Grace Baxter. Windrush Cymru: Our Voices, Our Stories, Our History 2019

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A transcription of an oral history interview with Grace Baxter in Rhyl, discussing her experience of growing up within a family which migrated from the Caribbean during the 1950s.

Date of interview: 28th October 2019
Length of interview: 50:27
[Part 1] [00:00:00]
My name is Grace Cynthia Baxter and I was born in Kingston in Jamaica. My mother's name was Cynthia Louise Martin and my father was named Erik Martin. They were both born in Jamaica. I don’t really remember Jamaica, just a few little things, but nothing I can remember exactly.  My mother was brought up Roman Catholic and she was a teacher in Jamaica and and my father, he was the black sheep of his family and used to try not to go to school or anything and used to play games like going up the orange tree, waiting for old lady's to come past with their baskets of shopping on their heads and then he used to get an orange and try and knock off the basket and used to get all excited and think it was something great. So, when he used to tell us what he used to do, he used to  think it was so good that he laughed until he cried. So then he became a Christian, he was brought up in a Methodist church and then he became a minister and my mother who was brought up Roman Catholic, she decided she was going to be a film star, after visiting the church. She did not want to stay in the Roman Catholic religion because she thought they were a bit too strict, and so she decided that when she is 18,  she was going to be a film star so she started dressing up wearing red lipstick and doing herself up and then one day she was walking past a little chapel,  and she could hear singing, so she went past for a few days, leans on the wall and would listen to the singing because in the Catholic religion you were not allowed to go to any other religious church, it is a cardinal sin.  So she was listening, and then one day a lady came and said would you like to come in and that was her first experience with the Pentecostal church. So anyway, the Minister made the altar call and he asked the congregation would anyone like to give their hearts to Jesus and she thought she was fine because she was Catholic and sitting very prim and proper with her red lipstick on,  and and then as people were going up  a lady went up to my mother and she said, do you think you're too pretty to serve the  Lord, and my mother said it cut her in the heart, and she she was so upset and she said I’m going to go out and show them, so anyway, she went out and to the altar to give her heart to the Lord and dedicate herself to the Lord Jesus, and then while she was there when the Minister put his hands on her head, she felt something inside her want to burst like something dramatic had happened to her.  So she went outside, leans on the wall and then she started to speak, what is called the Holy Ghost language and ever since that she wiped the red lipstick off and decided this was something new, she was changing her direction so she didn't become a film star.

[Part 1] [00:05:20]

So then they came to England just after I was born in 1951 and they left me in Jamaica with my grandparents and then foreign people would work for money in England and send a lot of it abroad to their families to help support them, so they heard a rumour that I wasn't eating properly and that my granny was using the money, so they were a bit worried so that’s when they sent for me to come to England.
They came because Britain had invited people from the Commonwealth countries to come help build up the country after the war, so when they came, they worked in places like factories, sweeping the streets, hospitals, any jobs that they could get . Then it was very difficult finding somewhere to live, so my parents somehow managed to get a house from some Jewish people  who knew my mother was Jewish, so that they helped them to get the first house, then people came over and didn’t have anywhere to live, they would let them sleep all over the house on the settee.. We all had to sleep wherever we could find a spot.  I came over when I was three. My father come over just after I was born and then my mother followed maybe a year later and I stayed with my grandmother, who was not happy for me to leave at all.  So it was a very dramatic beginning because she didn't want me to leave. I was only three and I remember it myself. She said to me, a man is coming to take you away  and so you go under the bunkbed and don't come out until he's gone. So I went under the bunkbed,  and I could hear these raised voices, at the time I did not know I have sickle cell traits which is less oxygen in the blood, not the disease the traits, and so I stayed under there as long as I could and then I just couldn't breathe anymore, so I thought I've got to get fresh air, so I put my little hand out and then at that point the man who was from the British Embassy looked and he said ‘There she is!’  and grabbed hold of me and pulled me out and and that was the beginning of the journey to Britain.  That was quite traumatic because I haven't forgotten it.  I don't remember the journey except that I was told that my father's sister my aunt Madge was going to accompany me to England but she disappeared from the ship and we don’t know where she went because we could never ever find her so I was looked after by nursery nurses on the ship, the Queen Mary. So was the beginning and then they told my parents, when you come to collect her, I think it was at Southampton, bring a pushchair because she can't walk and she is not eating she is not used to the English food so she is not eating, she is very thin and  weak, so you have to bring a pushchair. So that was the beginning bit.

