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Jessica Huntley: 'The embodiment of black British culture'

PHENOMENAL: Jessica Huntley (1927 - 2013)

PHENOMENAL, astute, formidably intelligent and "a driving force" are some of the tributes pouring in for the late Jessica Huntley.

The Guyanese-born publisher, who passed away following a short illness, on October 14 at Ealing Hospital, in west London, has also been described as humble, caring and someone "who always looked out for others".

Huntley, 86, arrived in Britain in 1958 to join her husband Eric. In Guyana, she was a leading member of the People’s Progressive Party and played a part in the nation's fight for independence.

Once in the UK she continued her activism, mainly through the power of publishing.

Her business, named Bogle-L’Ouverture after black revolutionaries Paul Bogle and Toussaint L’Ouverture, was created after what close friend, Professor Gus John, described as “a fierce campaign against the Jamaican Government’s decision” to ban academic and activist Walter Rodney from returning to the island.

The pioneering company, which Jessica co-founded with her husband Eric supported by donations from friends, published Rodney's iconic text Groundings with my Brothers.

The book analysed the historical development of the African Diaspora and that community's liberation struggles for independence under the "new conditions of oppression."

At the time of its inception, Bogle-L’Ouverture was one of only two black publishing houses in the UK. Later the Huntleys also set up a bookshop. It became a hub for thinkers, campaigners and creatives.

The publishing house became an important voice for black authors and launched the careers of well- known writers and poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Lemn Sissay.

Sissay described Huntleys as "family" and Jessica as an "oracle".

He said: "Jessica and Eric published me at Bogle L'ouverture when I was 20. It was a risk for them and one I shall never forget. Their bookshop in Ealing was the portal to my future.

"Jessica was the heart of black writing in Britain. I'm lucky to have even passed through her shadow."

Renowned writer and editor Margaret Busby OBE, who started in publishing a year before Jessica, described her as "a dear friend", adding that she already misses her "dreadfully".

The activist, Busby said, "made an indelible impact" with initiatives such as the black supplementary school movement and the International Book Fair.

"She emailed me birthday greetings on Friday as I was in Paris for another friend's memorial. I had expected to speak to her two days later, on my return on Sunday, only to be greeted with the devastating news of her death,” she added.

Activist and SABLE Litmag publisher Kadija George hailed Huntley as an "embodiment of black British culture".

Huntley, she said, supported her through heritage literature projects: "She was like an archive in herself."

George spoke about how she encouraged Huntley to archive her work.

Later London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) accepted the Huntley collection.

Geoff Pick, director of LMA, said: "[Jessica and Eric] have both been marvellous supporters of LMA and we will greatly miss Jessica’s presence and inspiration. In due course we will work with Eric, their family and the Huntley Friends to make sure that we can mark her life and achievements in a more formal way.”

Maureen Roberts who managed the Huntley archives praised Jessica as a role model and an inspiration.

She said: "She had formidably high standards and expectation for everyone, so you lived up to those standards as best you could because you didn’t want to disappoint her.

"I am at London Metropolitan Archives because of Jessica and the Huntley collections, and since 2005 I have worked with Eric and Jessica’s collections to pass on the work of this amazing generation to everyone, not just Londoners, the world."

Others paid tribute, including the poet El Crisis who said: "Sad news, but I remember her as a pioneering beautiful radiant spirit.”

Jessica’s daughter, teacher Accabre Huntley, said her mother’s legacy is her “big sense of community, loyalty, kindness and empathy.”

Her most enduring memory of her mother is of Commonwealth Institute anniversary celebration.

She said: “It was the first time London had seen a cultural show with poetry and music and singers and comedians.

“It was amazing to know that my mother was behind such an event.”

Musician Keith Waithe, who has dedicated much of his work to Jessica, said she was like a mother to him.

She took him under her wings when he arrived from Guyana and supported him throughout his career.

Waithe said: “She fought for black people from all around the world. I have learnt a lot from her, she will always be in our hearts and in our memories.

Professor John in his tribute said: “We give thanks for Jessica’s long and purposeful life, a lifetime of selfless giving and unwavering commitment to the struggle for human liberation.”

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