We say Farewell to Irma La Rose

The GPI was sad to learn of the death of Irma La Rose who passed away on Saturday 27 April after ailing for some time.

Irma was passionately committed to social justice and there was always something new to learn about this woman who helped and inspired many.

We thank her first son Michael La Rose (former Chair of the GPI) for sharing the following article with us.

 

IRMA ANDREA LA ROSE (née Hilaire) HER STORY

Irma Hilaire was born on February 4th 1930, in Maracaibo, Venezuela to Ralph and Iona Hilaire (née Callender).
The early years in Trinidad
Irma grew up in Barataria, Trinidad and attended Eastern Girls’ Government School in Nelson Street, Port-of-Spain. Tragedy struck in young Irma’s life. Her sister Eugie had become physically disabled as a result of a fall in Venezuela. For a time, Irma stayed away from school to look after her bed-ridden sister with whom she developed a very close bond. She relocated to East Dry River to be able to visit her sister every day in the General Hospital. A cousin who was a school inspector discovered she was staying away from school, and taught her at home. Eugie died in 1944 aged 17, and as one can imagine, this was a tremendous emotional loss to the family, and in particular to the 14-year-old Irma.
Back to Venezuela
As a teenager, Irma passed her Senior Cambridge Certificate (equivalent to collective GCSEs) at San Juan Secondary High School. She then returned to Venezuela to complete her education and passed her bachillerato (equivalent to ‘A’ Levels), an incredible achievement considering all she had been through.
Life, work and politics back in Trinidad
As a young adult, thanks to her ability to speak both Spanish and English with equal fluency, Irma’s first job was as secretary for the Council for Colombia in Trinidad. Her looks and skills led her to a job in Trinidad Tourist Board run by the unconventional Wilson Minshall, father of mas designer Peter Minshall. Through the San Juan Secondary ex-pupils organisation, she joined a radical youth group, the Trinidad and Tobago Youth Council at Cocorite Youth Centre. There she met amongst others, John La Rose, Kelvin Schoon, Carl Pratt, Pearl Nunez, Carlyle Kerr and Lennox Pierre who was the warden.
Irma got involved in the Youth Council’s political and cultural activities. She was involved with their radio station, their attempt to call a truce between the rival steel bands and the promotion of steel band as an art form. This included the promotion of the TASPO Tour to the Festival of Britain in 1951, and being a judge at steelband competitions at the Globe Theatre. She campaigned for the humane treatment and release of lepers who were quarantined on the island of Chacachicare, near Port-of-Spain.
“Behind the Iron Curtain” or the early rise to national celebrity
In 1953, much to her surprise, she was chosen by the Trinidad and Tobago Youth Council to be one of a number of international delegates at the Youth Festival in Romania. The trip to Romania was an earth-shattering event in the history of Trinidad, especially with the Cold War raging between the USA and the USSR (Soviet Union). To everyone’s surprise, Wilson Minshall gave Irma permission to make this memorable journey “behind the Iron Curtain”.
On the boat to Romania, she met young radical delegates from all over the Caribbean. Some would later become well known names in Caribbean politics. People like Martin Carter and Rory Westmas from Guyana, and Carl Drayton from Jamaica.
    
The  delegation was received in London by a West Indian reception committee, that included Peter Blackman, Lionel “Jeff” Jeffrey and Pearl Connor (formerly Nunez).
The Youth Conference in Romania was an incredible experience politically and culturally. Irma’s language skills enabled her to interact and exchange views with delegates from all over the world. On her return, the photo of her landing on Trinidad soil was front page news in all the national newspapers. Irma Hilaire had become a national celebrity. She was known as “the girl who went behind the iron curtain”.
After Romania: Politics, hard times and marriage
After her return to Trinidad, her job at the Tourist Board was no longer open. She had a difficult time getting another job. After many rejections, she got a job at L.J. Williams Marketing, agents for American Life. This was thanks to her boss Ronny Williams who was impressed with her qualifications and skills. He paid no heed to the fact that she had been behind the Iron Curtain and attached no importance to the fact that she was neither Chinese nor White, as was the hiring policy of that company. There were several attempts to make Ronny change his mind about employing her.
During this period, her relationship with John La Rose developed beyond the political. The decision to marry followed soon after. He was then Secretary of the radical West Indian Independence Party (WIP). This organisation was feared by the British colonial authorities, and resolutely opposed by the Roman Catholic Church in Trinidad. The organisation of the wedding in a Catholic Church was made extremely difficult for the young couple. They nonetheless were married on Boxing Day in December 1954 in a ceremony that was conducted at the back of the church. No wedding guests were allowed by the priest.
The near fatal car accident and motherhood
During the campaign for the 1956 Trinidad Elections, the year Sparrow won the calypso crown with “Jean and Dinah”, Irma was pregnant with her first child. She continued her political campaign activities with John who was a candidate for the WIP in the elections. While travelling from Barataria to Arima on the Churchill Roosevelt highway, the taxi she was riding in was involved in a serious accident near Tunapuna. Irma suffered severe injuries to her face leaving her with permanent paralysis on the left side of her face. The doctors thought the baby would not survive. Her face was stitched without anaesthetic because of the risk to the baby. She later had to have her face re-stitched and underwent plastic surgery. Against all predictions later in September, she gave birth to her first son Michael in Barataria. By November 1957, Irma and John’s second son Keith was born in Tunapuna.
Outcasts in Trinidad and migration to Venezuela
Due to the PNM government blacklist action, John La Rose could not find work in Trinidad during this period. Employers were warned against employing him because of his political views. Raising a young family on Irma’s salary alone was impossible. Irma decided to return to Venezuela and get entry papers for her husband. Even this was made difficult in Trinidad. Eventually the family moved to Caracas where they initially lived in a hostel. It was very difficult in the early times in Venezuela, but they got invaluable help from expatriate Trinidadians as well as friends in the Venezuelan Communist Party.
The radical couple both got jobs quite quickly. Irma taught typewriting and they both taught English. It was arranged that “Moths” Sealey, a close family friend, would help look after the children while both parents worked day and night. Eventually Irma got a well-paid job with ironically the Mobil Oil Company of Venezuela. After a couple of years, John travelled to England to study for a Law degree.. The rest of the family was to follow later.
   
