Sarah White, GPI Founding Trustee, Turns Eighty

April 5, 2021

On the occasion of her 80th birthday, some of the GPI’s Trustees and staff would like to pay tribute to Dr Sarah White, the woman who has been the backbone of so much that we have achieved over many decades.

The GPI’s chair, Roxy Harris, says:

Sarah is 80! It’s hard to believe. Sarah has maintained unwavering energy and commitment to supporting the forwarding of Black British history and culture, and the struggle for racial equality and social justice from the time I first met her (around 1974-75) up to the present day. Here are some snapshots of Sarah and how she’s supported our movement.

Back in the day I’d encounter her in the afternoon walking up Stroud Green Road from Finsbury Park station to put in a shift at New Beacon bookshop, having worked in the morning as a journalist at New Scientist magazine. At other times, in pre-computer days, she’d be typing up Black Parents Movement campaign leaflets and running them off on Banda or Gestetner machines (children, ask your parents!) in the front room of her house. She was responsible for bringing New Beacon Books’ many publications from manuscript to publication. Not many people know what an excellent professional copy editor Sarah was.

The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books could not have been executed and maintained year after year for thirteen years without Sarah shouldering an enormous organisational workload and responsibility. She did this largely unheralded in the background, and without complaint. Her efforts provided the structure, reliability and detailed arrangements which allowed the ‘stars’ of the black political and cultural diaspora to shine. Remarkably, apart from also offering accommodation to some of these ‘stars’, she would rush back from public events to cook and offer hospitality at Albert Road for the inevitable‘after party’. Often, when John would invite me to join him for hours of discussions at their house with some visiting international political or literary luminary, Sarah would appear from time to time to offer refreshments then disappear self-effacingly. I always felt bad about that Sarah - sorry!

In the George Padmore Institute years, Sarah has been the indispensable background day-today glue, holding things together across a range of administrative functions — financial,archive and volunteer management, funding applications, organising of public events and many others. In 1991 Sarah and I organised, edited and published a tribute to John La Rose to mark the tenth anniversary of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. The book of tributes was entitled Foundations of a Movement. In my own piece on John, I wrote the following:

I once heard C.L.R. James say that when he and George Padmore were in London during the 1930s, organising and agitating for the emancipation of Africa, they were greatly assisted in their work by white British middle class women. I can’t help feeling that John’s partner Sarah is in this tradition. It is easy, because of her down-to-earth, unassuming personality, to overlook her astonishing, exemplary, sustained sheer hard work in support of all John’s endeavours; including throwing open her home to writers, artists and political activists and their families from all around the world.

In the thirty years since then, nothing has happened to change my view. Happy 80th Birthday Sarah! Thank you for everything.

Linton Kwesi Johnson:

Best wishes on your birthday, Sarah. It is gratifying to know that, as we celebrate your 80th year, the George Padmore Institute is in a good place. Thank you for your clear sighted, level headed stewardship that has steered us to where we are now. Thank you for your unstinting commitment to the realisation of John’s vision and our collective endeavour. Thank you for your generous patronage. Time to take it a bit easier now.

Chris Moffat:

Sarah’s kindness and generosity has been a constant feature of my time with the GPI, first as a volunteer and later as a Trustee. She is always encouraging, a wonderful collaborator, and with her calm confidence and focused eye, makes so much of the GPI’s work possible. Her ethic of care has been deeply embedded in how the GPI functions as an institution — we all learn so much from Sarah and yet she always insists she is learning from us! So, I am very grateful for this excuse to celebrate Sarah: I hope she can shake off some of that humility today and enjoy the warmth and admiration which she truly deserves.

Sharmilla Beezmohun:

In 1995 I attended the last International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. It was apparent that an army of volunteers behind the scenes ensured that the book fair ran smoothly, but it was only when I started working at the GPI a couple of years later that I realised the person leading that invisible volunteer effort was Sarah White. And that’s been the case in practically everything that she’s been involved in before and since, helping to fight for racial equality and social justice. From her, I’ve learned so much — from how to write funding applications to deciphering John La Rose’s spider-like writing! Now, years later, as a GPI Trustee, I feel honoured to sit beside her as we continue the struggle. Happy 80th birthday to one of the most inspiring women I have the privilege to know.

From GPI Staff

Nicole-Rachelle Moore:

Sarah White is often the personification of quiet fire’. No dramatic, overwhelming flames, but consistent, steady light. Her decades’ long involvement in various campaigns/struggles has spoken to an ethos of collective social justice activism. Now at this significant juncture, Sarah’s energetic and enthusiastic commitment to the work of the GPI belies a woman embarking on her 80th year! Sarah W: many congratulations on this very special milestone. May you continue to shine brightly! Happy Birthday!

Teresa Palmiero:

It’s an inspiration working with Sarah White. Her encouragement and support have been invaluable, and her dedication to John's memory and legacy is truly touching. Happy eightieth birthday.

Credit: George Padmore Institute