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Arnold Bertram | The fight to integrate commercial banks

Published:Thursday | December 7, 2017 | 12:00 AMArnold Bertram
Donald Banks (at podium) was the first black bank manager in Jamaica.
Anglican Bishop of Jamaica, the Rt Rev Percival Gibson, dedicating pews donated to the Kingston College chapel by the New York chapter of the old boys' association. Bishop Gibson used his influence to give black men a foothold in business.

In 1934, Osmond Theodore Fairclough (1904-1970) returned to Jamaica, only to find that 100 years after The Emancipation Act, the racist society created by plantation slavery was alive and well.

Fairclough, a black man, after graduating from Calabar High School in 1922, had migrated to Haiti where he worked as a regional manager in the National Bank of Haiti. On his return, Fairclough applied to two commercial banks hoping to be employed in a management position. One of the banks did not bother to respond, and the other offered him a position as a porter.

The four foreign-owned commercial banks - the Bank of Nova Scotia, established in 1832; Barclays Bank in 1837; the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in 1867; and the Royal Bank of Canada in 1869 - reserved clerical positions for whites and near-whites. Blacks were relegated to menial jobs.

Fairclough was convinced that only when a nationalist political party, led by the black intelligentsia, formed the government would an end be brought to the racist employment policies of banks and other foreign-owned enterprises. He approached Norman Manley to form such a party. However, it was not until 1938 that Manley and Fairclough launched the People’s National Party, and it would not form the government until 1955.

KSAC Takes Centre Stage

It was the KSAC that focused national attention on the fight against racial discrimination. In June 1938, one month after the Labour Rebellion, Mayor Oswald Anderson took strong objection to an advertisement placed in the British Medical Journal for a health officer in Jamaica stipulating that the successful applicant must be of European parentage. The meeting of the KSAC over which he presided on June 30, 1938 condemned the racist advertisement and dispatched a cable to Dr Harold Moody, the head of the League of Coloured Peoples in London asking him to take up the matter with the Colonial Office.

The white custos of St Andrew, S.R. Cargill, censured Dr Anderson for making statements “likely to create class prejudice and inflame the people of Jamaica against government officials…”. Dr Anderson responded, “I will act as a man anytime … and if my office as mayor prevents me from exercising my rights as a man … I am going to resign right now … ,” and to the applause of the gallery wrote and handed in his resignation.

Liberals from the privileged classes also joined the fight against racial discrimination. In 1939, the newly elected PNP councillor, N.N. Nethersole, resigned as captain of Jamaica’s cricket team to make way for George Headley, a black man and the first genius to emerge in West Indies cricket, to replace him. For too long, Headley had been denied this well-deserved honour by the white cricket establishment. Surprisingly, over the next decade, the campaign failed to gather momentum, despite the fact that a 32-member House of Representatives had been elected by universal adult suffrage in 1944.

Fight Gathers Momentum

In 1949, journalist Evon Blake published a series of articles in his Spotlight Magazine, drawing attention to the absence of black Jamaicans working in the commercial banks, except in menial positions.

That same year, Bishop Percival James Gibson, the headmaster of Kingston College, responding to a request from Barclays Bank for a clerk, asked for indications of interest from the sixth form. All the boys, either white or near-white, raised their hands. Roy McFarlane, an outstanding student who was black, did not raise his, and on being asked why, replied, “You said a bank, sir, and they don’t employ black boys like me.” Bishop Gibson gave McFarlane a letter of recommendation to the bank and informed the manager that depending on his response, he would hear about the matter further from the pulpit of St George’s Church. Roy McFarlane was hired.

A similar initiative came from Excelsior. H.A. ‘Junior’ Wedderburn, a member of the 1949 sixth form at Excelsior, recalls that in response to Blake’s articles, the sixth-formers decided to act. “A small group of us decided that the time had come to end this practice in the banks, and the strategy to be used was that of a test case … . Edna Ffrench … was perhaps the brightest member of our class … . [She] was the choice. She applied to the bank for a job as a teller, and was required to write the examination for accountants. She came first among all the candidates who wrote that exam … and became the first black person to work as a clerk in a bank in the land of her birth.”

The admission of McFarlane and Ffrench to the staff of Barclays Bank in 1950 was not entirely due to their academic qualification, Bishop Gibson’s insistence, or Evon Blake’s militant journalism. The KSAC again entered the fray. In 1948, PNP Councillor Ken Hill moved a resolution calling for the erection of a suitable statue of Marcus Garvey to be erected and prominently placed in the city. Finally, early in 1950, while the applications of Edna Ffrench and Roy McFarlane were pending, another PNP councillor, C.G. Walker, moved a motion in the council calling on the banks to stop the discrimination since “there were black men and women suited to fill any white collar bank job requiring honesty, efficiency and responsibility”.

Even after the employment of McFarlane and Ffrench, the work environment in the bank remained unbearable for blacks. White employees objected to using the same bathroom, and other discriminatory practices persisted. Both McFarlane and Ffrench resigned.

‘Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man’

The third black Jamaican to be employed by Barclays Bank in a clerical position was Donald Addison Banks, who came to the bank in 1952 with the confidence and ability to take on all challenges. Banks born into a family of educators was outstanding in both academics and sports at Wolmer’s Boys’ School. His iron-clad integrity was underpinned by his Christian values, and on Sunday mornings he took his place as a member of the choir at Christ Church in Vineyard Town.

Beginning as a bank clerk, he overcame all obstacles to become the first black bank manager in 1964 and deputy general manager in 1972. However, even while he ascended the ladder of success, other eminently qualified black employees continued to be supervised by white mediocrities.

Once when a black man was to act for a white manager who was going on long leave, the question was raised as to whether the furniture in the house would be changed when the manager returned.

A major factor that forced the commercial banks to retreat from its racist policies and open the doors for more black professionals was the modernisation, expansion and phenomenal growth of the Jamaican economy between 1950 and 1970 when three new sectors - mining, tourism and manufacturing – were added. The comprehensive reform of education in the 1950s expanded the black middle class. No bank could have grown without actively seeking clients among this growing class of black income earners, and it could not have been done without black banking professionals.

In 1977, when the PNP administration, led by Michael Manley, nationalised Barclays Bank to create the National Commercial Bank (NCB), the appointment of Don Banks as general manager was entirely predictable. Over the next decade, Don Banks and his team of professionals - all black - including Rex James, Jeffrey Cobham, Dunbar McFarlane, Theo Golding and Denzil Barnes made NCB Jamaica’s premier commercial bank. In the process, the bank rescued the agricultural sector, facilitated the expansion of entrepreneurship in the middle class, and demonstrated the extent to which racist policies had retarded Jamaica’s growth and development.

- Arnold Bertram is a historian and a former minister of government. Email feedback to and