Irma was left to look after the young family, a difficult task further complicated by the fact that young Keith had bronchitis.
Bound for a new life in England : The early years in London
Irma, Michael and Keith set sail for England on the SS Antilles in July 1963. The family was now to be reunited after a year apart. Their first house in England was at Nelson Road in Hornsey, with a family of Trinidadians. A few years later, the family bought a house at 51 Uplands Road which has been Irma’s home ever since, and the place where she died.
There was support for the family in London from other Caribbean activists and from relatives. Some lived at 51 Uplands Road. Radical activist couples like Vin and Gloria Bowles and Jessica and Eric Huntley. There was also support from another family in North London, Lionel “Jeff” and Pansy Jeffrey. Most of them had been involved in cultural and political activities in the Caribbean together. Uplands Road was the venue for many political and cultural meetings and discussions.
Irma was reunited with childhood friends from Barataria, Art Derry, who was a gifted artist living in Chesterfield and Corrine Skinner, a gifted dancer and actress. Irma also reconnected with Peter Blackman. She first met the Barbadian poet and theologian at the London reception committee for the Romanian delegation in 1953. He became very influential in her life in London.
Working, the separation and bringing up the boys
Irma got her first job in London as a bilingual secretary with the International paper company Wiggins Teape, opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. During this period, she and John separated. Things were not easy, but Irma devoted her efforts to bringing up her two sons and paying the mortgage at Uplands Road. Irma’s second job was as an examinations officer at the Institute of Education, University of London in Russell Square. She would stay in this job until her retirement. She was also active in the NALGO Trade Union. She remained on the executive of the Union for many years. Irma was appointed welfare officer for foreign students, especially from Africa. She made lifelong friends with students from Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana. Helping people in need was a constant feature of Irma’s life. An example of her compassion would be meeting a vagrant on the street and bringing him or her home to take a hot bath, and offer support and shelter in her own home for a night or two.
Another tragic accident in Irma’s life
In 1974, On her way home one evening from the Institute of Education, Irma was run over by a car while on a pedestrian crossing. She suffered severe injuries. She broke her pelvis in two places and sustained injuries to her head. The doctors believed she would not walk again without crutches. Irma was determined to prove them wrong, and spent six months on crutches and went through physiotherapy until she could walk again without support.
Determination not to give up on study or the cultural and political struggle
In addition to working and bringing up children, Irma continued to study and take part in cultural and political activities. Through the Open University, she doubled up units and obtained her first degree. She then quickly followed this with a Masters degree. She passed on her notes and reference books to those doing similar courses.
She was committed to the work of the Black Parents’ Movement, the George Padmore Supplementary School, the New Cross Massacre Action Committee (NCMAC), the
    
International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books and was a Trustee of the George Padmore Institute. She tirelessly took statements from parents and witnesses as part of the Fact-finding Commission of the NCMAC. This event followed the murder of 13 young black people firebombed at a party in New Cross in 1981. Irma’s work was crucial to the resulting inquest and to the information available to the community about this horrific event in the history of Black people in Britain.
Lending her support to the younger generation
Irma was also involved in the Credit Union movement and worked in a Trinidadian owned club in Stoke Newington called the Hibiscus. It was in this club that Michael, Keith and their friend David Barnwell became teenage DJs and entered into the music industry. She gave great moral and material support to the activities of her two sons. This included the Peoples War Sound System, Peoples Music Records and the Peoples War Carnival Band.
Through teaching and running the George Padmore Supplementary School, she was committed to generations of young black people. She taught the next generation of her own grandchildren in the school. Irma also gave extra lessons to young people and adults at her home. This included Maths, English and Spanish. She was in great demand to type up Phd dissertations.
 
The Grandchildren: A new generation
Irma’s first grandchild Renaldo, was born in June 1979. Five more were to follow:
Chantelle, Leon, Leighmond, Ramona and Lorenzo.
A compassionate humanitarian with a fierce sense of social justice
Everyone who met Irma was profoundly touched by her compassion, commitment, love and devotion to all around her. She loved Carnival, steelpan, singing in the choir, classical music and dancing. Her sense of humanity, strong will and fierce determination in the face of adversity were remarkable and an example to us all. These exceptional qualities are aptly portrayed in the Ghanaian Asante Adinkra symbol of strength, “Pempamsie”, the symbol of steadfastness and hardiness.
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Irma La Rose: 4.2.1930 - 27.4.2019