Meet Cambridge’s first black female graduate | #WeAreCambridge

Meet Cambridge’s first black female graduate | #WeAreCambridge

October 18, 2019 1 By Stanley Isaacs


My mother was Gloria Cumper. She was
born in Jamaica 1922 as Gloria Carpenter. She came to England to school
and attended the Mary Datchelor School in Camberwell, a grammar school, because
teacher’s in Jamaica thought she got too many answers right, they thought
she was cheating. So my grandfather who’d earnt some money in Panama, building the
canal, sent his daughters to be educated in England. During the war she went to
Canada in order to get her first degree in law which did at the University of
Toronto. And then only almost exactly as the war finished she sailed for England and
came to Cambridge in order to do her LLB. Which she did, got a starred first,
she didn’t tell us that, we had to find out for ourselves and then was called to
the bar at the Middle Temple. But going back to Jamaica no law firm
would take her on, so she then had to forge another career and then apart from being
a tutor at the University of the West Indies and launching people like Derek
Walcott, you know that kind of artist. She then served on the
nursing council, she served on probation, she served on the library board
all of them as chair, changing the legislation but I think the two main things
that she did that I think she was most proud of; one of them was changing
the Bastardy Act, we had the old Victorian Bastardy Act, which meant that men didn’t
have to acknowledge their illegitimate children. She changed it so they had to,
it caused a lot of furor but I thought it was one of the things
she was most proud of. The second thing was setting up the family court so there was
no longer an antagonistic process of getting support for your children but
there was a court in which there was a part for mediation, there was a part for
rulings. I think those two things were among the things she was most proud
of but she masses of voluntary work in all sorts of areas and I think to some
extent used her legal talents, she drafted all kinds of legislation but I
think born 50 years later she would have probably
rather have done more. So it’s been 70 years since women
in Cambridge first got their degrees. The first black woman Gloria Carpenter,
she went to Girton College, I go to Girton. She was the first black woman
to get her degree. Cambridge University African-Caribbean
Society (ACS), we’re all here today to celebrate that and just focus on the
legacy that these women have left to women like us because 71 years ago
none of us would be here getting degrees! I think she would’ve been absolutely delighted
to see that photograph of all these students, who’re comfortably there and are
owning their space there. I think she will be tremendously proud and that she
was part of that legacy I think would also have made her you know feel
terribly proud of what she did. She told us a couple of stories about what life
is like at Girton. Particularly that her clothes were much fancier than the ones that were
people wearing here because of course things were rationed here so a lot of her
friends want to borrow her clothes. Then my grandmother in Jamaica was very
enterprising, she always sent a rum-soaked Christmas cake,
salted eggs, she sent food because she swore that my mother was starving. So
whenever packages would arrive for my mother she again became very popular. The whole
business of race was not difficult for her because she was married to an Englishman, eventually. But also she didn’t want to acknowledge
it as a major sort of handicap but it was really clear with the relationships
with my father’s family, her husband’s family that it was it was difficult and
you know there was a separation between him and his family because he married a
black woman and there was a tutor of his that told her that if she married him
she would handicap his progress in life. So you know there were these things that
happened, on the other hand she had a whole cohort of people who are either in London or in Cambridge who were from the Caribbean or from Africa who were politically very active
and becoming lawyers and doctors. So they have their own
clique to some extent that she operated within. When I arrived at Girton and you
know you’re 18 and bewildered and looking around and you know somebody
gave me a box of apples! The first assembly that we had in the library,
the first time we put on our gowns. And the mistress comes in and
she says: ‘I remember you’re mother.’ And I thought: ‘Oh god, what have I walked
into? I can’t keep up with what she did!’ So Cambridge was always a part of our
lives but it was a quiet part of our lives in the Caribbean because you
remember it was you know the socialist times, it was black power. So the idea
that you were part of Cambridge also meant that they wondered if you were imperialist. So what you did was kind of say: ‘I’m really glad for the education but my loyalties are here.’ There’s some aspects of being at Cambridge
that I enjoyed very, very much and I still have some friends from
there. I did Archaeology and Anthropology, that somebody once said to me is a
slacker option which I don’t believe! And I really enjoyed that,
that idea of looking at cultures as sort of the ways the societies live in
their environment is really interesting and important one for me . There were some
experiences that weren’t nice I have to say, you know a couple of racist things that
happened that made me finally think: ‘Okay I need to be tough now.’ But
what was lovely about it for me particularly is that there were so many
bright minds around, there were so many different experiences and you could find
people who traveled from all over the world, you could find people just coming
from a village. It was all kinds of varieties. I think that gives you
a kind of confidence in the world, a sort of intellectual confidence
anyway. And that was probably why I just decided that I could be a playwright!
Because I’d never done anything like that before but I decided that could be and I went
off and did it and wrote masses of radio dramas and that kind of stuff. I think
it’s that sense of being taught how to be curious, not being afraid of facts.
Sitting in the UL until you fall asleep over the text trying to figure out
you know strategically in the site or something But that does give you a kind
of confidence in your ability to learn and to be
curious about the world and I think that it’s hopefully that’s what’s been
reflected in my work. I decided that I wanted to write my mother’s story
because coming to live in England myself I began to see how outstanding it was
certainly within this context. So I did a little bit of research, contacted lots
of relatives and tried to put the whole thing together, initially as a radio
serial of five episodes and then publisher approached me a, Black Amber and said
would you please make this into a book which I did. I think the most important thing for me was she died a couple of years before that and so all of that was very very fresh with me and so what I wanted
to do is put down both her and her relationship with my father which was through all the years was remarkable. They spent more time talking than I think looking after us. Their marriage w as one long conversation. Thank you very much to the Black Cultural Archives for allowing us to film here today.