Pitt, David Thomas 1913-1994
David Thomas Pitt 1913-1994
Physician, politician, activist
Lord Pitt of Hampstead achieved enormous success throughout his life both as a physician and politician. As a doctor, he was elected president of the British Medical Association—one of the few general practitioners ever to be so honored. As a politician, he served as chairman of the Greater London Council, later joining the House of Lords. In addition, Pitt was one of the earliest campaigners for civil rights in Britain, though he always maintained a moderate stance. “Someblacks regard me as being an Uncle Tom,” the Daily Telegraph once quoted him as saying, “while some whites regard me as a Black Power revolutionary. So I reckon I must be about right.”
David Thomas Pitt was born on October 3, 1913, in St. David’s, Grenada, West Indies, where he attended the Grenada Boys’ Secondary School. Raised a devout Roman Catholic, as a child Pitt wanted to be a priest or a family doctor. By 1932, when he won the island’s only scholarship for study overseas, he had decided on medicine. He earned his degree at Edinburgh University in Scotland, one of the top medical schools in Britain, where he graduated with honors.
Pitt left Scotland in 1938, turning down a job in the West African nation of Ghana because he wanted to involve himself in Caribbean politics. He initially took the post of district medical officer in St. Vincent, West Indies, for two years. Pitt then moved to San Fernando, the main oil town of Trinidad, where he worked as a physician at San Fernando Hospital from 1939 to 1941. In San Fernando Pitt also established a general practice, which he ran until 1947. While employed at the hospital, he met Dorothy Alleyne the two married in 1943.
Meanwhile, Pitt joined in the struggle for Trinidad’s independence as a member of the San Fernando council and as deputy mayor. He was also a founder, member, and later president of the West Indian National Party, which campaigned for an independent Trinidad and for a West Indian federation.
In 1947 Pitt went to Britain, along with Dorothy and their three young children, to lobby for major changes in Trinidad’s constitutional status. Two years later, after failing in this goal and becoming increasingly disillusioned
Born October 3, 1913, in St. David’s, Grenada, West Indies; died of cancer, December 18, 1994, in London, England; immigrated to Britain, 1947; married Dorothy Elaine Alleyne, 1943; children: Bruce, Amanda, Phyllis. Education: Edinburgh University. Politics: Labour. Religion: Roman Catholic.
District medical officer, St. Vincent, West Indies, 1938-39; house physician, San Fernando Hospital, San Fernando, Trinidad, 1939-41; general practitioner, San Fernando, 1941-47; deputy mayor, San Fernando, 1946-47; president, West Indian National Party, 1943-47; general practitioner, London, 1947-94; justice of the peace, 1966; member, London County Council, for Hackney, 1961-64; member, Greater London Council (GLC, for Hackney, 1964-77; deputy chairman, GLC, 1969-70; chairman, GLC, 1974-75; president, British Medical Association, 1985-86; member of House of Lords, 1975-94. Member of Labour party, Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants, Community Relations Committee, Standing Advisory Council for Race Relations, Shelter (homeless charity), and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
with Caribbean politics, Pitt decided to remain in Britain, settling in Euston, north London. There he established a medical practice that he ran single-handedly for 30 years, treating patients of all races. At one point his patients numbered more than 3,000.
In the early 1950s Pitt began to involve himself in Labour politics, becoming a leading member of the local St. Pancras Labour Party. Pitt believed strongly that racist institutions must be reformed from within, and resolved that in order to influence the affairs of black people, he must become a member of Parliament (MP). However, despite the Labour Party’s supposed commitment to racial equality, Pitt found it extremely difficult to work his way up the party hierarchy. During the 1950s and 1960s he sought adoption as a parliamentary candidate whenever a vacancy opened in the London area, with no success. He was finally given a chance in 1958 as the Labour Party candidate for Hampstead, a well-to-do neighborhood in north London. Pitt was the first black West Indian to run for Parliament. Evidently the electorate was not ready for it; after a campaign tainted by racism, Pitt lost the election.
Undeterred by his failure in Hampstead, in 1961 Pitt was elected to the London County Council (LCC) as representative for Hackney, a mixed-race area in London’s East End. When the LCC became the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1964, Pitt retained his post, serving as deputy chairman from 1969-70, and chairman from 1974-75. As the first black chairman of the GLC, Pitt took his position very seriously. “The chairman of the Greater London Council is London’s number one citizen,” he told the Times. “He should speak for London because only he represents the whole of London.” He served as a member of the GLC until 1977.
However, Pitt still had his eye on a place in Parliament. In 1970 he tried for a second time, running as Labour’s candidate for Clapham, south London. It was a contest that he confidently expected to win; instead, he lost by a wide margin. Pitt had no doubt that race was a major factor. “Of course, it hurts—or it would if you allowed it to do so,” he was quoted as saying in the Daily Telegraph. “I ignore it. But there are two things to recognise. One is that there are many people who are not prejudiced. The other is that the vast majority of those who are, are ashamed of it.” Nevertheless, Pitt did not attempt to run for Parliament again.
