In our continuing series on capturing Grenadian images and the category of faces we look at – David Pitt.
By Ric Greaves 3 Oct 2013
David Thomas Pitt (1913-1994)
Grenadian, Caribbean, General Practitioner; Politician; UK Labour Peer; UK Civil Rights Leader.
L-R: David Michael, Lord David Pitt of Hampstead, Hon. Herbert A. Blaize, late Prime Minister of Grenada, Carriacou & Petite Martinique.
David Pitt was born in St David’s, Grenada on the 3rd of October 1913 the son of headteacher Cyril S. L. Pitt [and ———] and was educated Grenada Boys’ Secondary School.
David Pitt first visited Britain in 1929 when he was 15, representing Grenada at a scout jamboree. Three years later he returned to take up one of the rare Island Scholarships, allowing him to study as a medical student at Edinburgh University in southern Scotland.
This was in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s and in the working-class slum districts of Edinburgh, as a young man that Davis Pitt realised that the effects of poverty, on people’s health and quality of life, were the same everywhere—in the slums of Scotland’s capital or the villages of Grenada. This was the beginnings of his long and effective career, combining general medical practice and politics and he would become a socialist and joined the British Labour Party as a student. Racial discrimination was rampant and this urged him to joined the League of Coloured Peoples founded in 1931 by Dr. Harold Moody, and supported the cause of anti-colonial sweeping the English-speaking Caribbean.
After qualifying with distinction (MB, ChB) in 1938 he returned to the Caribbean and after junior appointments in St Vincent and then two years as a government employee at the San Fernando Hospital he established a general practice in San Fernando, Trinidad between 1941 and 1947. Whilst there he met and married 1943 Dorothy Elaine Alleyne and they had three children.
During this very short period he became somewhat prominent in West Indian politics. He was elected to the San Fernando Borough Council in 1941 and formed the West Indian National Party (WINP) late in 1942, though it didn’t become really active until 1944-45. It was a South-based, socialist party, with a programme that was radical for the early 1940s: eventual Independence for a West Indian Federation, immediate self-government for Trinidad and Tobago, and eventual state ownership of the oil industry. Politicians like Roy Joseph, Albert Gomes and Quintin O’Connor joined it.
World War two was still raging, but it was becoming clear that at war’s end, Trinidad and Tobago would be granted adult suffrage—everyone over 21 can vote—and greater powers for the elected members of the Legislative Council.
Once the war ended in 1945, everyone began gearing up for the elections of 1946, the first under adult suffrage. As as Deputy Mayor in 1946-47 and being one of the founders and leader of the West Indian National Party, he sought Commonwealth status for a Federation of the West Indies. Pitt’s WINP joined with other left-wing groups to contest as the United Front. Three of its members won seats—Joseph, Gomes and Patrick Solomon—but Pitt was defeated by the Victoria County seat; a constituency which had a majority of rural Indo-Trinidadians, mostly Hindus, for which Ranjit Kumar had used his birth in India, and fluency in Hindi, to great advantage.
In 1947 disillusioned at the results of the 1946 elections and his defeat David Pitt decided to return to England, where he lived for the rest of his life.
In Britain, David Pitt was a successful and popular doctor, with a practice in North Gower Street, London and built up a busy, singlehanded practice which he would run for the next 30 years.
But he also soon engaged in Labour Party politics in St Pancras promoting the cause of immigrants throughout Britain and at the Labour Party conference in 1958 he was an impressive and mature man already deeply immersed in the struggles around race and human rights both in Britain and abroad.
“Some black people regard me as an Uncle Tom,” David Pitt once said, “while some whites regard me as a Black Power revolutionary. So I imagine I got it about right. You can’t hold these two views at the same time,” he said. “If we believe in outlawing racial discrimination at home we can’t do it by saying `Keep them out’.” “People would have got to know me. My colour would have been less significant.” “You can’t campaign against injustice here and ignore what is happening elsewhere,” he said. “It is all part and parcel of the same struggle.“
He campaigned twice for a seat in the House of Commons, adopted as Labour parliamentary candidate for Hampstead in 1959 (the first person of African descent to stand for a Commons seat) and again at Clapham in 1970. He failed to win either seat in campaigns clouded by racial overtones and he did not run for Parliament again.
David Pitt emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as a leading campaigner for racial justice in Britain and abroad. He co-founded the Anti-Apartheid Movement, to fight against apartheid in South Africa; and in 1965 he founded the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), to fight for racial justice in Britain, the later playing a crucial role in lobbying for the Race Relations Acts of 1968 and 1976.