[Part 1] [00:10:05]

From what I remember they had a house in Birmingham,  Aston, six on Fenton Road. When I got there I already had a sister,  she was age one so we all lived together in that house and they started a little assembly church according to my brother, one of the first black ministers but I don't know,  anyway in Birmingham, and they used to be a little corner shop as there was then opposite us and that shop was owned by Mr and Mrs Jones and my parents used to go to the shop to buy something and they always say to Mr and Mrs Jones god, god, god, god and  Mr and Mrs Jones used  to say to them, Wales, Wales, Wales, Wales so one day my father said to my mother, Cynthia, let’s go to Wales and see if it’s true about the Welsh people that they are very nice and the place is lovely. So they packed their bags and went to Rhyll which is where I’m living now because it reminds me of the old days, to see what it was like, and when we got there they stayed in a hotel and the woman owner said to them would you like to leave the children with us and you both go and look at the lights along the seafront and all that and they really enjoyed themselves. I think it was the first time theyd left the children with anyone that you know they don't know.  So and then when we got home, my father said to my mother, Cynthia pack the bags, we’re moving to Wales and that's how we ended up in Wales, Cardiff.  They noticed the Welsh people are very lovely and the place was nice, seasides everywhere so they they were real happy there and they decided they’re going to  continue doing their church work there and linked up with people in the valleys who ran chapels up there. They used to visit our church, we used to visit their church, and my parents worked out that they can’t find anyone to play the piano, so they have a good thought, let's make Grace and Faith learn it.  My sister Faith was two years younger than me and a bit more clever and she realised if she learned to  play it they would make her play piano in church all the time,  three times on a Sunday, never mind the rest of the week, so she used the complain, said she was unwell and she can't understand, so they believed that and then my mother got down to making sure I learnt it although she couldn't play it that she was a teacher. So anyway, I ended up playing piano in the valleys to the other people every minute I've got to go in Wells street in Cardiff and then the evangelists used to come to Sophia gardens,  Their music was different altogether from church music over here, so when I became a Christian at his meeting, I copied them and would vamp it up and down on the piano, my father was not happy, but it used to bring in a lot of youngsters and my mother used to tell him to leave me alone and we used to get up and dance to the tambourine and all that. So that was how they carried on their services down there.

[Part 1] [00:15:04]

I was seven, I was three when I moved, came over to England and then by the time I was seven we were living in Wales.  I was used to being with all the black people in Jamaica, so school was different. I had to get used to their ways and realised I was different, so try to keep out of trouble and do everything that was right. My parents used to teach us that we needed to respect adults in authority so it was the adjustments to the life in Britain. How it came over to me was my sister Faith was born here. She was darker than me and I used to have to put up with, well, she didn’t take any notice of it, but I have to put up with all the abuse she got, which was not just from the white people was also from certain black ones as well who thought it was funny.  The English people had introduced black dolls, golliwogs and all this kind of stuff to get the white people used to the foreigners coming over and when we used to walk to church on a Sunday there used to be a toyshop and in the toyshop would be big black dolls with curtain ringlets and you know white ones as well but the big black ones all dressed up and then the woman who used to take us to church was black, used to point to the big black dot in the window and say to my sister ‘Oh there you are Faith, look’  and I used to be feeling sorry for my sister and thinking I don't really like it but when we were in school she used to get abuse, verbal abuse. One girl said to me one day, my mother said that your sister needs a good wash, but you’re just sun-tanned, and so she never used to take any notice, so it  was like water off a duck's back, she wasn’t bothered, but I never used to like it because I was the older sister and I used to feel sorry and wonder why people are saying something like that. And then, and this carried on to my sons, because when I had my sons this is always in my mind about people look at you if you are different I supposed it is the same thing with special needs as well and people like that and their norm is not what you are. So you’re different and they treat you different, so that I am always aware of and I remember when my son, the first one started school in the infants,  he came home one day and he said them that he got into trouble from one of the teachers for talking. So I said well when you're talking to someone it is a two-way conversation, who was the other person you were talking to? He said one of his friends, so I said was he white? he said yes so I said who do you think they are going to look at and who is going to stand out like a sore thumb?  I said, now you make sure when you are in class with the teacher, that you do not talk to anyone because the teachers picking on you because he can’t see when  your friend is talking as he's blending in with the white children and your outstanding.

