Ivor Cummings was born on 10th December 1913 in West Hartlepool, the son of a Sierra Leonean doctor and a white English nurse. In his efforts to carve out a career for himself he faced much discrimination. He at first attempted to follow in his father’s footsteps in the medical profession but was barred from doing so due to him not having the funding to pay for his training. He was then prevented from joining the military at the start of the Second World War since the law at the time dictated that all army officers had to be “of pure European descent”. These setbacks however paved the way for Cummings to enter the civil service and work towards promoting racial equity.
After working for a few years as the warden of Aggrey House, a London hostel for African students and students of African descent, Cummings joined the Colonial Office in 1941. He worked on the new Advisory Committee on the Welfare of Colonial Peoples in the United Kingdom, and as part of his duties he advocated for the rights of African and Caribbean settlers working in the country. In particular he was tasked with recruiting nurses from West Africa into the NHS upon its founding in 1948. And it was in this same year that his greatest challenge arrived.
Aggrey House today, next to the Charles Dickens Museum. Attributed to Spudgun67, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
On 21st June 1948 the ‘Empire Windrush’ docked at the Port of Tilbury near London carrying 492 migrants from the British West Indies. Cummings boarded the ‘Empire Windrush’ to greet the migrants and he is recorded as saying to them –
“I now want to address my friends who have nowhere to go and no plans whatsoever. I am afraid you will have many difficulties, but I feel sure that with the right spirit and by cooperating as I have suggested… you will overcome them.”
He knew above all else the challenges they would face and was determined to support their transition into their new home. In the days that followed Cummings worked tirelessly to find accommodation and jobs for them. He is noted for arranging temporary accommodation for the Windrush arrivals in a former air raid shelter below Clapham Common.
Sierra Leone, as shown highlighted in red. TUBS, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
Unfortunately, despite Ivor Cummings’ efforts against racial discrimination in the United Kingdom, he has largely been erased from this time in history. During his life Cummings was openly gay, at a time when homosexuality was considered a crime in England and was punishable by imprisonment or chemical castration. Despite the risks he was proud of his sexuality and he has been subsequently dubbed the “gay father of the Windrush Generation”.
He was also recognized during his time as his appointment to the Colonial Office was heralded as a move against racial discrimination in Britain, and he was awarded an OBE in 1948. He died on 17th October 1992 after a lifetime of making a difference in the lives of the people of Britain.