Speakers Corner by Enrico Stennett

How I Spoke in Hyde Park at Speakers Corner From 1950 – 1962

From 1950 – 1962 I spoke in Hyde Park every Sunday and almost every day of the week if I was not in Hyde Park I would be somewhere else speaking. This was the only voice we had although it seemed we were ignored we soon realised by the actions of MI5 and the Police who tried to stop us from speaking our voices were taken seriously.

I joined one Mr Robert Mathews in Hyde Park speaking on the Platform of the Coloured Workers Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland I wanted to take the establishment head on.

Speaking in Hyde Park was not easy there would be hecklers, racists and other troublemakers but I learned a lot about English people, how they thought and how they looked at black people. There was always shouts from the crowd ‘you can’t let the Africans go free, they will eat each other, some said they would kill each other and also they could not govern themselves.

I spoke in Hyde Park every day of the week after work, I would go there for at least 2 hrs and weekends I would be at the Park all Saturday and Sunday. I had little time for home life.

I was supported all the way by my wife Margaret who had now had our second son Paul. Life was not easy for us because there was not much money about, even though I was highly qualified in my work, I had now stopped doing overtime preferring my work in the organisations and my oratory in Hyde Park.

As representatives of ‘The African League’ we would organise the meetings of the African Caribbean Leaders when they came to England to meet the British Government and speak publicly asking for support from the Labour movement.

The platform in Hyde Park was always available to them and many spoke there, even the late Foreign Minister of India Mr Krishna Menon and other African leaders, especially the man known as the father of Nigeria. Azi Kiwe and the leading Trade Unionist of Northern Nigeria, Aminu Kano. Our platform always seemed to draw the largest crowd especially on a beautiful sunny day, but within that crowd there would be many plain clothes Police who would listen to every word we were saying, sometimes you would see them taking notes.

Robert Mathews, John Longmore and I were the leading speakers of both the African League and the Coloured Workers Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Our platform was very popular and we drew the largest crowd in the park, it was close to that of Reverend Doctor Donald Soper, the head of the Methodist Church who spoke almost every day of the week. Sometimes the audience was very hostile, especially to me, but I enjoyed their hostility, it gave me the chance to prove I could combat their ignorance with my knowledge and understanding.

I was there as a representative of my race and my people, I had no time to show myself to be distracted from the purpose which I had set myself. I had already sworn to myself I would do everything which lay in my power not to disgrace or belittle myself and my race, therefore nothing these people could do could throw me off balance. When they tried to mock and jeer and tried to discredit me on the platform I would be at my best. I believe most of the people who stood around that platform seemed to enjoy the exchange between me and my racist hecklers, as I took delight in putting them in their place.

Because of the reaction of some of these people sometimes I would sit and wonder what on earth could instil such hatred in one person for another, just because of the difference of the pigment of their skin. The answer is always there, if you’re taught the doctrine of hate from the cradle to the grave you shall surely destroy yourself, just as the minds of these people were destroyed

From time to time I have met many interesting people, as there were many other non-political people of importance who visited the park.

One Sunday, while I was speaking I noticed a beautiful, immaculately-dressed black lady looking at me, as if she was trying to digest every word I said. I was on the platform for about two hours and she listened to me for about an hour. When I left the platform this lady approached me to congratulate me on my address and was very intrigued as to who I was and where I came from.

She introduced herself to me, in a French accent, as Josephine Baker, I had never heard of this lady before. She was very surprised to learn I had no knowledge of her as she was a singer and dancer and was appearing in the theatre. She was very pleased to have heard about our organisation and said she wanted to help. She invited me to have a cup of coffee with her, so I accompanied her to the ‘Cumberland Hotel’ where she told me some of her life story. She told me about her ‘Rainbow Tribe’ and her dream that all people are born equal given the same chances. She promised she would give a free performance in London for black people, if I could arrange the venue. What she did not realise was that this was impossible for us to do as we did not have the necessary finance, nor would we be able to obtain premises large enough for her appearance, and she was returning to France within a week. I never saw this lady again but I learnt as much as I could about her.

I realised most of Europe was the same as far as black people were concerned, once you have outlived your usefulness, you are discarded as if you never existed.

by Enrico A Stennett