Harold Moody and the League of Coloured Peoples: interracial “harmony” and colonial critique

Content Warning: Text contains primary sources with racist language.

In July 1943, the small south London magazine League of Coloured Peoples News Letter appealed to its readership with the following words:

“Surely you have heard of the simply amazing response of the colonies to Britain´s war effort. (…) You have also heard of the colour bar!!! That this unchristian practice shall no longer be. The League of Coloured Peoples (…) is straining every nerve to ensure that every-one plays the game by our faithful fellow citizens. (For you can’t be in the team and bat against it)”[1]

This quote highlights the support provided by the colonies to the British war effort in the Second World War, while also pointing out that Black people in Britain and its overseas territories were nevertheless not treated as equals. Its author, the Jamaican physician Harold Moody, was a passionate campaigner against racial discrimination in London in the 1930s and 1940s. His politization, which eventually led to the foundation of the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) in 1931, is best explained by two reasons: Firstly, the constant struggle in face of the “colour bar”, and second his strong Christian faith. From its foundation until his death in 1947, Moody led the LCP, one of the most prominent Black political groups campaigning against racial discrimination in London at the time. Rooted in a Christian middle-class background, the LCP´s activities concentrated on reforms against racial discrimination in Britain. Moody positioned the LCP as a conciliating middle-class organisation that tried to appeal to both Britain´s Black population and the country´s establishment at the same time. One of the first studies of the LCP summarised Moody’s activism fittingly as “Humanitarianism, Pan-African Style”.[2]

Harold Moody during a trip to Jamaica, ca. 1945. © SOAS Special Collections (CWM/LMS/Jamaica/Subject Files, Box 1).

Moody was born in Jamaica in 1882 into a mixed-race, middle-class family. After completing high school, he moved to London to study medicine in 1904. In Jamaica, his father had been a successful pharmacist and Moody had enjoyed a relatively privileged upbringing. Arriving in London, he was taken by surprise when he was repeatedly confronted with the “colour bar”, a range of racial discriminations. He was irritated in public when being stared at or taunted. In his studies and later medical profession, he regularly challenged by the “colour bar” as well. In 1910, he completed his medical studies at KCL at the top of his class. Nevertheless, he was denied a position as a doctor in a clinic, because the head nurse “refused to have a coloured doctor working at the hospital”.[3] He decided to open his own medical practice as a General Practitioner in South London in the neighbourhood of Peckham. As an experienced doctor, Moody applied for a position as poor law doctor – a type of doctor within the British social welfare system of the time, the Poor Laws – in Peckham´s neighbouring district Camberwell. The responsible authority, the Camberwell Guardians, turned him down on the grounds that those in need “would not have a nigger to attend them”.[4] In private life, he first struggled to find housing as landlords refused to offer him accommodation, as was common for Black people in Britain. In 1912, Moody married Olive Tranter, a white British nurse whom he met while studying for his medical degree. The union, which should lead to a life-long marriage, was, however, not approved of by Tranter´s close circle. Her parents and friends had strong reservations about their daughter marrying a Black man, even telling her that by becoming the wife of a Black man, she would betray her race.[5]

Such constant confrontation with racial prejudice over the years led to Moody slowly coming to terms with his Black identity and heritage, realising that Black people globally shared struggles of discrimination rooted in the unequal colonial world system shaped by slavery and exploitation. This process was not a quick one, but rather progressively built up over years – Moody founded the LCP nearly three decades after he had first arrived in Britain.[6]

The second major driving force behind Moody’s activism was his strong Christian conviction. His worldview was shaped by his Congregationalist Christian belief of the existence of a just God and that as a devout Christian he should implement his will in a sinful world. This strongly influenced his commitment against racial discrimination as he was convinced that all people were equal before God and therefore should be treated equally in the secular sphere. As soon as Moody arrived in Britain, he joined the Congregational Union. There he became involved as a weekly lay preacher and regularly liked to challenge his mostly white audience to stand up against discrimination and any form of racial segregation. The historian David Killingray notes how Moody rarely embarked on major undertakings without beforehand extensively praying for them.[7] The convictions that all people should love their neighbour also followed from the Christian faith. This was particularly strong in the League of Coloured Peoples, which called for interracial “harmony” as a form of neighbour love.[8] However, according to Moody, Black people would also have to prove that they were worthy of acceptance. In particular, Moody saw piety, community service and hard work as the best means by which Black people could prove themselves as equals.[9]

Moody decided to found his own political group, the LCP, in 1931. Its aims were to “protect the social, educational, economic and political interests” of Black people, to work for the “welfare of coloured peoples in all parts of the world” and promote interracial “harmony” within Britain.[10] The group’s main mouthpiece was its magazine, The Keys. The title alludes to the keys of a piano, on which both white and black keys must be played to create musical harmony, similar to the LCP’s understanding of interracial “harmony”.[11] The Keys was quarter-annually published until the outbreak of the Second World War, when it was discontinued due to financial problems of the organisation, which had run into debt renting office space in the prestigious Memorial Hall building in the central London district of Farringdon directly neighbouring the City of London.[12] The magazine was then replaced by the League of Coloured Peoples News Letter as the group’s magazine.[13]

Cover of The Keys from 1937. © British Library (The Keys, Vol. 4 (3), January-March 1937).

