Dr Harold Moody commemorative blue plaque outside Central YMCA Club

Dr. Harold Moody

Jamaican Doctor, Humanitarian and British Civil Rights Activist

Dr. Moody, a Jamaican-born physician, formed 'The League of Coloured Peoples' with 70 other Central YMCA Club members on 13th March 1931. The organisation, which primarily sought to establish racial equality around the world, also aimed to address the persecution of the Jews ahead of World War 2. Nowadays, this unsung hero of black British culture is remembered by those familiar with his work as this country’s Martin Luther King.

Born in Kingston Jamaica in 1882, he travelled to the UK in 1904 to study medicine at London’s King’s College after early exposure to medicine through his father’s pharmaceutical business. 

Rejected because of the colour of his skin

Dr Moody was completely unprepared for the racism of Edwardian London and found it difficult to find lodgings and other students didn't speak to him. Despite winning many prizes and graduating at the top of his class in 1910, he was denied a hospital job because the matron refused to "have a coloured doctor working at the hospital". Although he was the best qualified candidate, he was also rejected for the post of Medical Officer for the Camberwell Board of Guardians and he was told that he would be unsuccessful in his profession as people did not want to be treated by a Black man.

After an unsuccessful three-year search for employment, in 1913 Dr Moody established his own GP practice in Peckham. At this time healthcare was costly and many were forced to go without, but Dr Moody treated children in the area for free and opened his home to Black travellers denied lodgings elsewhere. 

Forming the League of Coloured People

In 1931, after WW1, race relations in the UK grew evermore tense and Dr Moody became increasingly mindful of the discrimination going on throughout the country. This is when he formed the League of Coloured Peoples with the help of other young, black men who were living and studying in London at the time, who later became famous in their own right. This group included Jomo Kenyatta - the first President of Kenya, Paul Robeson – the Singer, Actor and star Athlete who studied at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and world famous Cricketer, Learie Constantine. Together they actively fought for equality, with defined the following aims for the League: 

  • To promote and protect the Social, Educational, Economic and Political Interests of its members
  • To interest members in the Welfare of Coloured Peoples in all parts of the World
  • To improve relations between the Races
  • To cooperate and affiliate with organisations sympathetic to coloured people

In 1937, a fifth aim was added:

  • To render such financial assistance to coloured people in distress as lies within our capacity

The League of Coloured Peoples publish its own journal called 'The Keys'. It became a powerful medium which discussed racial segregation, work place prejudice, the ill-treatment of black nurses and discrimination against black children during the evacuation of World War 2.

Dr Moody's work included fighting for the lifting of the colour bar in the British Armed Forces, fair wages for Trinidadian oil workers and employment rights for black seamen. Dr Moody was eventually appointed to a government advisory committee on the welfare of non-Europeans in 1943. 

"Before the colour bar (racial segregation) was disbanded in the UK, before the British Race Relations Act was instituted and amended, before the Commission for Racially Equality was formed, there was an organisation in Britain founded by Dr. Harold Moody which fought for the civil rights of people of colour. That organisation was the League of Coloured People, founded by Dr Harold Moody at Central YMCA in 1931.”
Dr Jak Beula, CEO of Nubian Jak Community Trust

Although he died in 1947, Dr Moody’s campaigning is credited as having been key to the passing of the landmark Race Relations Act in 1965, which prohibited discrimination on the grounds of colour, race, ethnicity or nationality, and created the offence of “incitement to racial hatred”. In March 2019, on the 88th anniversary of the formation of the League, a blue commemorative plaque was unveiled outside the YMCA Club to honour Dr Harold Moody. The plaque is now a permanent reminder that Britain’s first civil rights organisation was born at the Central YMCA Club in a bid to fight racial inequality and injustice.

Tony Warner, Founding Director of Black History Walks, feels it’s about time that Dr Harold Moody was recognised for his work:

“I used to live here back in the 80s when I was a young man. Shout out to YMCA when I was struggling because it was a cheap place to stay. I was impressed that this black Jamaican guy was living here in the 30s and had his own civil rights group right here in England. Martin Luther King came to prominence in America in 1955, fighting for equality in education, housing and employment, but Harold Moody did the same thing right here in history in 1931 long before Luther King did his thing in America - so why is he not better known here?"
Tony Warner, Founding Director of Black History Walks

Today, most of Dr Harold Moody’s relatives live in Auckland, New Zealand, but Nubian Jak Founder, Jak Beula, managed to track down David Ball whose great uncle was Dr Harold Moody.

“I’m honoured to be the only Moody representative here today. My mum, Pamela, was daughter of Ludlow Moody, Harold’s brother. Harold was so ahead of his time and to form this league before anybody else, is just amazing. I’ve been to his house in Peckham and read about how he looked after coloured people when they had no representation whatsoever. It’s very important in our diverse society (particularly London) for people to understand what happened in the past – recognising those people who were trying to make a change. I’m incredibly proud and humbled by what Harold achieved 88 years ago – phenomenal!”
David Ball, Dr Moody's Great Nephew
“Dr Moody was a caring, devout Christian whose beliefs led him to help the oppressed in society in which he was apart. He heard the cries of the disadvantaged and as an educated man, he gave of himself in the struggle against oppression and injustice. Although he faced discrimination himself, he was resilient and graduated as a doctor at the top of his class with many awards. He was not allowed to work in hospital himself, but through determination, he went on to establish his own medical practice where he became very successful and took the time to care in the face of racial injustice.”
Tracey Blackwood and Minister Counsellor for the Jamaican High Commission

The best way that we can honour his memory today is to live by the values he did, to always fight for equality and against injustice, and to improve the lives of the communities around us.