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Jessica Huntley campaigning in central London early 1960s

​Jessica Huntley campaigning in central London, in the early 1960s

​Keep on, keeping on - an archivist's reflections on a depositor - Jessica Huntley, radical black publisher, political and community activist

Richard Wiltshire, Senior Archivist

In 2014 London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) hosted the ninth annual Black African Caribbean Huntley Conference organised by the Friends of the Huntley Archives at LMA (FHALMA). The event was titled ‘When They Were Young: Re-Searching Our Archives’ and dedicated to the memory of Jessica Huntley (1927-2013). The day attracted over 200 adults, young people and children. The following reflects on Jessica Huntley, her personal letters, her contribution to archives, and the conference.

Jessica Huntley was born in British Guiana in 1927 and married Eric Huntley in 1950. Eric Huntley, having been politically active and imprisoned in his own country, left British Guiana (now Guyana) for Trinidad in December 1956. He later set sail for Britain like many Black Caribbean people in the Windrush migration. In January 1957 Jessica wrote a letter to Eric in London asking, 'is the place colder than you anticipated or is it as you've heard?' Eric replied that he had had his ‘first sight of snow’ advising on warm clothes for the passage. Life living apart had been very difficult for them, with Jessica looking after their two young boys back at home. Moving to England required proper planning and in preparation Eric wrote to ask her to bring ‘two bottles of rum’ as they were very costly in England and cod liver oil for their sons. Jessica finally left for London in February 1958. (Personal letters are held under series LMA/4463/F/01).

A close partnership

In 2004, 46 years later, I first met Eric and Jessica Huntley at their home in West Ealing to survey and discuss the potential deposit of the archives of their London-based publishing house, Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications Limited, and personal papers at LMA. Little did I know just how many records had been kept, but more importantly how a close partnership would evolve after those records were deposited.

The Huntley archives (LMA/4462 and LMA/4463) were deposited in February 2005 and represented the first major collection from the Black Caribbean community at LMA. Since 2005, the Huntleys and their friends, in a group now known as the Friends of the Huntley Archives at LMA (FHALMA), has organised with staff annual conferences based on themes represented in the archives.

Grace Quansah with WAPPY group at the 2014 Huntley Conference

Grace Quansah and WAPPY group at the 2014 Huntley Conference

​‘When They Were Young: Re-Searching Our Archives’ ninth Huntley Conference

The ninth Huntley conference explored how Black academics and intellectuals in the mid to late 20th century were part of the struggle at grass roots level. Dedicated to Jessica Huntley, attendees young and old wrote messages on a Jessica Huntley memory wall and performances included readings from original letters in the archive. The day gave a platform to the Huntley Youth Forum which had explored the Huntley archives and presented their research findings in “When Diasporas met”. The conference also showcased the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) with a keynote by Paul Reid. Marge Lowhar, Mervyn Weir and Dr Margaret Andrews spoke about the current Heritage Lottery Funded Huntley Biography Project, and announced the launch of the project’s new book ‘Doing Nothing is Not an Option: The Radical Lives of Eric & Jessica Huntley’ by Dr Andrews.

Excellent feedback was received from attendees particularly on the Youth Forum’s ‘inspiring’ presentation. Feedback on the highlights of the day included: ‘The sense of education and that most of the people were there to celebrate & learn’ and ‘Meeting old friends/community of struggle/seeing archives come to light’.

A remarkable contribution to archives

One attendee wrote that the conference had given them ‘A chance not only to remember a remarkable woman but also to know that what she started will be just the beginning of a continuing legacy’. Jessica Huntley was indeed always mindful of others and would actively encourage and help people to turn their dreams into reality and improve their situation. Andrew Salkey (1928-1995), Jamaican-born poet, writer and journalist was a very close friend and advisor. He was all too aware of Jessica’s character. On 14 October 1992 upon hearing about an accident Jessica had sustained he wrote to her advising her to 'rest, rest, rest! Take it more easy. Close your eyes, every time you sit down or when you have nothing special to do...I've always been worried about the food you don't eat, the time you don't take for yourself and the extraordinary attention and loving care you lavish on everybody but yourself' (LMA/4462/C/01/205).

Jessica believed in the power of the written word, its role in education and consequently the importance of archives in documenting their contribution and that of the wider Black African Caribbean people. This belief was shared by Salkey. On 7 July 1978, he wrote a letter from United States of America thanking Jessica for sending him Bookshop Joint Action Committee documents which she had prepared as part of a campaign against racist National Front attacks on Black publishers and bookshops including Bogle-L’Ouverture’s own shop. He wrote 'In years to come when researchers are digging into our thing, it will be documents like these that will really be the evidence of Britain's racism and facism...I wanted you to know how the documents hit me, at this distance, both as present time factual record and material for history, all at the same time!' (LMA/4462/C/01/191).

Huntley Conference 2014 performance artist with Eric Huntley portrait

Performance artist with Eric Huntley portrait, at the 2014 Huntley Conference

​Jessica used to complain about Eric throwing things away which she had to get out of the bin! This was typical - she made an invaluable contribution in saving the archives of people she knew and was always on hand to help. She would ring me and say 'You know Richard, I have been thinking, you should contact [so and so] who has been active in the community...' and encouraged me to survey and explore records in houses, garden sheds and even black bin liners, from Ealing to Lewisham leading to the saving of important records which otherwise may well have been lost to posterity.

It is sad when someone passes away and leaves nothing behind to show for their life. However, we need not fear this on Jessica Huntley’s account. The Huntley archives not only tell her story and that of her family and business in abundance, but also that of the wider international Black African Caribbean community. Jessica Huntley’s message to us all is simple – ‘Keep on, keeping on’.

The launch of the Huntley Biography Project’s book ‘Doing Nothing is Not an Option: The Radical Lives of Eric & Jessica Huntley’ by Dr Andrews, and film and resources will be held on Sunday 8 June 2014 3-5pm at the Victoria and Albert Museum. A Jessica Huntley Memorial event will be hosted at LMA in the autumn.

Find more information about Jessica Huntley and Friends of the Huntley Archives at LMA and download the information leaflet on Black Caribbean Community archives (77KB).

You can search LMA’s online catalogue for the Huntley archives under reference code LMA/4462 and LMA/4463.

Further information on the Huntleys can be found on the Huntleys' online website.

09 April 2014
Last Modified:
11 September 2018