As general secretary and co-founder of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (Card) in the mid-1960s, Jocelyn Barrow, who has died aged 90, helped to pave the way for the 1965 Race Relations Act, which for the first time made racial discrimination illegal in Britain. Later she became the first black female governor of the BBC and an important black presence on a number of public bodies, including the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Parole Board.
Jocelyn’s involvement in the creation of Card was sparked by an inspirational meeting she had in London in 1964 with the American civil rights activist Martin Luther King, who was passing through the UK on his way to Norway to receive the Nobel peace prize. “King was warm and charming, and wanted to give us an idea of what we should be doing,” she said. “It helped to crystallise our ideas and we went on to form Card.”
While there were other influential groups that had already been applying pressure for race relations legislation in Britain – and attempts to pass private members’ bills had been going on for a number of years before 1965 – the creation of Card undoubtedly helped to galvanise Harold Wilson’s Labour government into support for an officially sanctioned bill which it then steered through parliament.
Three years later, during the successful nationwide campaign that led to a new, updated 1968 Race Relations Act, Jocelyn accepted my invitation (as Card’s northern regional secretary) to lead a march against racism in Newcastle upon Tyne. The hostility towards it was phenomenal, the local press signalled the potential danger of busloads of National Front demonstrators arriving from Leeds, and the Northumbrian police tried to get the march banned altogether. Its leaders received threats to their personal safety, and Jocelyn was warned not to travel to Tyneside at all.
Travel she did, however, and the march went ahead peacefully. Without a megaphone (her voice was commandingly loud), Jocelyn addressed a gathering of several hundred demonstrators, speaking of her upbringing and how it had shaped her fight against racial discrimination.
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Jocelyn was the daughter of Olive (nee Pierre) and her Barbadian husband, Charles Barrow, an engineer. After attending St Joseph’s Convent school in Port of Spain she trained as a teacher at the city’s governmental teacher training college, and arrived in the UK in 1959 to pursue an English degree at London University, followed by postgraduate studies at the Institute of Education. She remained in the UK for the rest of her life, and throughout the 1960s and 70s taught English at schools in Hackney, one of the most deprived areas of east London, later becoming a lecturer at Furzedown teacher training college in Tooting, south London.
As an educationist who fervently believed in multiculturalism, she could not stomach the yawning gap between well-resourced schools for mainly middle-class white children and poorly resourced schools for mainly working-class black children. Her experiences in the classroom prompted her to set up a local project called Each One Teach One, designed to help black children and their families support each other educationally.
However, although her teaching had its own significance, it was her more general work on race relations that garnered wider attention. She was general secretary and then vice chair of Card from 1964 to 1969, and immediately after the passage of the 1968 Race Relations Act, which made discrimination in housing and employment illegal, she was appointed a member of the Community Relations Commission, set up to co-ordinate national measures to encourage the “growth of harmonious relations” between different races. She served on that body until, after the 1976 Race Relations Act, it was amalgamated with the Race Relations Board to form the Commission for Racial Equality.
Later, as a member of the Parole Board (1983–87), and particularly as the first black female governor of the BBC (1981 to 1988), she initiated programmes that encouraged young black and Asian people to fulfil their potential. She was also chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission on Training Barristers and was a patron, since its foundation in 1981, of the Black Cultural Archives.
Much of Jocelyn’s public work was not directly connected to race, however. From 1989 to 1995 she was deputy chair of the Broadcasting Standards Council, forerunner of Ofcom, and from 1993 to 1999 she was a non-executive director of the Whittington Hospital NHS Trust in London, where she pleaded for better employment conditions and promotion opportunities for non-trained auxiliary nurses and carers.
She also became founder and president of the Hackney Community housing association (1978 until her death); national vice president of the Townswomen’s Guild (1978–80); a member of the European commission’s economic and social committee (1990–98); a trustee of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside (now National Museums Liverpool), and a governor of the British Film Institute (1991–97). These and many more largely community-based organisations benefited enormously from her spirited commitment – and also from her refusal to suffer fools gladly.
Jocelyn, whose anger against injustice was carefully cloaked beneath an aura of dignified authority, liked to practise what she called “pincher politics”, which she once described to me as “a bottom-up/top-down approach, with the purpose of pinching the establishment into action and reform”. It was a method that was as psychological and cultural as it was political and educational – a little Machiavellian, perhaps, but always purposeful and often highly successful.
What drove Jocelyn – or “DJB” as she was affectionately known after being made a dame in 1992 – was the belief that she was entitled to be part of a society more equal than the one she had known either in her colonial birthplace or in the Britain of the 60s into which she later emerged.
In her last major intervention, in 2005, Jocelyn returned to education, the field that was closest to her heart, to head a nationwide consultation commissioned by the United Learning Trust into the role of underperforming would-be Academy schools. She found that the 20 schools that she studied were in various degrees discriminatory on the grounds of race, and concluded that a new and inclusive approach needed to be adopted. She retired in 2013.
In 1970 Jocelyn married Henderson Downer, a barrister and later a Jamaican appeal court judge who retired in 2004. For most of their long marriage they lived between the UK and Jamaica, enjoying their independence, separation, and togetherness in equal measure; Henderson coming to London for Christmas, Easter and a month in the summer while Jocelyn went to Jamaica from January to March. She is survived by Henderson and by two nieces, Christine and Leslie Anne, whom she raised at her home in Bloomsbury, central London.
• Jocelyn Anita Barrow, race relations campaigner and teacher, born 15 April 1929; died 9 April 2020