First Black Mayor of Merton speaks of Life in the `Mother Country’ By Linda Rutherford
Guyana Chronicle
January 27, 2002

HE SITS on a number of important bodies, including the prestigious National Maritime Museum; was Mayor of the London borough of Merton, the first person of colour to have ever held that position, as with so many others he’s held; and is currently serving his fifth consecutive term as councillor for the same Merton.

Quite an achievement, you might say, for an immigrant Guyanese who made Great Britain his second home some 40-odd years ago.

But life in the ‘Mother Country’ had not always been this kind to Joe Abrams.

Not that he’d had to live in penury. But it was no ‘life in London’ either! For one thing, his arrival had been anything but welcoming, though the outward journey did have its moments.

As he recalled, it was a cold, blustery day when he boarded the plane for Trinidad back in December, 1960 on his way to London and the lure of greener pastures. And the only reason he undertook the journey at that time of year was because the fare was right.

It was his first experience at flying. The plane was a Grumman; “one of these vroom, vroom, fixed-propeller-type things” that Art Williams (a pioneer in local aviation) and the guys flew, which to this day is said to be the safest mode of air transportation outside of the jet.

In Trinidad, he joined the ‘TV Venezuela’, a cargo and passenger vessel which was headed for the Italian seaport of Genoa. They were on the water for two weeks, stopping on the way to pick up passengers in Grenada and Antigua. They also made a stop in French Guiana to pick up a group of people, who, though they did not speak a word of English, got on famously with the rest of passengers. In all, there were about a hundred passengers aboard the vessel, five of them Guyanese.

From Genoa, he travelled by train to Calais (France), passing through the Pyrenees on the way. The journey took two days.

It was dead winter when he arrived in England. He landed at Folkstone on December 20, then joined another train to Waterloo. Night had already fallen when finally he arrived at his destination, “so you could imagine my confusion,” he said.

Added to which was the bitter cold; his being in a strange country and surrounded by a sea of strange, white faces; and above all, the unaccustomed sight of other people carrying his luggage. It was all too bewildering to take in, all at once.

Some months later, in April, 1961, he was joined by his wife-to-be, who has since died under rather tragic circumstances. She was just 16 at the time. They had a short engagement and by July of the same year, they were married. The union brought them four children, one boy and three girls.

Together the couple worked at building a future for their family, but as usual, the going was not easy. Though she was able to land a steady secretarial job in the Civil Service, he found it difficult to take up teaching, a profession with which he was more than familiar, having taught for a spell back here in his native then British Guiana at the Beterverwagting Government School.

“I couldn’t teach right away because my qualifications had to be crossed-checked,” he said. Other constraints included racial and other forms of discrimination. “In those days, you couldn’t go straight away into your natural profession though it is being done now. It took years to get back into the Department.”

As such, he was forced to change a number of jobs in his quest for something with which he could be comfortable. He worked for a while “on the buses; with London Transport … and The Underground.”

Over time, he was eventually able to get into the British school system, and taught for 20-odd years at Bow Boys, a school in the predominantly working class East End of London, in a village called Tower Hamlets.

Because of the area’s heavy Bengalis population, he’d had to go briefly to Bangladesh to do a crash course in Bengalis so as to be better able to communicate with some of his students who didn’t speak a word of English. The students themselves later helped accelerate the process, he said. He’s now proficient in the language.

An ardent race relations activist for well nigh on 25 years, to the point of being Deputy Chairman of the internationally-acclaimed Commission For Racial Equality (CRE) for three years, Abrams said what led him to become so involved was trying to get a job and being discriminated against.

In those days, he explained, there were no laws against racial discrimination. It was not until Harold Wilson came to power in 1968 that you began to see some changes, he said. And more recently with the coming to power of the Labour Party under Tony Blair. “But it is a fact that there was racial discrimination in housing, employment - you name it.”

Employment-wise, you just had to take what you get; and this was invariably the most menial of jobs.

“Regardless of who you are,” he said, “you were deemed second class. You could even come with your PhD and all that. Even our [medical] doctors were looked upon as second class.”

Happily, he said, there is now a radical shift in trends; in that the government is now appointing a whole mass of Blacks and Asians to the various bodies. There are now Blacks even in the House of Lords, including Guyanese-born Lord Ouseley and Baroness Amos, and the Dominican, Baroness Scotland.