The group´s membership included a number of prominent Black personalities, such as the Trinidadian author C.L.R. James, Black BBC presenter Una Marson or Kenyan activist and politician Jomo Kenyatta. But its driving force remained Harold Moody, who campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the grouping. His main concerns revolved around equality for all people in the British Empire. He therefore advocated for reforms that would give all inhabitants of the British Empire equal rights, for example in the form of “citizenship” instead of only the legally less extensive status as “subjects” granted to inhabitants of Britain’s colonies. Historian Anne-Spry Rush described his efforts as an attempt to create a “race-blind” empire in contrast to the reality he experienced.[14]

Moody campaigned for equal opportunities in education and employment, for more Black people in leadership and government positions, and more opportunities for democratic participation in the British colonies, in the Caribbean and Africa. To achieve his goals, he constantly lobbied with the British government. For this, he made use of the credibility and contacts he gained from his church involvement and middle-class status as a doctor.[15] With these moderate demands for reforms, the LCP was not among the more radical Black political organizations within London, and caught criticism from more militant groups like the International African Service Bureau (IASB) or the West African Students Union (WASU) for being too conformist and cautious when addressing the unequal treatment of Black people in Britain.[16] At times, Moody was even addressed as an “Uncle Tom”-figure by other Black activists, such as George Padmore in the latter’s magazine “Negro Worker”.[17]

By the end of the 1930s, the LCP’s membership had reached around 500 members, which represented a peak. LCP members were mainly Black students and activists from the British colonies, as well as some white Britons from Christian organisations. By statue, the board’s members had to be “coloured” by Moody’s definition, which he interpreted to mean “of African descent” and consisted mainly of people from the Anglophone Caribbean.[18]

Meeting of the LCP in the garden of Moody’s house in Peckham, with international guests, published in The Keys, 1937, Moody is in the front row sitting. © British Library (The Keys, Vol. 4 (4), April-June 1937).

Through the war years, LCP membership, and arguably its influence, remained at this peak due to its many activities at the time. However, through resource and mobility constraints and restrictive war laws, the global activities of other Black political organizations in London at the times such as the IASB were hampered. As a result, the IASB worked more with other Black groups in London instead of its anti-colonial members worldwide. George Padmore, an influential activist-intellectual of the IASB, in particular sought to influence and convince Moody and his organization of anti-colonial content through increased collaboration. This was partially successful. In reaction to the exclusion from the Atlantic Charter, Moody formulated his own Charter for Coloured Peoples, which was approved by the members of the LCP in 1943.[19] It was inspired by the IASB, whose member Desmond Buckle collaborated with Moody for writing pamphlets, and George Padmore, whose content from his work The White Man’s Duty: An Analysis of the Colonial Question in Light of the Atlantic Charter, written together with Nancy Cunard, can be found in it.[20] The LCP-“Charter” demanded, in harsher rhetoric than before the war, “for imperial powers to account for their administration to an international body” and “full self-government” for the British colonies “at the earliest possible opportunity”.[21]

One goal Moody longed to realise but repeatedly struggled with was to establish an official headquarter for the LCP in London. Several attempts had failed, mostly because of a lack of funds to buy an adequate property. In 1944, he set off on a fundraising tour to the Caribbean and the USA to raise funds for a cultural centre for Black people in London, which was also to serve as the LCPs main office.[22] The journey lasted for two years, and when Moody returned to London in 1946, it had exhausted him. Shortly afterwards, he fell ill with influenza, and already weakened, passed away quickly.[23] After Moody’s death, the LCP continued to exist for a few more years, but could not match the importance it had during Moody’s lifetime.[24]

Today, Moody’s legacy is commemorated by a Blue Plaque (reference to Blue Plaque article) on his house in Peckham. Prominently, he was honoured with a feature in the Google Doodle on 1st September 2020.[25] In the artwork, Moody is shown as a towering figure, reaching higher than London’s famous monuments Tower Bridge, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, fatherly watching over for two Black children and Victorian terraced houses representing his borough of Peckham, wearing both a suit like a politician and a stethoscope like a medical doctor. Revisiting Moody and the LCP in historical scholarship as part of a Black political scene in London in the 1930s and 1940s who did not only combat racial prejudice but formed the ideas of many future post-colonial leaders shows that the LCP formed its own form of Pan-Africanism that was shaped by Christian morality, a Black and British identity, confronting racism, and in exchange with the Pan-African networks in London at the time developed its own ideas to challenge the colonial system.

