The story of Arthur France, founder of Leeds West Indian Carnival and a man with 'unwavering commitment to social justice, equality and inclusion'
But there are times when connecting the humble man who has raised her to his bigger legacy to the city and beyond can feel surreal and a little overwhelming.
The publication of his authorised biography towards the end of last year was one of those moments. A parliamentary reception to celebrate Arthur today, January 30, will be another.
Arthur was born and raised on the Caribbean island of Nevis, arriving in England in 1957. He is perhaps best known as the founder of Leeds West Indian Carnival, the first of its kind in Europe, but was also a key figure in uniting his local Caribbean community into a force for social progress, particularly when it came to the education of their children.
“Dad has achieved so much from coming from the Caribbean with a suitcase to creating one of the biggest tourist attractions for this city, making a difference to the city through social justice work, supporting black education and workers rights. He’s had a massive impact on the Leeds story, to Leeds’s history,” says Mahalia, a local councillor for Moortown.
“[With carnival], he’s created a time of year that brings a smile to so many people’s lives in modern times, compared to when he first came when things were quite hostile. He’s made improvements to people’s lives across the city, not just black people but working class white people as well. We’re extremely proud he’s done that to make the city a better place.”
For years and years, 87-year-old Arthur has been asked to write about his life story. He hopes Speaking Truth to Power: The Life and Times of an African Caribbean British Man is both empowering and inspiring and that it raises awareness of what African Caribbean people have contributed to life and society in Britain.
“People associate me with carnival and what some people don’t realise was that one of my big passions was education and the culture and history of people of African descendance,” he says.
Dr Max Farrar is the author of the biography, a man who has been involved in grassroots politics in Leeds since 1968. In the 1980s, he worked in further and adult education at the Harehills and Chapeltown Law Centre and has been a professor for community engagement at what is now Leeds Beckett University, as well as a freelance writer and photographer.
“The very first time I set eyes on [Arthur] was the summer of 1971 when I was living in Chapeltown revising for my finals and a demonstration went past the flat I lived in,” Max says. “I thought I’m going to see what’s going on. I remember it vividly, I left my books and I tailed behind the demo as it marched.”
When Max began to write for a Chapeltown community newspaper, and examine black-led social movements in the area for his PhD, he came in greater contact with Arthur and his comrades.
“That brought me in touch with very intelligent, highly critical, highly organised black people of Arthur’s generation. There was a layer of really significant community organisations that Arthur was behind in one way or another…I was a youngish white man and I was in awe of and slightly intimidated actually by just how powerful and how brilliant these community organisers were.”
Still, it wasn’t until the 1980s, when Max became more involved in carnival, taking photographs and contributing to its written publicity, that he and Arthur became friends.
“Although I am a friend and an admirer of Arthur’s, I’ve tried to turn the book into something which speaks more broadly about Nevis and St Kitts where he comes from and more broadly about the Britain that he encountered when he arrived here,” Max explains. ”The book tries to be his life story within a bigger context in which his life is based.”
Max talks of how Arthur committed his life to a struggle to reverse injustice after encountering inequality of income and power, based on skin colour and class position.
He was influenced growing up by a family passionate about education, his father’s belief in discipline and hard work and, too, his uncle’s involvement in trade union activism.
After leaving school, Arthur went to train as an apprentice cabinet maker and joiner before moving to St Kitts to work in a sugar cane factory.
At the age of 22, he made a momentous journey, moving to the UK to join his sister who had migrated to Leeds. He has previously spoken about the ‘coldness’ that greeted him - not just the weather but an unwelcoming and hostile attitude towards black people.
“The thing about Arthur which everybody remarks upon is that he’s a man of enormous goodwill with a great sense of humour,” Max says. “So even though he was butting up against people who are hostile, he was always making friends wherever he worked and was getting on well with both white people and black people...But there [was] a lot of hostility.”
Arthur, who for some time worked at the Technorth family learning centre, and his friends initiated the Leeds United Caribbean Association in 1964, with a plan to make radical changes in black people’s lives.
He became a key figure in setting up a Saturday supplementary school for black children in Chapeltown after concern they weren’t making the progress their parents expected in local schools. He also played a leading role in a parents action group which withdrew their children from school in strike action as part of a campaign to improve black children’s education in Leeds.
When Arthur left the Caribbean, he didn’t just leave behind his home and family, but his culture, music and art. The Leeds West Indian Carnival, held for the first time in 1967, brought some of that culture to the UK, and was also a celebration of the emancipation of his forefathers from slavery.
“People needed something to cheer them up and remind them of the great beauty of their island homes and the great cultural contribution that carnival was in the Caribbean,” Max says. “Arthur wanted to bring some zest and creativity and fun into the black population of Leeds.
“He also wanted to show the city that black people didn’t always protest. They didn’t always just, as the city sometimes unfortunately saw it, make trouble. They needed to [protest], they had to change the city and it wasn’t going to come easily…But he wanted to show another side of Caribbean life - the music, the art, the creativity, the joy, excitement, fun and humour.”
In telling Arthur’s story, Max also reflects upon the struggle for justice and equality led by so many members of Britain’s black communities. Arthur, who in 1997 was honoured with an MBE in recognition of his contributions to English society, has been one of them.
“He is remarkable for an unwavering commitment to what is now called social justice, equality and inclusion. There aren’t many people who get into their 80s with an absolutely continuous commitment to progressive social change,” Max says. “While black people are at the centre of this, he’s completely aware that people of other ethnicities including white people are disadvantaged by class and also by other ethnic backgrounds and he’s always committed to a better deal for all the people that are basically at the bottom of the ladder in our society.”
The book has, in part, inspired a celebration of Arthur due to take place in Parliament this afternoon. The reception is being hosted by Fabian Hamilton, the MP for Leeds North East.
“What Arthur did and what Max’s book highlights is that over a period of decades in this country he changed the context of our culture and our lives,” Fabian says. “I want him to be recognised in his lifetime for the contribution he has made.”