The Black train guard who received abuse and death threats after he fought racism to get a job
Many great battles have been fought by Londoners through the years seeking to challenge racial discrimination and champion equality. But the case of West Indian train guard Asquith Xavier who successfully fought against a ‘colour bar’ is not as well known as many.
He paved the way for an end to racial discrimination in the workplace but received death threats and constant abuse – both against him and his family as a result.
Mr Xavier, who died in 1980, was part of the Windrush generation who moved to England from the West Indies after World War II. In 1966 he was working as a guard at Marylebone Station, having started as a porter 10 years earlier. But the closure of the Marylebone main line as part of the Beeching rail cuts meant guards were no longer required and were being transferred to other London stations. The problem was that many London stations refused to hire staff from ethnic minorities into more senior roles.
They could be cleaners or labourers but not guards and ticket collectors.
Mr Xavier was refused a transfer from Marylebone Station to Euston simply because of his race. A so-called colour bar at Euston had been in place for 12 years.
It was an agreement between railway bosses and staff that men of colour could not be hired for ‘promotional roles’.
The new job would have meant a pay increase of around £10 a week for Mr Xavier which would have been vital in supporting his seven children.
He was informed about his rejection and the reason for it in a letter from Euston’s local staff committee, whose members belonged to the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR). This is despite recent progress in tackling institutionalised racism. The Race Relations Act of 1965 had made discrimination on “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins” unlawful in public places but this did not cover workplaces. Mr Xavier was not to be swayed, however.
A union official took pity on him and publicised the rejection by writing a letter of protest to the head of the National Union of Railwaymen on his behalf. Two MPs also wrote to Transport Secretary Barbara Castle to ask her to force British Railways, the predecessor to National Rail, to end racial discrimination. And sure enough, on July 15 1966, British Railways announced that colour bars at stations in London had been abandoned. Mr Xavier was offered the job with his pay backdated to May, the month when he had been originally rejected At a hectic news conference, British Railways spokesman Leslie Leppington said the colour bar at Euston Station had now been ended and Mr Xavier would be given a job. He said: “From now on no racial discrimination will operate at Euston.”
But he also tried to defend those that discriminated against Mr Xavier, telling the journalists: “What I want to emphasise is that staff representatives at Euston were not really anti-colour, so much as pro-white and pro-fellow railwaymen.”
All was not settled, however. Jeff Crawford, secretary of the London West Indian Standing Conference, issued a statement saying that the decision didn’t mean discrimination on the railways was over or would even be reduced.
The campaign group demanded the Government should conduct a full inquiry into whether a colour bar still existed in British Railways. And when Mr Xavier turned up for work on his first day, The Daily Mirror reported he had a pile of threatening letters waiting for him. He told journalists he’d had to ask for police protection for him and his seven children because of the number of threats he’d received.
Mr Xavier’s life has often been overlooked in favour of more obvious Black role models but interest has sparked again recently, especially in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2016, a plaque marking the 50th anniversary of Mr Xavier’s victory was unveiled at Euston station. Then in 2020, a Blue Plaque was unveiled at his home in Chatham, Kent, to celebrate his achievements on what would have been his 100th birthday. But in July 2020, his granddaughter, Camealia Xavier-Chihota, said his story had been “omitted from the national curriculum”. She added: “I don’t think people in Chatham know about him. I think he’s such a positive example, and one we really need at the moment.”
His grandson, Jerome Xavier, believes the abuse he suffered was a contributory factor to his untimely death at the age of 59 and the reason why he moved his family out of London to Medway, Kent, in 1972. He told KentOnline in 2020: “I’ve heard from my family what sort of person he was. He was a man of integrity, well-principled and hard working. He knew wrong from right and was a stickler for rules.
“He was very fit, walked everywhere, but then he had a stroke. “I don’t think he went out much in Chatham because he was working so hard and then because of his ill health. “Also, it was the 1970s and there weren’t many coloured people here and he would get a few strange looks.” Camealia added: “He would not have talked about the death threats to protect his family. “It was only in 2006 to mark the 50th anniversary that it came to light. He paved the way for us.