[Part 1] [00:19:34]

Another time was when people over here see black men they've already got an idea in their minds how they think you are and how you act,  it’s automatic like it’s embedded in there from parents and all this. So one day we bought a very beautiful house where the Jews used to live Cranbrook Road, Ilford in Essex which is now inherited, but anyway they were outside the gate talking to some friends and two police walked past and they said ‘move on, why you loitering outside the house?’ So they said we’re not loitering we live here, so the police told them to knock the door and let them see if they did live here.

I said to my sons when they came in and told me, ‘what did you say?’ and my son the older one said that we didn't say anything because you told us not to answer back to  adults, so we just let it go and came in,  and it makes me realise that it don't matter how much people try to change things, or the government, it  is people themselves that has to change. You can’t make them, they still will talk behind closed doors and as I was growing up like you know, usually the only black girl in all the schools I went to,  and at college and you always hear some of the white girls are going out with the black boys and they do not care if they call them black or say that his teeth are shining white he’s so black they tell me straight out so I learned to sort of just laugh it off and overlook it because that's how it is.  When people see you out when they see me, they perceive you in a certain way so if they see you, like me, and the say a  black little woman on the road, an example is Susan Boyle and when she came out and they looked at her and they thought, she don't like anything, and then she opened her mouth and started singing and that’s when the changed their perception of her. So this is how people are,  so I have accepted that I you know, you’re brought up with it. So you just have to accept it if you like and blend in with the natives, but I mean I really I really do like Wales because i was brought up in Wales and I’m used to the people and they know how to talk to you and what to say to you, and maybe some of them are genuine, but you also learn how to talk to them yourself and what they expect you to say, like my sons, and the policeman, you know that there was no use arguing with them.
[Part 1] [00:23:30]

Sometimes, it's a lot of just taking it like because you know, you’ve just got to blend in with them because you’ve got to live here. I do feel sorry for the black youth, and the other thing I've noticed, which they are always debating and saying they’re going to do this and that is this violence with the teenage boys in the streets. Now I've got a big thing about that because when I was doing foster care, I noticed that a lot of black youth are taken into the care system and a lot of mixed race. A lot of them,  more than the white ones from what I've seen and I am not very happy about that because they take your children away and actually a social worker has told me this, that the headmaster said that the foreigners, they’re not like us, they don't treat their children the same way we do, so she laughed like it was a joke and I thought well I don't think it's a joke because  what did he mean we don't treat the children the same? He likes to take people's children away and put them in the care system. Now the thing about this is they take the children away put them in the care system and then the children learn to steal, take drugs and do all sorts of things that they  wouldn’t learn at their house and come out much worse and the parents of the black children are trying to get their children to be decent citizens and grow up properly, and be  respectful and do a good job and all the rest of it, but because they discipline their children more because they know they will be in trouble with the police and people like that if you don't bring them up properly and all the rest of it. But what happens is when the authorities take children away, I’m talking about the black children and mixed race children,they let them do what they want.  If you say to your children don't do this, don’t do that, they say you can’t tell us what to say because we will tell on you, we will tell the teacher, we will tell the police, all this business so the poor black children are left likey wild animals to do what they want and you haven’t got no more control of the children because they learnt you’re not allowed to tell them what to do.  Funny things like that, so I don't know what to say about that. I do feel sorry for the black children. The boys in particular because of the system.  They expect,  like I said about my sons, they expected them to do something to say ‘Oh, that's what they like’ and the rest of it, and this is why you find a lot of them, not caring and not bothering to go on to higher education because they’re left to do what they want. You have got no control over them any more, and that is a big thing with me, with what goes on here anyway. You have to live with it. If you don't and you rebel – that’s when you get problems.

