It’s My Story: George Powe (1926-2013)

Its My Story

Ex-serviceman, politician, industrial activist and race relations pioneer in Nottingham.

Mr Oswald George Powe passed away on the 9th September 2013 aged 87. He was a Royal Air Force ex-serviceman and dedicated community activist in Nottingham for 70 years.

In addition to being a founder member of ACNA, the Caribbean cultural centre in Nottingham, George also pioneered improvement in race relations in the city working with the likes of George Leigh, Milton Crosdale and Junior ‘Berranga’ Forbes among others.

In July 2012, Norma Gregory interviewed George at his home in Mapperley, Nottingham. Here is George’s story in his own words.

was born on the 11th August 1926 in, Kingston Jamaica and I come from a Chinese and African heritage. I was seventeen years old when I came to England in the later part of 1943 therefore; I have been in the England for 70 years. I left high school in January 1943 and joined the Air Force in Jamaica. We were taught the history of the British Empire and about English culture in school in Jamaica. We were taught to view England in the context of our education system. There were adverts and posters for men to join the armed forces so I applied. A lot of young people wanted to fight for their ‘mother country’ but in my opinion, this did not detract from the notion that people knew they were being oppressed. This, I believe, is one of the contradictions created through colonialism. A Jamaican called Roger May published articles in Jamaica in the 1940s, advising Jamaicans not to join the British armed forces. He was arrested for sedition because of his beliefs.

- A Soldier’s Life -

I came to England on a troopship called The Arbiter. The troopship was converted to carry a maximum amount of troops and was fitted with sling hammocks which we had to pull down in the morning into ‘mess decks’. Each compartment had six hammocks and some table facilities. Sometimes we ran short of food on the journey. Everything was not always simple and comfortable as sometimes the ship had to quickly move away and change course to avoid being entangled in submarine nets, which could be dangerous for the crew and the ship. The ship sailed from Jamaica to America, Iceland and then on to England. The journey lasted seventeen days from America to England. In the military during war time, we were not told anything about our route or the journey. I just brought my issued gun and myself. I carried no suitcase. We were not allowed to wear civilian clothing: only clothing what was issued to us. It was not until 1948 that particular civilian items were allowed. I wore a pair of black, thick rubber soled shoes and these shoes lasted fie years. I was stationed in Kent and earned six shillings then I was moved to a military camp in Yorkshire. We were taught to use firearms and we also learnt a trade.

The Armed Forces never gave you a complete course in a profession. They trained four people to do parts of the work required for one person as our primary role was to learn to fight and defend the country. I trained as a Wireless Operator for radars. I was also stationed in Cornwall and then was moved to north Devon. The crowds would come out to see these “blackies”. There were places you could not go if you were black. People called you names in the street and you had to fight them. I left the RAF in 1948.

- Class Difference -

The trade unions fought for our benefit; for better facilities to improve industrial relations. It was not just our struggle alone but a general struggle of the working classes to bring about fairer education and access to education for all through equal opportunity. When I was a child in Jamaica there was also prejudice there, the same as here. However, in England, it was not just colour prejudice, but prejudices based on class, ethnicity and religion. Catholics used to have lots of problems but not as bad as how the Muslims were treated. It was not until the Race Relations Act of 1965 did I see some change in how people were treated. People used to call you all sorts of names and the only thing you could do was to fight them. There seemed no point trying to take people who racially abused you to court. You had to just take it. Ironically, the fist person to be convicted under the Race Relations Act of 1965 was a Caribbean person called Lee Fritas, a Trinidadian. He was convicted of abusing white society and sentenced to three months in prison. In the early days of migration to Britain there were ‘wars’ between the different Caribbean groups: the Bajans (people from Barbados), the Trinidadians, people from St Kitts and so on. There seemed to be a divide and rule policy. We had to fight all of that. It was not just a fight against a white society but conflicts within different community groups.”