One of the Communist Party’s most important Black members from the 1940s to the 1980s was Dorothy Kuya. She was born in April 1932 in Liverpool, her mother a Liverpudlian and her father from Sierra Leone. He disappeared and when her mother married a Nigerian, young Dorothy took his surname and regarded him as her father.
She and her family lived in Liverpool 8, which was virtually a ghetto, with mainly Black and mixed race families living in one of the oldest Black communities in Britain. The inhabitants suffered the worst housing and unemployment. In an interview she remembered “You’d be hard pressed to find a Black face in Liverpool city centre only twenty minutes away by foot”. However, the people of Liverpool 8 were a close-knit community with social clubs that reflected the culture and nationalities in the area.
Young Dorothy Kuya was aware of the class divide and the poverty in the city and the racism and discrimination and as a teenager she joined the Young Communist League. A most confident person even at that early age in the 1940s, she addressed Communist street meetings and regularly sold the Daily Worker. One of her proudest moments was when she met and presented the great African American Paul Robeson, with a bouquet of flowers during his tour of Britain in 1949. Despite the onset of the Cold War with it’s anti Communism she continued to be an active Communist. On a personal level she trained first to be a nurse and then a teacher. In the latter role, she excelled showing her talents as a gifted communicator with the sharpest of minds.
She moved to London, joined her local Party and began teaching in a north London school. Whilst teaching there, she and another Communist teacher, Bridget Harris, set up a pioneering organisation Teachers Against Racism that was particularly active in the 1970s. Her co-worker and friend for many years, Jean Tate, told me that another very influential person in her life was another Communist Ken Forge, who after having lived for a while in Nigeria in the 1930s, was repulsed by the racism there and on return to Britain, joined the Party as a confirmed anti racist. He worked with Dorothy Kuya and became the first person in the country to set up a Black Studies course in a south London comprehensive school.
Alongside her Communist activities, teaching and working with groups on racism, she became involved with a most important journal “Dragons Teeth” which had been started by a radical Indian woman Bandana Ahmed. I well remember as a teacher in those years realising the value of the journal, which investigated, and exposed racism in children’s books and suggested alternatives. In connection with this, she set up a Racism Awareness Unit with funding from Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council. They had a headquarters in London but when the Thatcher government abolished the G.L.C. that was lost.
As a Communist woman, Dorothy Kuya was a member of the National Assembly of Women and ensured anti racism was on the forefront for the members and she eventually became general secretary of the organisation. They were affiliated to the International Federation of Women and she met many women from the socialist countries as well as progressive women from the capitalist world. Jean Tate told me that a dynamic African American woman Vinie Burrows who visited Britain became a particular friend of Dorothy.
By the 1980s, she was deeply involved in anti racist activities and at the beginning of that decade, spoke at a G.L.C. conference on racism She also participated in a Communist conference on racism and the police in 1981. Her contribution and those of others were published as a Communist Party pamphlet later that year titled “Black and Blue Racism and the Police” By now she had become Head of Race Equality for Haringey Council and worked closely with Bernie Grant MP.
As the divisions in the Communist Party increased in that decade, she drifted away from the party and now devoted her time to working with the Black community and fighting racism. She returned to Liverpool where she had bought a house in Liverpool 8. She worked tirelessly opposing racism and urged the setting up of a slavery museum in the city, as much of Liverpool’s wealth had been as a result of the slave trade. She was overjoyed when the Slavery Museum opened.
Her community work was not over and the next struggle was over the attempts of the Tory government to demolish ten streets in Liverpool 8 as “redevelopment” Dorothy Kuya led the resistance refusing attempts to buy her out and insisted on staying put. Despite the people’s resistance, many homes were demolished. On the cultural and community front, she with others in Liverpool 8 started “African Presence” as a centre celebrating the area’s rich cultural past and it’s connection with the long established African and Caribbean communities.
Dorothy Kuya died on 23rd December 2013. Her whole life was devoted to people’s struggles in the fight against racism and discrimination, she was always a leader. For 40 years she was an active member of the Communist Party who contributed much to the understanding of race and class. A pioneer in many ways, she deserves a prominent place in the history of the Communist Party.
Author: David Horsley
Photo: David Horsley