As I got older things got easier because times were changing the pop scene was changing and showing black people singing with white people,  things like that. The younger generation, then coming up were a bit rebellious and they wanted to do what they wanted to do, so if they wanted to talk to a black person or get married to a black person they were going to do it and no-one was going to stop them.  And so that was a very big change in the 70s, I would say. And so it was easier, and more foreigners were coming over and I went to work in the hospital, so I was meeting all different people.  Now Cardiff has changed and is different from when I left and went to train. So it was easier, I'd left home I suppose I was a bit of a rebellious 70s one as well.  I was glad to leave home and go and enjoy myself and see what it's like out there. That's when I then started getting used to all different people because I spent a spell in Birmingham,

[Part 2] [00:00:00]

and then I returned back to Wales, so I got a little experience with people all over Britain.  I was glad I was a little bit rebellious in a way because I was able to make a choice then,  and this is what I think is good with the children. You should train them how you want them to be but then you should let them be able to go out and see the world and make a choice so that's what I did.  Later on I joined the church. I then realised that it's not just about yourself, it’s about other people. So then I decided I would host people from abroad, start a nursery and get involved in the community and families which I trained to do nursery work and then this followed right through now because at this point I am in the middle of restarting this again and doing the food projects and really basically wanting to help the ones who are more needy.

You try and get away and find your feet when you’re a teenager but then later on when you look back you see how hard it was for your parents, you see everything they did and also helping other people, especially within church.  My mother had like an open door really, people used to come in and she used to feed the beggars of the street and all kinds of stuff like that so I have more or less gone back that way because you realise that you’re alright, but other people are not, and life is only worth living if you are helping other people.  So this is what I'm doing now, and mixing with other nationalities and you know building the sort of relationship with people from abroad.  I met a group of Italians once, about five of them and they reminded me of when people used to come to my parents house and so they sent me a text and said thank you for letting us feel at home when we came and that's exactly what my parents did and it reminds me of why they did it because when you come over and you don't know anyone you could feel lost , like when you start first day at school, you don't know anybody.  That's more what I’m in to now. When the black people first came here, because the English people weren’t used to the black people they wouldn't let them have a room, it is a little bit like ‘Guess who's coming to dinner’ that film, with Sidney Poitier, but they wouldn’t let them have a room, a few other black people must have been doing this as well,  so my parents to let them in and sleep all over the place.

[Part 2] [00:04:34]

As they worked they would save up the money and as they got enough money they would leave and buy their own house and that’s how they started buying houses because the English people, majority used to rent. That was a thing of the day they used to rent and they’d be like long lets,  but then, after a while the English started buying their houses, but the foreign people had to buy their houses because no one would want them to stay in their house and also another thing when I was young, I noticed,  because it happened to one of my sisters  who was very fair and married a white Welsh bloke so if you mixed race,  If like, an English and a black person married, that was worse than two black people coming to your door. That was much worse yes, they used to say you’re filthy and all of these words they used to call you.  After years,  my sister Ruth went with her husband who was Welsh to Wales to a bed-and-breakfast because they liked West Wales and she told me that one day they knocked at one of the bed-and-breakfast houses and the woman opened the door and when she seen her, she slammed it in their face.  That was in West Wales. I think it is more challenging for a mixed race couple because they don't want their own to marry a foreigner they think it's maybe the splitting of the children, not quite being  this thing or they other, they’ve got all ideas I remember that was the worst thing you could do and I believe that's why they made that film  ‘Guess who's coming to dinner.

I do feel Welsh and I feel more Welsh than I would say Jamaican because I really don't remember anything about Jamaica, although it is where my roots comes from. If I go to Jamaica now, you know, I got to start all over because I don't really know anyone and maybe my relatives are dead.  So Wales for me is home, that I would say, and like I said you’ve got to put up with the challenges. It is a way of life because you are living here, and you know you want a good life, so you need to fit in.

[Part 2] [00:8:20]

I think it I think it's a good idea for future generations to know what it was like when we came here first and how we built up the country, which was what we came to do. The change, because sometimes a lot of black people look at the youth and think they don't know how we had it because we paved the way for them really.  I've realised  that even the English people, or the Welsh people when you speak to them and start to talk about the old days, like when you had the mangle, washing clothes in the bath by hand when you had the coal fire,  and when you bathed every Friday in a tin bath in front of the fire and they also will forget about what you look like and act as if you\re  both one because you’ve been through similar things and they will join in saying ‘do you remember this,  Do you remember that,’  so it is a bit of a common ground you've got between you. I think the young ones need, It's good for them to know how we came here,  how we built up the country, how we had to adjust to the natives and all the rest of it.

