Everything you need to know about the Windrush generation

On the 22nd of June, we celebrate Windrush Day, which marks the anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush in 1948.

If you don’t know much about the Windrush generation and the subsequent decades of mistreatment they endured; musician, author and activist, Akala, says it best. His short Tiktok videos offer an excellent and concise summary. Or, for the thespians amongst you, the semi-fictional Small Island is a great book to dive into.

After the Second World War, the UK was in desperate need of repair. The Windrush Generation came over, largely from the Caribbean, and undertook a variety of jobs to rebuild the nation. Such jobs were the production of food, coal, steel and iron. As well as jobs staffing the NHS and running our public transport systems.

Windrush Day encourages communities across the country to celebrate the contributions made by the Windrush Generation, and their descendants. While thanking all those involved for rebuilding this society and acknowledging the foundations that were laid back then for Black society now. British Caribbean subcultures birthed a wealth of music, food influences, thought leadership, activists and so much more.

While Windrush Day is a day of celebration, it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the difficulties faced by the Windrush Generation – in the past and to the present day.

People who identify as Caribbean, British Caribbean and/or Black Caribbean have been subjected to systemic racism and accumulated disadvantage ever since their Windrush ancestors came to settle in the UK.

The British Nationality Act invited them as “citizens of the Empire”, having fought for the Brits during the war, to help rebuild a WWII-ravaged nation. However, despite being instrumental to the NHS’ inception and being key workers for UK car manufacturers, the Post Office, British Rail and London Transport, these very same citizens faced overt, violent prejudice and a colour bar.

An informal, Jim Crow reminiscent colour bar permitted discrimination against Black people and People of Colour from frequenting public spaces, preventing them from being hired into highly skilled jobs despite their qualifications. This rendered housing unaffordable or impossible to secure, resulting in some becoming homeless…

The Windrush timeline

Post-war Britain of the 40s: “welcome citizens of the Empire”

  • The British Nationality Act invites “citizens of the Empire” and the Commonwealth to Britain, for the “honour” of helping rebuild a WWII-ravaged Britain.

  • On 22nd June 1948, 1027 passengers, 802 of whom are from Caribbean islands and many having fought for the Brits during the War, disembark from the HMT Empire Windrush with hopes of warm welcomes, jobs aplenty and quality housing. It was the largest ever arrival of Black people into the UK.

  • Car manufacturers, the Post Office, British railway services, London Transport and the NHS come to heavily rely on Black and Brown workers for their inception and recovery.

The 50s and early 60s: the UK’s informal Jim Crow-esque “colour bar”

  • The racist and xenophobic sentiment is reflected through laws, practices and policies that bear a deplorable similarity to US’ Jim Crow.

  • Despite their contribution to rebuilding Britain, these systems deliberately stopped Black citizens and Citizens of Colour from accessing social areas (bars, restaurants, hotels), prevented them from working highly-skilled jobs, despite their qualifications, and from securing affordable housing.

The late 60s: Race Relations Acts

  • By 1968, approximately one million immigrants had made Britain their home.

  • Enoch Powell made his chilling, racist “Rivers of Blood” speech, claiming that “in this country in 15 or 20 years, the Black man will have the whip hand over the White man”. Overnight race tensions bubbled to the surface.

  • According to a Gallup poll of the time, 75% of the population were sympathetic to his views. Fortunately, he was sacked after his incendiary talk.

  • A second Race Relations Act 1968 was drawn up that made it illegal to refuse not only ‘public places of resort’, but housing and employment on the grounds of skin colour, race, ethnicity or national origin in Great Britain.

The end of the Windrush Generation, marked by the 1971 Act

  • The Anti-Immigration Act of 1971 put an end to Commonwealth residents having the right to move to the UK.

  • The people who came over with Windrush dubbed the Windrush generation weren’t given the necessary visas and paperwork to certify that they, and subsequent generations who followed them, were British citizens.

  • This systemically racist “mistake” would catch up with them and have dire consequences in the 2010s.

2018: the Windrush “scandal” gets the Home Office in trouble

  • “Scandal” isn’t a strong enough word for the intentional breach of human rights perpetrated by the Home Office against the Windrush generation and their families.

  • It came to light that thousands of people had been marked “illegal” immigrants, losing their jobs, and often left destitute with no access to welfare benefits. Some were forcibly deported.

  • The hostile policy targeted many elderly Caribbean men and women who’d been born here and had every right to British citizenship.

  • To this day, Windrush individuals and their families are yet to receive compensation for what they were forced to endure.

  • In this year, Windrush Day was first officially recognised as an official day of celebration.

Time for reflection: what is the Windrush generation’s legacy?

Today, Windrush Day reminds us to focus on the enormous contributions all those who arrived on Empire Windrush and their descendants made to Britain’s recovery. It’s a time to celebrate Caribbean and British Caribbean sub-cultures.

As always, we cannot celebrate Caribbean people without also acknowledging the systemic racism and accumulated disadvantages that White Brits have, both intentionally and unintentionally, perpetrated against Caribbean folks.

All organisations and institutions should now be looking to measure and address disparities between British Caribbean and Black Caribbean groups and other ethnic groups (White British, British African, Indian, Pakistani, Bengali, etc.)

What do you think the knock-on impact will be for future generations? How do we create an equitable future for People of Colour and Black Caribbeans?

Getting started with your Racial Equity Strategy