Constantine-The Great All-Rounder

By Goodwin, Clayton | New African, October 2018 | Go to article overview

Constantine-The Great All-Rounder


Goodwin, Clayton, New African


West Indian Sir Learie Constantine was a force of nature who used his extraordinary cricketing skills to elevate the position of people of colour in the UK and became the first person of African heritage to be knighted. His legacy continues to inform and shape race relations in Britain to this day.

When I was growing up around the villages of rural Kent in the 1940s, we were not aware of any Africans or West Indians being either in our country or abroad. It was a monochrome world. Yet there was one black man whose name had already become a household word and whom we all considered to be a personal acquaintance. That was Learie Constantine, the West Indian cricketer (and more). He had a way of making his presence and personality felt. In this Black History Month it is well that his story should be told.

Learie was the first person of African heritage to become a member of the House of Lords, almost exactly 50 years ago today. There is a campaign for his statue to be erected at Nelson where he stayed on first coming to this country. Constantine, as we shall see, was the Great All-rounder.

For a start, he was one of the greatest all-rounders cricket has known. Learie was an entertaining batsman, who invented strokes it seemed could not be invented, a versatile fast bowler, and, above all, a fielder so outstanding that he is probably the only cricketer who has ever attracted crowds just to see him field.

He was a key member of the West Indies side from his first tour to England in 1923 until international competition was suspended in the shadows of the approaching Second World War 16 years later. Cricket made Constantine's reputation but he used the game as a platform to prove that he was so much more than just a cricketer.

Because of the lack of opportunities in his home region, the Trinidadian pursued his career as a League professional at Nelson in Lancashire from 1931.

At first, Learie considered returning to his home island because of the racism which he experienced, but he fought that battle with the same courage as he faced his opponents on the pitch. Before long he won over his detractors and established a strong rapport with the local population. Constantine came to love, and identify with them and they adored him. He became the epitome of the League cricketer for whom entertainment-value and character are paramount. In doing so he prepared the way for other West Indian cricketers to find opportunity and a home in Lancashire.

When the West Indies team left England at the outbreak of hostilities, Learie stayed on to entertain the public in League and charity games. His willingness to share the war-time dangers and deprivations considerably enhanced the esteem in which he was held. He also played his part in the war-effort as an Air Raid Precautions Officer and by helping with evacuees, and was appointed Welfare Officer in the Ministry of Labour and National Service.

Working mainly from Liverpool, Constantine helped West Indians, including the many arrivals who had volunteered for military service, to settle into England. He liaised with the trade unions, using his prestige to pressurise otherwise reluctant companies to accept non-white workers. The home community recognised and accepted what he was doing--"You know, that Learie Constantine, he is one of us."

Milestone act of defiance

In August 1943 Learie booked rooms for four nights for himself and his family at the Imperial Hotel in London after being assured that his colour would be no problem. However, on arrival the family were told they could stay for only one night as their presence "might offend other guests".

It is understood there were a number of American military personnel staying there who wished to maintain the segregation they had known at home. Constantine's successful High Court legal action against the hotel is regarded as a milestone towards the creation of the Race Relations Act of 1965. …

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