Brixton, and the world, remember Darcus Howe

People from all over the world online joined Brixton residents and distinguished visitors to see a plaque honouring Darcus Howe unveiled on Railton Road today (4 January).

It joins one marking the life and death there of CLR James on the side of the building that housed the Race Today collective.

The great writer and revolutionary – who was Darcus Howe’s great uncle – would have celebrated his birthday today.

It is the 68th plaque honouring a person of colour to have been installed by the Nubian Jak Community Trust, whose chief executive, Dr Jak Beula, was MC for the ceremony.

Dawn Hill CBE, former chair of the Black Cultural Archives on Brixton’s Windrush Square, said “people just came and came and came” to the building on Railton Road that was at the centre of so many crucial struggles.

“I’m standing on sacred ground,” said the founder of Black History Month in the UK, Akyaaba Addai-Sebo. “I have been touched because of the significance of this building to me and our history.

“I came here as a refugee and Darcus and Leila took me in and gave me a refuge. It was through them that I managed to get a position at the greater London council that enabled me to come up with the Black History Month concept.”

man speaking at open air meeting
Akyaaba Addai-Sebo

It had been a long time since he had been on Railton Road – “walking down it, coming here, was a moving experience for me”.

Henry Bonsu, a broadcaster like Darcus Howe, who lives on nearby Dulwich Road, spoke of the “17-year-old firebrand legal scholar,” who arrived in Britain in the 60s and, in the early seventies, put that legal training to use in the famous Mangrove 9 trial that was dramatised just a few months ago on the Small Axe TV series.

“And then there’s the guy who rallied together people for the for the national black people’s day of action, in 1981.”
As a broadcaster with his show Devil’s Advocate, “He was fearless. He was always the most relaxed, but most fearsome and most incisive commentator. And that’s what I remember him for.

man speaking at open air meeting
Henry Bonsu

“There are many young broadcasters coming up in our footsteps who probably don’t realise that they owe him quite a lot because he is the one who showed us how it could be done without fear or favour.”
Henry Bonsu recalled Darcus Howe arriving uninvited to his 30th birthday party: “My kudos went up several levels. But I was really, really proud.

“The confidence I have whenever I go on radio and TV today, isin large measure due to him and the energy and the vibe he brought.

“So let’s not forget what he did. Let’s always remember him, keep his spirit here alive.”

Local MP Helen Hayes spoke at the last minute when Linton Kwesi Johnson, who is isolating, was unable to attend.
“I speak a lot in parliament about the need for Black history to be taught in our schools in all of our schools up and down the country,” she said.

woman speaking into mic at open air meeting
Helen Hayes

“I believe that it is so important that every child growing up in the UK understands what our country is, where we have come from.

“We are a country that has been formed and sustained by migration and by the contribution of many different communities from all across the globe. 

“It is as important for us locally, as it is across the country nationally, and blue plaques play such a vital role in bringing to life and interpreting our local history and the resonance that, that local history has at a national scale as well.”

The MP hoped that people walking along Railton Road, particularly those with young children, will point to the plaque and tell them about the role that he played in the struggle for equality and in the struggle against racism and discrimination in our society.

“You’ll equip them and prepare them to take on that mantle for future generations.”

man speaks into mic at openbn air meeting
Patrick Torsney

Patrick Torsney, who was a friend of Darcus and now runs Brixton Advice Centre, remembered consulting him when he was about to make a speech.

He tore up his prepared speech and followed Darcus’ advice to “speak from your heart and tell the truth, and people will listen to you”.

Leila Howe, who was Darcus’ wife, said that despite his huge success in broadcasting and national media, he considered his greatest achievements in public life to be the Mangrove 9 trial and building the collective that produced Race Today magazine.

She said he wanted working class people and intellectuals to come together in an organisation so that they could learn from each other.

woman speaking at open air meeting
Leila Howe

“He was very much against the idea of intellectuals academic understanding, leading ordinary people.

“He believed that we had experiences and understanding where we could govern and decide for ourselves what we wanted to do with our lives.”
She recalled how Darcus Howe “was a thorn in the side of the establishment. 

“They didn’t want to hear this radical and revolutionary idea that we were not going to put up with the racism in this society.

“So now while I hear the way he’s venerated – which I must say, I’m very pleased about – there were times when he was in the wilderness and it wasn’t always easy.”

She recalled how he had been arrested five time, jailed, and followed by Special Branch police – even to cricket matches.

Leila Howe also spoke of the cultural side of work in the Railton Road building, ranging from fighting to save Carnival to inviting Maya Angelou to a Lambeth town hall event in Brixton to mark the death of James Baldwin.
“He would really, really be pleased today,” she said. “I think his real pleasure would be the fact that he is side by side with his great uncle.”