On 21 March 1961 the then London Evening Times carried the following report:
Doctor Tells of Blaze: A baronet and two other men were alleged at Clerkenwell today to have been among a party of men who set fire to the offices of the Anti Apartheid Movement in Gower Street, Bloomsbury. On the 4th of March, the Anti Apartheid Movement had organised a March from Great Russell Street to Hyde Park to begin at 4pm. At 4.30pm a group of men drove up to the house, several of them went to the door and obtained entry by a trick. They then went down to the basement where the offices of these organisations are and they set fire to it. Dr David Pitt, a coloured man, said he had a surgery and waiting room on the ground floor of the premises.
He was made president of Campaign against Racial Discrimination in 1965, member of the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants for 1965 to 1967 and deputy chairman of Community Relations Commission 1968-77. Meanwhile he was successful London Labour Party politics winning and holding for 16 years a London County Council/Greater London Council seat for Hackney, becoming chairman of the council in 1974-75. He was also a magistrate for several years.
He has been given credit as the driving force behind UK’s 1976 Race Relations Act which set up the Commission for Racial Equality to enforce it and it remained the standard for ensuring good race relations, prosecuting racism in the courts and judging whether employees had been discriminated against for the next 24 years until the Amendment in 2000.
Awarded honorary degrees by universities of West Indies, Bradford, Bristol, Hull, and Shaw University (North Carolina). Awarded Order of the Trinity Cross (Trinidad and Tobago) 1976. Made president of BMA 1985-6 and appointed deputy lieutenant of Greater London 1988.
Although not the first peer of Caribbean decent (that was Trinidadian Learie Constantine, ennobled in 1969), in recognition of his status, the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson of the Labour government made him a life peer (a lord) on the 3rd of February 1975 – and on the 10th of February 1975 at 2:30pm David Thomas Pitt, Esquire, having been created Baron Pitt of Hampstead, of Hampstead in Greater London and Hampstead in Grenada, for life was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Morris of Kenwood and the Baroness Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe.
He took the title Lord Pitt of Hampstead from both his London Parliamentary seat he tried winning in 1959, and the village in Grenada where he was born. As a member of the House of Lords for nearly 20 years, Pitt attended regularly and spoke often on causes dear to his heart.
An honour he greatly cherished was his election for his year 1985-86 as head of the British Medical Association, the first Caribbean, black person, and few GPs (ordinary family doctors), to hold this prestigious post.
Some felt that by accepting a seat in the House of Lords David Pitt was “joining the establishment and deserting his fellow immigrants”. But in the house he always spoke eloquently and often passionately on behalf of ethnic and other disadvantaged groups. He quickly made friends with peers of all political persuasions, effectively disarming much lurking prejudice.
For 12 years he managed to combine running a singlehanded practice of 2000 patients during the day with politics and official duties in the evenings. Despite his heavy political commitments he was a listening general practitioner.
David Pitt was more proud of his election as president of the BMA than of any of his other achievements – including his peerage. During and after his presidential year his speeches seemed to become more authoritative and incisive, though never lacking the humour and courtesy which was always his style. The seat in the House of Lords refreshment room from which he held court to a continuous stream of friends, relatives, and distinguished visitors from the Commonwealth almost every evening of the parliamentary year now seems strangely empty.
He was wonderful company. He loved people and they loved him. He held court for his friends right up until a few days before he died. He loved to argue and would often stop someone in full flood by saying loudly “Listen to me” and then proceed to demolish the arguer. Many of his visitors in the last few days were from the Caribbean; so were the many messages, for he never forgot his roots. “I am a Grenadian first and a Caribbean”.
In his final year, while critically ill with cancer, David Pitt reiterated his primary views. Racial equality and advancement was his goal. Broad anti-racist alliances with sympathetic groups in British society were necessary to bridge race, class and ideological grounds. In these efforts he was supported by his family and trusted colleagues, among them the trade unionist Bill Morris, head of the Transport and General Workers, and the media expert and BBC governor Dame Jocelyn Barrow.
David Thomas Pitt died of cancer on the 18th of December 1994. He was survived by his wife, Dorothy Elaine Alleyne; a son Bruce Pitt; and two daughters, one of whom is a consultant anesthetist in Trinidad, Phyllis Pitt-Miller.
In the same year as his death he was given a state funeral with full honours here in Grenada. In 2000 a ‘Blue Heritage’ plaque was put up outside his former surgery (doctor’s office) in London.