Lord Sir Learie Constantine MBE (yes you read that right) was a cricketer, lawyer and politician who became the UK’s first Black peer.
He was born and grew up in my homeland Trinidad and started playing cricket as young lad. His performance ultimately won him a place on the West Indies Cricket Team. He quit his job as a law clerk for a solicitors’ firm to travel to London to play cricket.
His performance caught the imagination of the English cricket fraternity & he became a member of the Lancashire League.
In Lancashire he was 1 of only 2 Black men in the village. They peeped through the windows of his house, pointed at him in the street, asked him if he’d been working down a mine and whether he could wash his blackness off with soap. When he shook hands they marvelled at the colour not coming off. He played in an era when racism was prevalent in English society. His mail included letters addressing him as “dear nigger” and he was called “Black bugger” on the field.
Sir Learie wrote his first book, Cricket and I, which was published in 1933. It’s an achievement that stands out because at that time, few active cricketers wrote books, definitely not West Indian ones and none were being printed abroad.
Being a celebrated cricketer and legend did not protect him from racism. When he booked rooms at the Imperial Hotel in London during the war, to play cricket at Lords as a member of the English cricket team, he was turned away. When confronted, the hotel manager responded: “We are not going to have these niggers in our hotel.”
Sir Learie sued the hotel … and won. The case set a precedent, as the first of its kind in England. It also triggered a chain of movements that led to the historic Race Relations Act being passed in Britain in 1965, which deemed any discrimination on “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins” illegal. He became Trinidad and Tobago’s first High Commissioner in London in 1961. He was knighted in the New Year’s Honours list for 1962, and became Sir Learie Constantine. He was made a life peer in 1969, becoming the first Black man to sit in the House of Lords.
And now you know!
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