Black History Month 2022 – Reflections from RCPsych Chief Executive Paul Rees
26 October, 2022
As part of our celebration of Black History Month 2022, the College’s Chief Executive, Paul Rees, has written this blog post about the shocking discrimination his father experienced in the 1960s and 1970s, his father’s career – and what he thinks of society now.
When my wife Sue and I went out for lunch with my father, Ranga (pictured), in Oxford, on 2 October – the first Sunday of Black History Month – he told us a string of stories that painted a bleak picture of what it was like to be black in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s.
As a newly qualified solicitor, he was once barred from entering a police station to see a client, who had been arrested, because the police officers did not believe he was a solicitor.
After questioning him for around an hour and phoning the Law Society to check that he really was a solicitor they finally let him through. As he left, one officer apologised to him, saying:
“We didn’t think people like you could be solicitors.”
When he arrived in the UK, from Zimbabwe, in the late 1960s, my father found it difficult to find somewhere to live because so many flats, that were available to rent, had signs saying “Sorry. No coloureds. No Irish. No dogs.”
It was often hard going shopping as well, as many stores had similar signs at the entrance.
Defending others against injustice
When he qualified in 1974, my father was only the third black solicitor in the UK and due to his experiences he soon became one of the main solicitors representing black people who had been accused of crimes by the police.
Often his clients were wrongly charged.
One such person was Winston Silcott, who was falsely convicted for the tragic murder of PC Keith Blakelock at the Tottenham riot of 1985, which blew up after a black woman, Cynthia Jarrett, died during a police search of her property.
Winston Silcott was no angel and has a string of serious convictions.
However, he was nowhere near the scene of the killing of PC Blakelock and along with two other men – Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite – was fitted up for the murder of PC Blakelock.
In November 1991, the conviction of all three individuals was quashed after scientific tests showed the men’s confessions had been fabricated.
My father worked with the Commission for Racial Equality on cases such as this – and also represented a number of white people who were discriminated against, for instance people trying to get a job in London who were turned down because they were from Northern Ireland or had a Birmingham accent.
His determination to ensure justice for people facing racial discrimination was fired by the example set by his father, Chikanga, who was one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in Zimbabwe.
At the time, Zimbabwe was known as Rhodesia and was led by racist Prime Minister Ian Smith, who ran a government that, like the government in South Africa, was openly discriminatory against black people and limited their rights and freedoms.
At one point, Chikanga was a senior member of the African National Congress (ANC) which battled to end apartheid in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and included people such as Nelson Mandela.
Being one of the leaders of the fight against the repressive regime of Ian Smith meant that he always ran the risk of being taken to task by the authorities.
And at one point he was imprisoned for four years for trying to bring down the state.
In the end – after the death of 20,000 people in an on-going civil war – the regime of Ian Smith was brought down and apartheid in Zimbabwe was ended.
When Chikanga died in 1992, he was buried as a ‘national hero’ and there was a day of national mourning.
‘Still discrimination – but society has been transformed’
On the way back home from the pub in Oxford, my father said that while there still is discrimination in the UK, he feels our society has been transformed. He said:
“The key difference now is that everyone knows there are laws against being racist – and also people talk openly about racism and why it is wrong, for instance with the Kick it Out and No Room for Racism campaigns in football.
“Also, back in those days we didn’t have anything like Black History Month.”
More about Black History Month
Read more about the College’s celebrations of Black History Month including more blog posts, and the opportunity to attend our special webinar today (27 October): Proud to be me: my journey, my learning.
This blog post was included in our October 2022 eNewsletter.
Black History Month
At the College, we believe it's important to recognise and celebrate the diverse past, present and future of the College as well as the contributions of our Black psychiatrists to mental health.