20th century legend honoured in London
Voice Online article.
London, England - Late West Indies icon and race relations champion Sir Learie Constantine has been honoured with an English Heritage blue plaque at his old home in west London.
The cricketer and statesman, who lived between 1901 and 1971, had his life and legacy commemorated with the famous blue sign outside his former residence at 101 Lexham Gardens in Earls Court, which he called home for five years from 1949.
The Windies titan, who hailed from Trinidad and Tobago and authored the book Colour Bar, left sport for the world of politics and made history when he became the first person of African descent to sit in the House of Lords.
Blue Plaques historian Howard Spencer said: “As a cricketer Constantine was celebrated for his adventurous approach to the game which he played, according to Michael Parkinson, ‘like a man walking a tightrope without a safety net’.
As a politician, Constantine is remembered in Trinidad and Tobago for his significant role in securing its independence, and in Britain as a leading advocate for the interests of all black people; he was always ready to take a stand when it mattered.”
The historian added: “The first person of African descent to sit in the House of Lords, Constantine died a respected and well-loved figure in both Great Britain and the West Indies; in the words of a eulogy, he had ‘walked with kings without ever losing the common touch.’
Constantine became a professional cricketer when offered a contract in 1929 by Nelson in the Lancashire League, and his ability to bowl fast and hit big soon propelled him to international acclaim. He played for Nelson for 10 seasons and his service to the club led him to being given the freedom of the town in 1963 after he and his family settled there for 20 years.
While playing for Nelson, the great captained West Indies to its first Test series win against England in 1934.
Constantine retired from cricket in 1939, finishing his career with Rochdale.
Developing a profession in sports broadcasting and writing, the former Windies man eschewed penning a conventional sporting autobiography and in 1947 instead wrote Cricket in the Sun, a memoir illuminating the problems of racism in the game.
In 1954, he went further in Colour Bar which was a full-on challenge to authorities to change the status-quo of racial inequality in the UK, and even the Queen did not escape his wrath for failing to invite any black guests to a then recent bacquet in Bermuda.
He also claimed Britain was “only a little less intolerant” than America and South Africa, and once said about black Britons: “Rather than be everlastingly sniggered at, we would almost rather be lynched”.
Constantine re-trained to become a barrister in 1954 in England and soon returned to his native Trinidad and Tobago to enter the political realm, in which he quickly claimed chairmanship of then new political party the People’s National Movement.
After his party’s election victory in 1956, he was handed the post of minister of Works and Transport, and five years later he was given the post of High Commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago to the UK.
However, his sharp rise in politics was sadly ended when he stepped into a British dispute affecting black people in Bristol who were barred from being employed by a bus company. Because the case involved citizens of Jamaican heritage, some political figures in Trinidad and Tobago argued he had overstepped his authority.
The dispute resulted in Constantine resigning from his diplomatic role in February 1964.
Nonetheless, his reputation and standing in the UK was untainted, and the ex-Windies captain moved permanently to Britain following the controversial end to his political career in Trinidad and Tobago.
Further proof of his integration into British society was shown when he was appointed to the Sports Council in 1965, given a seat on the new Race Relations Board in 1967, and made a governor of the BBC in 1968.
A year later, Constantine was made a peer and given the title of Lord Constantine of Maraval and Nelson.
Heart problems effectively restricted his ability to regularly sit in the House of Lords, and health reasons made him plan a return to the Caribbean.
However, he died unexpectedly on July 1, 1971, before he could make the trip.