Queer Places:
Clapham South Station, Balham Hill, London SW12 9DU, UK

Ivor Gustavus Cummings (December 10, 1913 - October 17, 1992) was a British civil servant[1] of Sierra Leonean ancestry, in 1941 he became the first black official in the British Colonial Office. He has been dubbed the 'gay father of the Windrush generation'.[2] British-born Ivor Cummings, who was rejected by the RAF because of his race, took on an important wartime role as the assistant welfare officer for the Colonial Office. Cummings was a friend of the bandleader Ken `Snakehips' Johnson, who was undoubtedly one of the most famous black men in Britain when the war broke out. In their book Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, authors Mike and Trevor Phillips describe Cummings as “a fastidious, elegant man, with a manner reminiscent of Noel Coward” who “chain-smoked with a long cigarette holder, and addressed visitors as ‘dear boy’”.

Ivor Cummings was born in West Hartlepool on 10 December 1913. His father, Ishmael Cummings, the son of a wealthy merchant from Sierra Leone, was a doctor. His mother, Johanna Archer, was an English nurse. The couple had met when working together at the Royal Victoria Infirmary. Ivor Cummings grew up with his mother in Addiscombe, where the family befriended the widow of the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, to whom they were related by marrriage. After being bullied at Whitgift School, Ivor tried joining his father in Freetown. However, feeling an outsider there, he returned to England, where he showed academic strength at Dulwich College.[1] The family did not have funds to support Cummings training as a doctor. After briefly working in Freetown as a clerk for the United Africa Company, he returned to England looking for medical scholarships. Abandoning those plans, in 1935 he became warden of Aggrey House, a government-run centre for colonial students, arranging meetings, lectures, dances and social events there.[1] There was competition between Aggrey House and the hostel of the West African Students' Union (WASU). In August 1937 Cummings even informed the police that two Aggrey residents had taken girls to spend the night at the WASU hostel.[3] Diligently espousing racial uplift, he was a prolific press correspondent; the merest hint of a slur against people of African descent caused him to lift his pen. He even had an indirect hotline to the monarchy through the good offices of Edwina Mountbatten, a supporter of the 'coloured cause', who would report back the King's displeasure at incidents of discrimination.

Aggrey House closed in 1940, after reports that communists had come to dominate the House Committee and that one student had brought a sex worker into the hostel.[3] Cummings himself enjoyed London's 1930s night life, as a gay member of 'the group', a set of African intellectuals in London which included the American singer John Payne and the British composer Reginald Foresythe.[1] Like these two and many others in the social and diplomatic circles in which he moved, Cummings was gay at a time when openness about homosexuality was impossible.

He joined the Colonial Office in 1941, and by 1942 its new public relations office was heralding his appointment as evidence against the existence of racial discrimination in Britain. He served as secretary of a new Advisory Committee on the Welfare of Colonial Peoples in the United Kingdom, a Colonial Office initiative to assume direct responsibility for housing colonial students.[3] He narrowly missed the 1941 bombing of the Cafe de Paris that killed his good friend the Guyanese dancer and bandleader Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson, but was on hand to organise the funeral and obtain exemption from munitions work for band members injured in the bombing.

After the war he worked to recruit African nurses for the National Health Service.[1] In 1947 Cummings visited Lagos on official business.[3] When the Greek proprietor of the Bristol Hotel there refused him a room because of his race, the scandal hit the British press.[4] He was awarded the OBE in the 1948 Birthday Honours. In June 1948 he was the official representative who met the West Indian immigrants arriving on the Empire Windrush, the beginning of the Windrush generation, helping them to find accommodation and jobs. His choice of a former air raid shelter beneath Clapham Common as temporary accommodation for Windrush arrivals lacking prearranged accommodation resulted in Brixton becoming a permanent centre for the African Caribbean community in Britain.[2] Cummings visited the United States on a fellowship, co-authoring a survey of colonial students. He was invited to become Colonial Secretary in Trinidad, but in 1958 resigned from the Colonial Office to work for Kwame Nkrumah, training diplomats in post-independence Ghana. He was posted to the Ghana High Commission in London to recruit West Indian professionals, including Ulric Cross. He later worked as a training officer for Yengema Diamond Mines in Sierra Leone, and as public relations adviser to the London-based distillers Duncan, Gilbey and Matheson.[1] Cumming died of cancer in Westminster Hospital,[2] on 17 October 1992.[1]

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