The life of my godmother, a former race relations officer and founding member of the Saint Paul's carnival in Bristol, UK, Ms Carmen Beckford MBE, has brought together many people from different cultures, and has inspired many to honour her great legacy of achievements.
One such person is Michele Curtis, an award winning artist from Bristol of Jamaican decent and founder of the Iconic Black Bristolians and Seven Saints of St Paul's projects. Earlier this year when Michele informed me of her projects and ARTival event (in partnership with the University of Bristol and Boomsatsuma) where she would be celebrating auntie Carmen, alongside six other influential Bristolians, my heart was warm knowing that Michele's talent and her love for the community would set this event apart and be a true homage to our elders.
'ARTival 2018 was a six-day exhibition, celebrating 50 years of the history and legacy of the St. Pauls Carnival and importance of Bristol’s cultural heritage and identity. ARTival 2018 combines portraits, biographies, film and animation from The Seven Saints of St Pauls, Bristol Beats &Bass and the new St. Pauls Carnival Collective. This exhibition encapsulates the inspiring stories and missions of Bristol’s unsung heros who have contributed toward the achievements of the African Caribbean Diaspora and Bristol’s cultural identity. This exhibition is an education and insight into how the Caribbean style Carnival has impacted Britain by exploring the cross-cultural effects of community, identity and what it means to be British. It bridges traditional British and African Caribbean Culture to inform what we view as contemporary British Culture today. Carnival has promoted unity of international relationships and has provided a platform for the celebration of diversity.'
Michele has received much praise and support from prominent members of the community such as the Mayor of Bristol, Mr Marvin Rees (June 2016):
'“I’m a big admirer of Michele’s work and the way she captures the essence of Bristol’s Afro
Caribbean community. I think this exhibition is a powerful reminder of the vibrancy of Bristol’s Black culture at a time when we’ve not had Carnival for two years and more poignantly, in the year that we lost one of the Seven Saints of St Pauls, Carmen Beckford. I imagine that like me, most of the city’s Afro Caribbean residents grew up immersed in the sights and the sounds of Carnival. It’s... about education, inclusion, community strength and welcoming diversity…”
And Jamaican High Commissioner, His Excellency Seth Ramocan:
'“It is a pleasure to endorse Michele’s work as she encapsulates the spirit, vision and values of
Jamaica. Michele’s work is a valuable contribution to the documentation of our presence in Britain. By mapping the achievements of the African Caribbean community in Bristol, Michele is also raising the profile of Jamaicans in the UK. Her work shares inspirational narratives of how Black people have continued to fight against indifference, oppression and racism, whilst striving to promote integration and equality. It is encouraging to see Michele educating young people, inspiring them to be the next generation of role models, whilst being an inspiration in her own right. Michele celebrates and promotes the recognition of empowering stories and achievements that encourage a sense of National pride that will continue to strengthen our ties with Jamaica for future generations to come.”
The Film Screening and Q&A was a great success and was attended by the deputy mayor or Bristol and Lady Lord Mayor Cleo Lake. We are grateful to Michele Curtis for her drive, passion, intellect. The pieces for the exhibition took months to create and Auntie Carmen's image was very emotive. Michele truly captured her essence as well as the six other Saints Owen Henry, Roy Hackett, Audley Evans, Clifford Drummond, Delores Campbell and Barbara Dettering who fought for race equality and shall be further remembered through murals that Michele has created across Bristol.
CARMEN BECKFORD MBE
21ST DECEMBER 1928 – 18TH MAY 2016
Carmen Beckford was the first child of seven children born in St Thomas, Jamaica to Etheline and Rosnel Beckford. At the age of 17 Carmen travelled to the UK and trained to become a nurse. Carmen decided to train in every aspect of nursing because she wanted to be free to travel to any country and still be able to find meaningful employment.
In 1965 Carmen moved to Bristol, she was working as a midwife in Downend. In the same year, Harold Wilson set up the Race Council in London, and shortly there after it was introduced in Bristol. Carmen was happily working as a midwife when the Medical Officer of Health
suggested that she apply for the job as Race Relation Officer for Bristol. However, Carmen had plans to move to Canada to be closer to her parents and refused to apply. The Medical Officer of Health was adamant that Carmen apply for the post and as a last attempt to convince her to
apply he contacted the Jamaican High Commission and told them that they were experiencing problems with Carmen because she would not apply for the post as a Race Relation Officer for Bristol, and how the Bristol City Council were keen to interview her. The Jamaican High Commission and the Chief Medical Officer convinced Carmen to wait two years before
moving to Canada and to apply for the role of Race Relations Officer for the City, so she took their advice and applied. 35 people applied for the role, including Dr. Paul Stephenson OBE, of which Carmen was the only female. Carmen Beckford became the first Race Relations Officer in Bristol but one of the last to be appointed in the UK.
Her role as the Race relations Officer was to integrate communities and help to build young people’s self esteem. Carmen recalls, ‘_There was a lot of racism in the city and I was the last Race Relation sOfficer to be appointed in the UK, Enoch Powell hated Black people, I
remember when I had set up the West Indian Dance Team our first performance was in a City, up North and he was in that city they same time we were performing._’ The Race Council closed in 2005.
In 1965 Carmen became an executive member of the Commonwealth Co-ordinated Committee, and worked alongside Owen Henry, Roy Hackett, Leotta Goodridge, Dr. Paul Stephenson OBE, Clifford Drummond, Audley Evans, Barbara Dettering, Delores Campbell, Trevor Thompson and many other of our cities Elders. Carmen explained. ‘_Back then there was no jealousy or malicious intent. We all had are own lives and projects and supported one another. We all shared the same vision and we worked together to make it happen_.’
Carmen had established the West Indian Dance Team as a means of integrating communities through her role as the City’s Race Relations Officer and recalls; ‘_We performed at the Colston Hall and travelled to Weston-Super-Mare and as far as Germany. I wanted for my team what I wanted for family and myself. I loved them! When you have self-respect and pride no one can mess with you. I was involved in all of their lives, I would tell my girls when you are walking on the street keep your head high and no loud talking as you are members of The West Indian Dance Team_.’
Through her role of Race Relation Officer and the founder of the West Indian Dance Team, Carmen organised a camping trip to Devon for the young people living in Bristol and wanted to host a fundraising event at the Colston Hall, in Bristol’s City Centre. Carmen was told that it
would not be possible as the Colston Hall had never hosted an event like what she was proposing, to which Carmen replied, well we need to change it. Carmen received permission to host the fundraiser at the Colston Hall. There were Asian and Irish dance teams in addition to the African Caribbean dancers and the event was a complete success and continued to
run annually for a few years to follow. Carmen states that they raised more than enough money to take the children away on camping trips and remembers that there was an unknown white male, who chose to remain anonymous who every year doubled the proceeds and donated it to the camping trips. Carmen has stated that to this day, that gentleman is still unknown but that she is extremely grateful for his contributions as they made a great difference to the lives of others in the city.
When St Pauls Festival was created back 1968 Carmen was in charge of the entertainment. This free event has worldwide fame and continues to attract crowds of around 100,000 people each year.
Carmen Beckford felt very passionate about the integration of all ethnicities in Bristol and continues to be a respected and loved Elder of our City. For her work and dedication Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II in 1982, awarded her with an MBE. When asked about being
identified as an Iconic Black Bristolian she replied ‘... _I never paid much attention to what other people felt was right or wrong, or whether people felt that I should be doing this or that. I just followed what was in here (my heart), as that is the only voice that matters and
trust that he (God) is guiding me to do the right thing_...’ - Carmen Beckford
Carmen Beckford MBE passed away on 18th May 2016.