[1] Black Cultural Archives: Green 3-1-1, Moody, Harold: Appeal for funds, in: League of Coloured Peoples News Letter, Vol. VII, No. 43, July, 1943.

[2] Drake, St. Clair: Value Systems, Social Structure and Race Relations in the British Isles, Ph.D. thesis, University of Chicago, 1954, p. 85.

[3] Vaughan, David A.: Negro Victory: The life story of Dr. Harold Moody, Independent Press Limited, London, 1950, p. 27-28, cited in Fryer, Peter: Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1984.

[4] Killingray, David: “To do something for the race”: Harold Moody and the League of Coloured Peoples, in: Schwarz, Bill: West Indian intellectuals in Britain, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2003, p. 58.

[5] Ibid., p. 59.

[6] Ibid., p. 58.

[7] Ibid., p. 56.

[8] British Library (hereafter BL): Moody, Harold: Editorial, in: The Keys, Vol. 1 (1), July 1933, p. 2.

[9] Killingray, „To do something for the race”, p. 57.

[10] BL: Moody, Harold: Editorial, in: The Keys, Vol. 1 (1), July 1933, p. 2.

[11] Rush, Anne Spry: Imperial Identity in Colonial Minds: Harold Moody and the League of Coloured Peoples, 1931-50, in: Twentieth Century British History, Oxford, 2002, Vol. 13. (4), p. 356-383, p. 366.

[12] Whittall, Daniel: “In this Metropolis of the World We Must Have a Building Worthy of Our Great People”: Race, Empire and Hospitality in Imperial London, 1931–1948, in: Rosenhaft, Eve, Aitken, Robbie (Eds.): Africa in Europe: Studies in Transnational Practice in the Long Twentieth Century, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2014, p. 76-96, p. 88-89.

[13] Killingray, „To do something for the race”, p. 53.

[14] Rush, Imperial Identity in Colonial Minds, p. 373.

[15] Macdonald, Roderick J.: Dr. Harold Arundel Moody and the League of Coloured Peoples, 1931-1947: A Retrospective View, in: Race, Vol. 14 (3), London, 1973, p. 291-310, p. 297.

[16] Derrick, Jonathan: Africa´s Agitators: Militant Anti-Colonialism in Africa and the West, 1918-1939, London, Hurst & Co., 2008, p. 310, Macdonald, p. 294.

[17] BL: Padmore, George: Notes and Comments, in: Negro Worker, Vol. 3 (8), August 1933, p. 9-17.

[18] Adi, Hakim, Sherwood, Marika: Harold Moody, in: Pan-African History: Political figures from Africa and the Diaspora since 1787, London, Routledge, 2003, p. 135-137, p. 134-135.

[19] The National Archives (hereafter TNA): CO371/40824, Charter for Coloured Peoples, 27. April, 1944.

[20] BL: Padmore, George, Cunard, Nancy: The White Man´s Duty: An Analysis of the Colonial Question in Light of the Atlantic Charter, W.H. Allen & Co., London, 1942.

[21] The National Archives (hereafter TNA): CO371/40824, Charter for Coloured Peoples, 27. April, 1944.

[22] Whittall, Daniel: “In this Metropolis”, p. 91-93.

[23] Ibid., p. 96.

[24] Webb, Clive: Harold Moody’s Fight for Racial Equality, in: History Today, London, 2021, Vol. 71 (1).

[25] Kristensen, Charlot: Celebrating Dr. Harold Moody, <https://www.google.com/doodles/celebrating-dr-harold-moody> (last visited on 7. January 2021).

Cite this blog post
Simeon Marty (2022, January 24). Harold Moody and the League of Coloured Peoples: interracial “harmony” and colonial critique. The London Moment. Retrieved June 13, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/onnb

Simeon Marty

I am a PhD student at the Department of History of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and member of the research project “The London Moment”. After completing my B.A. in History (major) and Science of Religion (minor) at the Universities Fribourg and Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne in 2016, I recently graduated from King’s College London with a master’s degree in World History and Cultures. My M.A. thesis “The mouse that roared: The Anguillan secessionist movement and British policy making in the decolonisation of the Anglophone Caribbean, 1966-1971” explores the interconnection between cultural stereotypes in post-war British administration and policy making in the process of decolonisation. In my PhD Project, I will explore the transnational networks that have been established by non-Europeans, especially anti-colonial and Pan-African movements, in London during the Second World War. This research hopes to uncover to what extent the “London Moment” with its extraordinarily high concentration of political groupings and international political actors offered new perspectives for anti-colonial activists and intellectuals in the formulation of social and political alternatives. In a broader sense, it will examine how this has contributed to the manifold processes of decolonisation that followed shortly afterwards.

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