It so happens that they’re all on the same CRE. He first met Amos when she was Chief Executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission, fighting for equality for women. “It was in that field that we all got involved [in race relations activities] rather than in the mainstream, because you’re barred. You had to get in somewhere and race work was the best way to do it,” he said.

“That’s where it all started; to get your act together to push for changes,” he added. Pointing out that Whites were also crucial to the fight for racial equality, he said they may be sympathetic with your views and are willing to push them at the highest level.

Noting that “there is not a Black person that can say they didn’t suffer from racial discrimination,” Abrams, who was conferred the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), said even now, for all his achievement, he still has the odd racial slur thrown his way, “reminding me, OBE or not, of who I am.”

Among some of the radical shifts in trends about which he spoke are in the areas of employment, and education. So much so that Black girls are doing even better at school than their male counterparts.

Asked why this is so, Abrams said “it’s all a question of motivation.” And discrimination to a certain extent, because the Black male is still a problem for society. There is still this perception, he said, that Black men are a threat, in that they are often more qualified to fill a position than their White counterparts. So they’d rather give the job to a Black woman

Often, when you go for a job interview, he said, the entire interviewing panel is White. “So, the question is: what chance do you have as a Black person?”

Thanks to the intervention of the CRE, however, all that is now changing.

“The government is now saying there must be no White panel; there must be a mixed panel,” comprising men and women and all the other non-White races, including Blacks and Asians.

Speaking briefly about his term in office as Mayor (1990 -1991), Abrams said: “As the first Black [Mayor], you might say that the pressure was on me to excel.” What with holding down a full-time job, teaching history and politics, and performing the duties of Mayor, the going was sometimes “quite tense. And tricky!” Luckily, he had a very understanding Principal.

He was also seen as something of a novelty, and this was never more evident than when he and his wife paid an exchange visit to Irving, Texas, with which Merton is twinned. “It was the first time they were seeing a Black Mayor, so they made a big fuss about it.”

He feels that his most significant achievement, however, was demonstrating that a Black person could do the job. Critical also was the way he handled meetings - always maintaining his composure; always objective, no matter the circumstance. And these meetings could become quite boisterous, what with all the shouting and argument back and forth.

“You have to be sitting back and assessing all that and chairing the meeting impartially.” It also meant reassuring his colleagues “that not because you’re Labour, you’ll give the Tories a hard time.” And by the same token, letting your own members know that not because you’re on the same side, they could get away with saying whatever they wanted.

A typical day involved “going to so many hospitals and schools; opening things; receiving Royalty; and eating; eating; eating; at fetes and at fairs until you’re sick,” which latter is the part he really resented. “But wherever you went, you had to eat; because it’s courtesy; it’s expected of you.”

The big thing, however, was Wimbledon. “As the Mayor, you sit in the Royal Enclosure - much to the excitement of his students whenever he made the news - and eat strawberries and cream, even when the fruit is out of season.”

You also receive free tickets for the entire season to give to whomever you please. And these tickets are not for any old seating, but the best there is; centre court, no less.

But if the truth of the matter were to be known, Abrams, who left for home two Mondays ago after spending Christmas here with relatives, said the only reason he was invited to attend all these functions was so he could be put under the microscope, so to speak.

As the district’s first Black ‘Chief Citizen’, people were curious about how he carried himself in public; whether he had proper table manners; whether he knew how to eat with a knife and fork; whether he knew the Queen’s English. In short, they wanted to ensure that he was the right man for the job. But that was a long time ago.

Though he’s been retired from teaching, now going on ten years, he’s still at it, chairing the Property Valuation Tribunal, and sitting on the Employment Tribunal which attends to such matters as equal pay, sex discrimination, unfair dismissal, and race discrimination, and can be quite involved as some cases can last from between a day to as long as two years.

He’s also still a councillor, which job has become even more involved with the new changes instituted in the local government system as of April last and his subsequent appointment as head of the Scrutiny Commission.

In his spare time, however, he likes watching television, or going to the movies.

“I watch a lot of TV,” he confessed. “I’m a big film fan.” He also likes watching cricket.