden out of sight in the stock room.

CARD paved the way for the passing of the 1968 the Race Relations Act, which stated that it was now illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins.

However, the domino effect stalled outside the nucleus of the city.

When DJB went to the Brixton branch of Marks & Spencer, she saw black customers being served by all-white staff.

There was an ad for a large number of vacancies, so she applied over the phone.

When she turned up to the interview, she described how the manager emerged, face flushed with embarrassment, with the news, “All the vacancies are filled.”

Which is an odd thing to be told at an arranged job interview.

Jocelyn told her, in that case, she should take the notices down.

“Well, it’s nothing to do with you,” the manager replied.

And in what must have been a stand-up-and-cheer movie moment, Jocelyn replied, “Actually, it is.”

She took out a letter that Lord Sieff had written to her – a pledge that Marks & Spencer’s would employ more black people.

“She was puce, ‘Come and sit down.’ And I said, ‘No I’m not sitting down, I’m here to tell you two things.

Take that sign down or fill them with black people. I give you six weeks, otherwise I’m reporting you to headquarters.’”

And with that, she left.

Tony Warner, founder of Black History Walks and recent Activist-in-Residence at UCL’s Sarah Parker Remond Centre, had made a case for a Dame Jocelyn Barrow statue in London.

“Her legacy is incredible,” he told ITV in 2020, “and it’s important to recognise that legacy so we can learn from what she was able to achieve, and she can inspire the next generation of activists.”

The fact is, London is full of statues to people who were pro-slavery, and empty of statues commemorating those who were enslaved.

Memorial 2007 is a project for building a statue to commemorate enslaved Africans and their descendants.

Despite getting approval for the statue from Westminster Council and the Royal Parks, 14 years later there is still no funding.


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