London contains many of the thousands of memorials located across the United Kingdom commemorating the sacrifices of millions of military personnel during the bloody struggles of World War I and World War II.
There is even a ‘Animals In War’ memorial in London’s famed Hyde Park recognizing the contributions to those wars from dogs, donkeys, elephants, pigeons, glow worms and others animals.
However, not one of these memorials to the world wars – estimated at over 70,000 across Britain by the Imperial War Museum – is specifically dedicated to the contributions of the thousands from the Caribbean and Africa who helped secure victories of England in those two horrific 20th Century conflicts.
That omission of a formal recognition honoring the sacrifices of persons from Africa and the Caribbean in World Wars I and II ended on Thursday, June 22, 2017 with the dedication of a special monument: the African Caribbean Memorial.
This two and one-half ton sculpture fashioned from Scottish Whinstone sits outside the Black Cultural Achieve in the Brixton section of South London. The dedication ceremony for the African and Caribbean Memorial came on Windrush Day – the annual celebration for the onset of large-scale immigration to Britain from the Caribbean that began in 1948 when immigrants came to help London/England rebuild after WWII.
The idea for the African Caribbean Memorial (along with the long work to raise funds for the monument’s creation and siting) came from the Nubian Jak Community Trust, a British organization that has erected over thirty plaques around London and in other parts of England recognizing various contributions of persons of African descent.
“More than 2 million African and Caribbean Military Servicemen and Servicewomen’s participated in WWI and WWII but have not been recognized for their contribution,” Nubian Jak Community Trust CEO Jak Beula said.
“The unveiling of this memorial is to correct this historical omission and to ensure young people of African and Caribbean descent are aware of the valuable input their forefathers had in the two world wars.”
The erection of this memorial giving recognition to the military service contributions of non-whites from Africa and the Caribbean garnered wide acknowledgements even from the Queen of England.
Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, in a letter of support to the Nubian Jak Community Trust said: “It is now over 70 years since the end of that war, but it is just as important to remember the ultimate sacrifice made by those men and women who were prepared to lay down their live for our freedoms.”
The fact that the contributions of so many was ignored for so long is rooted in the irony that non-whites from Africa and the Caribbean stepped forward to join those war efforts geared to keep the British homeland free at the time when Britain was practicing brutal, freedom-robbing colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean.
The faces behind the overlooked stories of the various contributions of non-white British subjects during World War I and World War II include William Arthur Watkin and Learie Constantine.
Watkin left Jamaica as a teen determined to fight for Britain in World War II. He joined the Royal Air Force initially serving as a radio operator and gunner on bombers. After completing 30 missions Watkin was eligible to work in a factory but declined, opting instead for training as a pilot. He flew bombers over Germany, rising to the rank of Flight Lieutenant.
Learie Constantine, from Trinidad, came to England in the 1930s as a famed cricket player. When WWII broke out Constantine went to work for the Ministry of Labour and National Service helping immigrants from the Caribbean adapt to life in England and adjust to working in English families.
An incident impacting Constantine during his Ministry of Labour service laid a foundation for the 1965 passage of the Race Relations Act in Britain, that nation’s first comprehensive civil rights law.
In 1943 Constantine was booked into a London hotel while working for the British government but staff at the hotel told him he (and his family) could not stay there because spending a few nights at that hotel would upset some guests, later identified as white U.S. servicemen from southern states in America. Constantine sued that hotel for the discrimination he endured and won his lawsuit, striking an anti-racist blow. Constantine later became the first black member of Britain’s House of Lords, similar to the U.S. Senate.
During a 2014 unveiling of the African and Caribbean Memorial Beula said, “This memorial will…give justice and dignity to the tens of thousands of African and Caribbean servicemen and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for the mother country.”