Undated photograph of the Birmingham Afro-Caribbean Organisation. Henry Gunter pictured back row, far left.
Henry Gunter (1920-2007) was born in Portland, Jamaica in 1920 where he trained as an accountant and also wrote on political and social issues. After working in Panama and the U.S.A. he moved to Birmingham in 1949. In the June 1949 edition of ‘Jamaica Arise! The Political and Labour Guide’, Gunter wrote about some of his reasons for coming to Birmingham saying ‘I have placed myself in the industrial heart of the country so as to meet more of the workers’.
Although Gunter had skills in accountancy, he was sent by the Labour Exchange to work as a mate in a brass rolling mill. He lost his job after challenging the shop steward for racist verbal abuse. He then went on to work in other factories in the city as a machine operator and a tool cutter and grinder. Alongside his day job, Gunter joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union. He was the first black member of his union and the first black delegate to Birmingham Trades Union Council.
Gunter used the positions he held to write and speak out against injustice and to inspire action. Material in the archive includes Gunter’s writings on the struggles faced by black citizens in post-war Birmingham. In the Caribbean News, February 1953 he wrote that landlords either refused to rent out rooms to black people or exploited them by charging rents above the market rate. Although West Indian workers had been encouraged to come to Birmingham during World War Two to work in munitions factories, Gunter wrote about the huge unemployment issues they faced after the War with major firms refusing to employ them.
One of his key publications was ‘A Man’s a Man: a study of the Colour Bar in Birmingham’. In this document Gunter discussed problems faced by black people in areas of employment, housing, hotels and social activities. He suggested five actions that anyone could take including ‘Take a stand against colour-bar and the spreading of racial prejudice wherever you find it.’ The pamphlet was published by the Communist Party in 1954.
On 12th October 1952 Henry Gunter helped organise a protest in Birmingham on these issues. Protesters held banners with slogans such as ‘End Colour Bar in Britain’ and ‘Freedom Now for Africa and West Indies’. As a result of the protest, at a meeting on 13th December 1952, Birmingham Trades Council adopted a resolution: ‘In view of the appalling conditions which immigrant workers have to live under in Birmingham, and the failure to meet this problem, we ask that the Trades Union Congress demand that the Government provide accommodation for these workers’. Gunter was also involved in a campaign in 1954 to provide employment for black workers in the city’s public transport system. This campaign was particularly successful.
Gunter joined the Afro-Caribbean Society in Birmingham and became its chairperson. Gunter also took a keen and active interest in the preservation of materials to help future research into the history of Birmingham’s black population in the 20th century, which lead to the deposit of his papers in Birmingham Archives and Collections.
During this month, it is important to remember the impact that individuals like Henry Gunter had upon our lives.