Before 1944 it was common for West End hotels to refuse accommodation to black people. In 1943 this happened to Learie Constantine, one of the world's most distinguished cricketers. He sued the hotel and won his case. As CLR James put it, he revolted 'against the revolting contrast between his first class status as a cricketer and his third class status as a man'. His legal victory was a turning point in the struggle against the humiliating forms of colour bar in Britain.
Learie Constantine was born in Trinidad in 1902. his father, an overseer on a cocoa estate, was a keen cricketer. Learie's performance in three first class matches won him a place on the West Indies team, and he came to Britain in 1923. As a batsman, so powerful were his strokes, he was likened to a blacksmith. He was also a devastating bowler. His fielding was near perfect - his performance at Lord's in 1928, where he took 100 wickets and made 1,000 runs - led to an invitation to turn professional and join the Nelson team in the Lancashire League.
He settled in Lancashire with his wife and daughter. Black people were a novelty there, and they had to endure rudeness, anonymous letters and general curiosity. But they stuck it out, eventually winning the respect, admiration and friendship of the locals. CLR James was their lodger for a while, and helped Constantine write his first book, Cricket and I, in 1933. And during his nine years with the Nelson team, it won the league championship seven times.
In 1942, while working in a solicitor's office, Constantine was asked by the Ministry of Labour to become a temporary civil servant in its welfare department, with responsibility for the West Indian technicians who had come to Merseyside factories. His organisational ability, personal prestige, experience of Lancashire and racial background made him the ideal person to deal with the absorption of West Indians to the Merseyside industrial and social scene.
In 1943, he was given four days' leave to captain the West Indies team against England at Lord's. Prior to his arrival he was told by the Imperial Hotel there was no objection to his colour, so he paid a deposit, but when he arrived at the hotel it was made clear that he and his family were not welcome. Constantine brought an action against the Imperial hotel for breach of contract.
The judge who heard the case accepted without hesitation the evidence of Constantine, and rejected that given by the defendants. In the witness box, Constantine bore himself with modesty and dignity, dealt with all questions with intelligence and truth. He was awarded £5 in damages. This decision did not end the colour bar in British hotels - in 1946 two Sikh VCs were refused admission to a West End restaurant.
Constantine became a popular broadcaster, and was awarded the MBE in 1945, was called to the Trinidad bar in 1955, and served as Trinidad and Tobago's high commissioner from 1961 to 1964. He was knighted in 1962 and made a life peer - Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson in 1969. He died in 1971.
In his book The Colour Bar (1954), he summed up his experience of Britain and the British thus:
Almost the entire population in Britain really expect the coloured man to live in an inferior area…devoted to coloured people…Most British people would be quite unwilling for a black man to enter their homes, nor would they wish to work with one as a colleague, nor stand shoulder to shoulder with one at a factory bench.