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Marking Black History month: My family’s Windrush Story

October 2023: To mark UK Black History Month and commemorate the essential contributions of the Black community to our society, our EMEA Black Affinity Network has embarked on a project to interview family members who are members of the Windrush generation.

This initiative enables us to delve into the stories that have helped shape the identities of our colleagues, celebrating their heritage and the narratives that define them.

Cheryl Ashman is a Senior Program Manager in our Business Intelligence Group, based in London, and co-chair of the EMEA Black Affinity Network. Cheryl spoke to her mother, Sylvia Ashman, and aunt Myrna Powell.

Sylvia Ashman and Myrna Powell

Cheryl Ashman: Since I was born in Canada, I have an interesting relationship with Jamaica, the place of my parents' birth. It's very much a part of me and a part of my identity, I ate the food, listened to the music and understood some patois, but it still felt slightly removed. What made you leave Jamaica and come to the UK?

Sylvia Ashman: My parents went before I did, for a better life. I was raised by my aunts in Jamaica and then arrived when I was 14.

Myrna Powell: My father was already living here, and my mother thought I would get a better education here. I came when I was 12.

Sylvia Ashman next to a red car

CA: Tell me about your first impressions of the UK. For me, from my first visit as a child to see Nan & Papa (my maternal grandparents) I knew I wanted to live here.

MP: Shock! Finding my way around: On every corner there was a pub and a greengrocer. All the streets looked the same.

SA: Culture shock, definitely. The fact that it was mostly white kids in school. Double-decker buses were another shock.

CA: What were the challenges that you faced in those early days?

SA: I really didn't know what racism was until I got to England. Even when I got there, I was still among most of my fellow country people and Black people.

If you wanted to get ahead, you had to help each other. For example, we had no access to banking. So, when someone was buying a house, everybody came together and loaned them the money. And when it was somebody else's turn, they would help the next person, and then they'd rent part of the house to people who didn't have a place to stay. Housing was a big issue.

MP: There were signs like. 'No Blacks or Dogs.' That was degrading, disrespectful. There was one other Black girl in my classroom. I remember one girl asking, do you live in trees in Africa? I said, "If you're so smart, you should know the West Indies is not in Africa," and she shut up. I felt the racism was there. Another girl wanted to come to my house to see how I live. And the first thing she said is, "Oh, my God, this house is so clean." I said, "What did you expect?"

CA: Being far removed from Jamaica, how did you maintain your traditions and your heritage?

MP: We stuck together as a family; we cared and took care of each other. We used to go to Hammersmith Palais, all dressed up, to listen to the big bands.

SA: Music and food and parties, and church too. We always had to stick together.

Family picture

CA: What was the significance of the Windrush generation for the UK?

SA: A lot of people had died in the war, so the country needed people to rebuild it. People to operate their factories, to build back England. A lot of people went into nursing.

MP: We were a big asset to the country.


CA: What do you hope others will learn from your experience? Especially the fact that many have been wrongfully deported due to the UK government mishandling of the records from the time.

MP: We were all part of the Commonwealth at that time. In England, we paid taxes; we worked. I don't understand how they could just say to people in their 80s, 'We're deporting you because you do not have a British passport.' These people who lived here all their lives.

SA: I moved to England with a Jamaican passport, but Jamaica had not separated from Britain at that time; we were all one. I never had a British passport.

CA: So even though you lived here for ten years, you never needed to formalize that as a British citizen. Others who arrived on the same basis–the Windrush Generation–would not have realized they would be treated as non-citizens in the future.

CA: I have lived in London for the last 17 years, and feel like I'm bringing our family story back to the UK, but your story didn't end in the UK – what happened next?

MP: We learned about Canada in the school in the UK, although it was mostly about how cold it was, and how big.

When I met my fiancé, there was a big recruitment drive to get people to move to Canada. He moved to Canada first and then I followed. And all eight of my siblings were able to move here too.

SA: Like my parents moving to the UK from Jamaica, I moved to Canada for a better life and more opportunities. I studied and became a nurse and met your father here. With your brother in Vancouver and you in the UK, I love seeing you both experience your own adventures.

2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush to the UK.

White & Case's ongoing commitment to pro bono work in support of the Windrush Generation includes a multi-law firm project in collaboration with the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit through which participating firms advise those affected by the Windrush scandal on navigating the compensation application process.