[Part 2] [00:10:10]

I didn't just have problems about looking different to the majority. I also used to have problems with being a Christian because the next thing about this is, and I remind people if I have to speak to authorities whatever, this is supposed to be a Christian country. The Queen is the head of the Church of England.  You can have problems about being Christian, I  suppose it is similar with other religions as well if you are a minority.  When they invited people from the Commonwealth countries to come over here,  people knew that the country was Christian and would accept them and be more easy-going and all that Christianity entails, so they were very happy to come in and blend in.  But what happens now is because before there was a form of godliness in the country. But what happens now is that now things are changing and it is not like before. Shops used to be closed on Sunday. Not everybody used to go to church, but they used to reverence the day and and various things used to happen in the country you used to have assembly in school in the morning whether you liked it or not. Maybe a handful of Catholics would go in another room or something, but in Wales, the Welsh language is still compulsory, there were certain things they have in place that you had to go along with. Now. I think this is where we get a lot of our problems, there's no assembly or anything similar in the morning and so no morals are being taught in school. They are not afraid of God or any higher power, there’s no respect for life. Nothing like that because that has been wiped out and I believe that’s the truth because when we went to school and you had to do  it and we expected to because when we come over they said this is a Christian country, so we had to do it. 

[Part 2] [00:13:21]

I’ve spoke to young people on the train and they will listen to me for a very long time and and even one set  of girls,  teenagers from Russia, one of them started crying and saying why hasn’t anyone ever told me?  I think there needs to be that choice so that people realise they can't just go around doing what they want to people, they need that back in the school,  and I'm very strong on that.  Even the older generation when you talk to them, they say, oh yeah, we were caught smoking in Sunday school, so we're not going back.’  They need a  foundation and if when they get older, to make a choice and they don't want it that’s up to them, they’re adults, but your job as a parent is to do that because God doesn’t say to women you've got to pass a test before I give you a  baby but people will take away your baby. But God gives anybody  who wants children and you learn to bring a child up as it is a learning process because you might have a big family, you might be the only one in your family,  it's a learning process so you know, people should instead of taking away kids they should go in and help the parents,  that's where it starts. While coming and taking people's kids and leaving them stranded and depressed and all that they need to get to the bottom of this.

They are not doing Mothercare classes any more I used to be called out because of protence and to go visit someone's new baby when I get there they are crying and saying will you show me how to bath the baby, all these things need to come back , it is just a lot of saving money all over the block and causing people problems. But this is what I've noticed all these years, after being  here. You can see the problems you can see what they have done what they have changed what they’ve removed and you can see now the problem  they are in. But they need to do something quickly before it gets out of hand.

[Part 2] [00:16:38]

My heart really is for the families and seeing what they go through and really it is so easy to solve, and this is and you know each story you hear they couldn't help it. I mean I took my young boys and teenagers to the West End. I thought I’m going to  teach them a little lesson and show them how life is,  so we got to the West End and we saw the beggars sitting along , it was Christmas time and we got outside the Salvation Army and we met this bloke called Jamie William and he was 19. So I went up to him and said ‘How did you end up being on the streets, a young boy like you?’ and then he started to tell me his  story and he  started to cry. He said I was living with  my parents in Scotland and the authorities were going to knock their little bungalow down,  and move them to a one-bedroom. So they said that you are 18 and you have to look after yourself, and he said that was the day he became homeless. So  he got on the train and he thought like Dick Whittington, London is paved with gold,  so he got on the train got off in the West End and started begging.  I said ‘can’t you get a job? , and he told me the sequence of it all, you’ve gotta have an address to get a thing and all the rest of it,  and I haven’t got a proper suit to go to the interview.  He said he couldn’t stay in the Salvation Army because you can't sleep because they go around doing things to you at night.  My younger son was all upset and everything so that was our Christmas present that year, so I took out the cheque and wrote him enough to get a suit, to go and stay in a hotel and  to sort himself a  job, but really this is not that people are just putting themselves on the street, there is a little story behind and it could happen to anyone. You could have a divorce, so anything could happen and you end up although then they take the children off you because there was  another story about a woman with five kids, and they will take your children off you  and say you are on your own.  So the whole thing is peopled fall through the gaps and the whole thing is not perfect, so that's my experience and so now I try not to judge people because you just don't know where they'd been, or walked in their shoes. But there is a lot still to be done really.