Constantine, Britain’s first black peer

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Copyright House of Lords 2019, bust by Karin Jonzen courtesy of National Portrait Gallery / Photography by Roger Harris

26 March 2019

To mark the 50th anniversary of Learie Constantine’s elevation to the House of Lords as Britain’s first black peer, a bronze bust of Lord Constantine of Maraval and Nelson is now on display in the Palace of Westminster, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery.

 

Lord Fowler, the Lord Speaker and Baroness Benjamin, welcomed the loan to the House of Lords.

Lord Speaker noted that:

“The appointment of Lord Constantine marked a watershed for the House of Lords, and it is right we celebrate it today on the 50th anniversary of his introduction to the House and over the coming months. His arrival as the first black life peer paved the way for the many brilliant Black and Minority Ethnic members we have in the House today.”

Baroness Benjamin, who was the second Trinidadian to be appointed to the House of Lords after Lord Constantine, said:

“When I was appointed to the House of Lords, I was very pleased to know I would be following in the footsteps of Learie Constantine, who lived in the same town as me in Trinidad. He was a great pioneering Trinidadian who achieved so much on the cricket field and in his contribution to public life in the UK.”


 

Learie Constantine (1901-1971)

Constantine, born in Trinidad in 1901, distinguished himself as a cricketer early in life and began an illustrious sporting career which would take him from the Caribbean to England. On the field Constantine showed flashes of brilliance as a batsman, but it was as a bowler and fielder that he excelled.

Constantine was employed during the Second World War by the Ministry of Labour as a welfare officer for West Indian workers in munitions factories in Liverpool, and West African seamen.  This was his first official role in race relations where he worked with government departments, employers and trade unions to improve the conditions and experience of migrant workers during the war effort. He was a public advocate for race relations through broadcasts, public lectures and­ popular charity cricket matches.

 

Race Relations

It was following a charity match at Lords in 1943 that Constantine and his family were refused lodgings at the Imperial Hotel on the basis of the colour of their skin. The following year Constantine successfully won damages from the Hotel in a landmark case which highlighted the levels of discrimination in Britain.  In 1954 Constantine qualified as a barrister and published his book Colour Bar. His book attacked the presence and impact of discrimination across Britain and called for change.

In the 1950s Constantine moved back to Trinidad but returned to England in 1961 as Trinidad’s first High Commissioner in London, a post which he held until 1964.  Following the Race Relations Act (1965), which became the first piece of legislation in the UK to address discrimination on the grounds of race, Constantine served on the Race Relations Board. Learie Constantine was introduced to the House of Lords in 1969 and following his elevation Baron Constantine continued to act as a figurehead for race relations in Britain until his death in 1971.

 

Find out more

View the bust of Learie Constantine by Karin Jonzen on the National Portrait Gallery website.

 

Image: Bust of Learie Constantine on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, pictured with the Lord Speaker, Rt Hon the Lord Fowler, and Baroness Benjamin


Copyright House of Lords 2019, bust by Karin Jonzen courtesy of National Portrait Gallery / Photography by Roger Harris

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