Stephen Bourne remembers his friend Sam King, a Windrush arrival who became the first black Mayor of Southwark
On June 21, 1998, at Southwark Cathedral, Sam King took part in an edition of BBC television’s popular Sunday evening series Songs of Praise. The programme was shown as hundreds of churches throughout Britain commemorated the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush. In June 1948 this ship had brought the first wave of post-war Caribbean settlers to Britain.
Sam was among the passengers interviewed on the TV programme. He had helped to organise the Windrush Foundation to plan the 1998 celebrations.
As its chairman, he personally committed himself to contacting every black-led church in the country with the message, “It was by the grace of God that we landed, let’s praise our God.”
For Sam, it had been a long and eventful journey that led him from Windrush to becoming the first black mayor of Southwark, and the first Jamaican to hold such a position in Britain.
For his services to the community he received an MBE from the Queen in 1998. That same year his best-selling autobiography Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain was published.
Sam and I encountered each other many times, usually at community events.
I remember speaking to him at the 2005 launch of Black History Month outside Peckham Library; meeting him at the Imperial War Museum in 2008 for the launch of the exhibition From War to Windrush; attending the unveiling of his Southwark Heritage Blue Plaque at 2 Warmington Road, Herne Hill, in 2010; and joining him as a guest speaker at an event at the From Boyhood to Manhood Foundation in Peckham in 2013. We also took part in Marc Wadsworth’s excellent documentary film Divided by Race: United in War and Peace (2013).
The last time I saw Sam was at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, not long before he passed away at the age of 90, on June 17, 2016.
For me, Sam was a true gentleman: friendly, community conscious, inspiring and always ready to share anecdotes about his eventful life.
At the From Boyhood to Manhood event it was wonderful to observe how he was able to captivate a group of young lads with stories about what it was like to grow up in Jamaica and why he joined the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.
Sam was born in Priestman’s River, Jamaica on February 20, 1926. He came from a family of farmers. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Sam was keen to take part but he was told he would have to stay in Jamaica and continue farming.
He said: “I don’t think the British Empire was perfect, but it was better than Nazi Germany. So I was determined to join the armed services and fight the enemy.”
In 1944, when he read an appeal in the Daily Gleaner newspaper for volunteers for the RAF, Sam asked his mother for advice. She said: “My son, the mother country is at war. Go. And if you survive, you will not regret it.” Sam joined the RAF but arrived in Britain in the middle of winter.
He said: “I was shocked. It was winter. I came off the troop train and I stepped into three inches of snow. It was shocking.”
Sam served in the RAF until 1947 and then he returned to Jamaica. But he did not want to raise his children in a colony so he returned to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948. He then rejoined the RAF and served until 1953.
In 1950, Sam and his brother Wilton bought their first home in Sears Street, Camberwell. They were one of the first black families in Southwark to own their own home.
After leaving the RAF, Sam worked for the Post Office until he retired.
In the 1950s Sam became involved in his community and joined the staff of the Brixton-based West Indian Gazette as its circulation manager. It was this monthly newspaper that spearheaded the start of the Notting Hill Carnival, the cultural event that celebrated Britain’s Caribbean communities.
In 1964, when Dr Martin Luther King passed through London on his way to Oslo to collect his Nobel Peace Prize, he accepted an invitation to visit the staff, including Sam, of the West Indian Gazette in Brixton.
When the right wing National Front planned to march though Peckham after the Brixton uprising of 1981, some community leaders like Sam spoke to the local police about the tensions this would create.
He said: “I told the police commander that if you let the National Front march through Peckham I can’t stop the people burning it down.
“If you stop them from marching through Peckham you will have no problem. As long as the National Front do not walk through Peckham High Street, we are going to behave ourselves.”
Sam served as a Labour councillor in Bellenden ward, Southwark, from 1982 to 1986 and he became the first black Mayor of the borough in 1983. Sam was surprised but thrilled he was chosen. It was one of the highlights of his life.
He said: “Recollections of my life came flooding in, training grounds for a position I never had the audacity to envisage, let alone hold. I managed to summon up the courage and accepted the mayorship.”
When Sam’s funeral took place at Southwark Cathedral on July 19, 2016 it was attended by more than 500 mourners representing family, friends, colleagues and dignitaries.
My favourite Sam King quote has always been this: “For every third of the average English people who are unreasonable to us there is another third who will go out of their way to help you. The other third couldn’t care less one way or the other as long as their football team plays on Saturday and they can get beer in the pubs.”
A tribute to Sam – called Remembering Sam King – took place at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, on June 19.
Sam King is featured in two of Stephen Bourne’s books: The Motherland Calls: Britain’s Black Servicemen and Women 1939-1945 (The History Press, £12.99) and Speak of me as I am: the Black Presence in Southwark Since 1600, which can be purchased for £5 from Southwark’s Local History Library, 211 Borough High Street, SE1.
The library also holds copies of an audio interview with Sam King (Ref: LHLTAPE49) and Marc Wadsworth’s film Divided by Race (Ref: LHLDVD129) featuring Sam and Stephen.
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