In addition to his roles as doctor and politician, Pitt tirelessly worked for racial equality. During the 1950s and 1960s, he was one of the few spokespeople for newly arrived black immigrants. Obituarist and immigrant Mike Phillips, writing about Pitt in the Guardian, recalled, “We felt the intensity of the political arguments that raged over our presence, and in which we were voiceless and unrepresented. At that point, Dr. Pitt was the only black person who figured in the public and political life of the country; and as such, if only by default, when he spoke, he spoke for us.”
Pitt was the first and only chairman of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), founded at the instigation of Martin Luther King. He was appointed a member of the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants in 1965 and was chairman of the Community Relations Committee from 1968 to 1977. He also served on the Standing Advisory Committee on Race Relations for many years.
Just as he campaigned against discrimination in Britain, he also struggled against racism in such countries as South Africa and Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). “You can’t campaign against injustice here and ignore what is happening elsewhere,” he was quoted as saying in the Independent. “It is all part and parcel of the same struggle.”
It was a struggle that sometimes became violent. In the early 1960s, Pitt allowed an anti-apartheid group to use the basement of his London medical offices as their headquarters. During one march, a group of right-wing opponents gained entry to the basement and set fire to it. Pitt thereafter maintained that the incident was never addressed properly by authorities. Nevertheless, he remained unbowed, continuing to support the anti-apartheid movement until South Africa held its first democratic, mixed-race elections—a development he found tremendously satisfying.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Pitt’s approach seemed too moderate in the eyes of a younger generation of radical black campaigners. He knew, for example, that his view that more blacks should join the police force would anger those who saw the police as a profoundly racist institution, but he believed it would be most effectively reformed from inside. “In hindsight, the doctor’s restraint was a typical demonstration of honor and endurance, and proof of how far ahead of his time he turned out to be,” Mike Phillips later wrote in the Guardian.
In 1975 Prime Minister Harold Wilson gave Pitt a life peerage, at the age of 61. He took the title Lord Pitt of Hampstead—in Greater London and in Grenada—combining the name of the constituency where he had first run for Parliament and the village where he was born. By this time, Pitt had achieved many “firsts” in his life: first West Indian to run for Parliament, first black chairman of the Greater London Council, London’s first black magistrate. However, he was not the first black person to be elevated to the peerage: that honor went to the cricket player Learie Constantine in 1969.
Some claimed that his creation as Lord Pitt of Hampstead was prompted by the Labour Party’s embarrassment that the electorate would not send him to the House of Commons. Typically, Pitt saw the peership not as a consolation prize or even an honor, but rather as another opportunity to make his views heard. “London is a multiracial city where racial matters are as important as housing and transport. Black people are ordinary members of society and they should be treated as ordinary members of society. I have been saying that for the past 16 years. Now [that] I am in the House of Lords perhaps the government will listen to me,” he was quoted as saying in the Times.
Pitt regularly attended the House of Lords, working at his medical practice in the morning, and going to the Lords in the afternoon. Once described in the Daily Telegraph as “worryingly reasonable and pleasant,” he had friends throughout the political spectrum. He played an active role in debates on racial issues, while always maintaining his moderate stance. In one debate on limiting immigration, Pitt claimed that the argument itself contributed to bad race relations because it suggested, as he said in the Times, “that people from the New Commonwealth are a form of pollution, and that policy should be geared to keeping that pollution to an absolute minimum. This engenders prejudice.” He saw Britain’s future greatness as dependent on the country becoming a multiracial society.
In 1989 Pitt joined Labour’s parliamentary black caucus. While some senior Labour party members attacked the idea of such a body, claiming that it would be fundamentally racist to create a “party within a party,” others gave it cautious support. But the fledgling caucus disintegrated a few months later.
During Christmas of 1993, British immigration authorities turned away a plane full of Caribbean visitors, claiming they were intending to overstay their visas. In the debate that followed, Pitt delivered one of his last and greatest speeches. “There are in this country a large number of British citizens of Jamaican descent. They have a right to be visited by their friends and families,” the Guardian quoted Pitt as saying. “They have a right to be assured that their families and friends will be treated with dignity and respect… Neither the minister nor the British people would like their families to be treated in the way in which those Jamaican people were treated last December.”
In 1984, at the age of 70, Pitt was elected president of the British Medical Association—a particularly rare achievement for a general practitioner. Pitt considered the presidency the most distinguished post that any doctor could be offered, and this laurel pleased him more than any other. He received honorary degrees from universities around the world, including the University of West Indies; the universities of Bradford, Bristol, and Hull in Britain; and Shaw University in North Carolina. Pitt was a passionate fan of cricket, and in his youth a first-class bowler himself.
Yet for all that Pitt achieved, his ambition to become a member of the House of Commons was never fulfilled. In the tributes that followed his death from cancer in December of 1994, many echoed the opening line of his obituary in the Times: “David Pitt should have been the first black Labour MP.”
Daily Telegraph, December 19, 1994, p. 25.
Guardian, December 19, 1994, p. 12.
Independent, December 19, 1994, p. 3; December 20, 1994, p. 12.
Times (London), May 15, 1974, p. 3; January 2, 1975, p. 1; January 3, 1975, p. 3; June 25, 1976, p. 10; February 5, 1982, p. 6; March 17, 1984, p. 3; April 1, 1989, p. 5; December 19, 1994, p. 20.
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