Catherine Ross: Voices from Nottingham's Windrush Generation

Video: Curtis Powell
Photos: Curtis Powell
Interview: Jared Wilson and Curtis Powell
Monday 09 October 2023
reading time: min, words

To celebrate Black History Month and the 75th anniversary of Windrush we have been working with the New Art Exchange and their NAE YOUnity Commission funded by Freelands Foundation. Our aim is to highlight the voices of Nottingham's Windrush generation and some of the challenges they faced...

I was born on the beautiful island known as St. Kitts in the Caribbean. I came to the British Isles in 1958, at the age of seven, with my parents. We made Nottingham home. I came over in winter, but it was not snowing. I felt cheated because I’d been told that England was cold and it snowed here. I should have enjoyed that time, really. Later I suffered terribly because of the cold, experiencing chilblains and constantly having a runny nose.

I had read every fairy story ever written and I knew everything there was about princesses. So I was delighted that I was coming to a country where there was a Queen and I couldn’t wait to meet her! I assumed England was small like St. Kitts and that I'd bump into her from time to time. When I realised that wasn’t going to happen, I was very disappointed.

The food was different. It seemed like almost every meal at school had something to do with pastry. Also chips. In the Caribbean, I was more accustomed to things like dumplings, boiled and fried or rice all served up with seasoned meats. But pies and chips were a new experience for me!

There was definitely racism, sometimes intended and sometimes not. A lot of children and teachers had an annoying habit of touching your hair and skin all the time. They wanted to see if anybody could “really be that Black” or if it would “come off”. I once tried to count and there must have been about forty different racist names black people were called throughout my school years!

Once I started to learn about my heritage, which was never taught to us in school, I started to be able to defend myself against this better. If people called me a “wog” I could tell them they’d got the wrong continent. Or if I was called a “blackie” or “darkie” then I could talk instead about my melanin rich skin. This played a big part in us wanting to set up Museumand and do what we do today. I want people to understand and be proud of their cultural background and to be able to access information about where they and their ancestors are from.

Catherine Ross 2

A lot of children and teachers had an annoying habit of touching your hair and skin all the time. They wanted to see if anybody could “really be that Black” or if it would “come off”

Against all the odds, my daughter Lynda and I set up Museumand, The National Caribbean Heritage Museum. People with civic and those with heritage responsibilities tried to discourage us from doing so. They thought a museum that celebrated and commemorated the Caribbean contribution to the UK wouldn’t ‘catch on’. It has. I am proud that as the first Caribbean museum in the UK, we’re now inspiring others to champion Caribbean heritage.

Something I'd like people to understand is that the Caribbean is made up of lots of different islands. I'm from St. Kitts and it’s a very small island and quite different from Jamaica. I want people to realise that there are unique differences between all the islands and to know not just about Jamaica, but other islands such as Montserrat, Grenada and St. Lucia. There are differences in the people, the food, the cultures, a result of how the islands were colonised.

I also want young Black people in the UK to understand and not be afraid to acknowledge their African or Caribbean roots. I think everybody when they talk about themselves should be able to give that full history about themselves.

People forget that many Windrush parents were wealthy, educated and paid to come to Britain. They were the best of Caribbean talent, asked to help rebuild the UK after the second-world war. They did exactly that but were often denied professional jobs, bank accounts and the chance to buy a home. Undaunted, they turned to the Pardner Hand, a traditional Caribbean community-based savings scheme, and together overcame the banking and other exclusions faced. Inequality remains, but as the descendants of those Windrush parents, we’re still resourceful, resilient, and ambitious, and still contributing to Britain – our home. 

For more information about Catherine, the museum’s work, and Windrush 75 exhibitions and podcast, please visit the Museumand website 


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