Breaking the ‘colour bar’: the stories of Pearl Prescod and Len Johnson

Breaking the ‘colour bar’: the stories of Pearl Prescod and Len Johnson

Press Release

Written by: Race & Class


In the latest issue of Race & Class, Pearl Prescod and Len Johnson are pulled from the historical margins and recentred as radical agents of history that changed the shape of British society.

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The January 2023 issue of Race & Class contains two key articles tracing the life, work and activism of Len Johnson in the 1940s and ’50s and Pearl Prescod in the 1950s and ’60s. Len Johnson was a Black boxer and Communist based in Manchester whilst Pearl Prescod was a singer, campaigner and the first Black female actor at the National Theatre, London.

In ‘Breaking the “colour bar”: Len Johnson, Manchester and anti-racism’, historians Shirin Hirsch and Geoff Brown recount Johnson’s success in overturning the ‘colour bar’ in a Manchester pub in 1953 and highlight the importance of Manchester’s Black political organising. Through excavating this history, the authors explore Johnson’s role in the Communist party and its relationship with the Pan-Africanist movement, placing this history within the wider anti-racist politics of Manchester in the 1940s and ’50s.

Recounting and reframing histories of resistance is important work, especially when national narratives tend to depoliticise or homogenise such stories. Joint Editor of Race & Class Jenny Bourne and coordinator of the IRR’s Black History Collection Anya Edmond-Pettitt challenge the narrative of an undifferentiated ‘Windrush Generation’ by tracing the life of Pearl Prescod – one of a generation of artists, performers, singers and intellectuals whose contribution to the creation of a Black and anti-colonial strand in British culture in the 1950s and ’60s has been neglected.

For activists, educators, researchers and those working in arts and culture, these two articles are indispensable resources that underline the importance of archives as a ‘site of struggle’. Exploring how a cultural revolution was born out of resistance to both Empire and racism in Britain remains a crucial task.



How to read

If you have academic access, you can read any of the articles via Sage Publishing and the links above. Physical copies can be ordered on our website for £6 + postage & packaging and for simple digital access, that includes our back catalogue from 2008 onwards, subscribe at Exact Editions.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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