During his time at the University of Bristol, Saint Lucian politician George Odlum (BA 1959) was the first Black student in any UK university to become president of the Students Union and went on to become a leading voice in Caribbean politics during a time of significant social change. Although Odlum died 20 years ago, his legacy lives on. Below, Dr Anderson Reynolds shares insights into Odlum’s life from his recently published book, They Called Him Brother George: Portrait of a Caribbean Politician.
On George Odlum’s early life and time at the University of Bristol
George Odlum left Saint Lucia to pursue higher education in the UK at the age of 21 or 22 in the mid-1950s. He went to London to work and study, but initially it was tough to make ends meet. However, Mrs Doris Palmer’s English A-level class started to change things for the better.
According to Odlum’s daughter Yasmin, he fell asleep with alarming regularity in this class. He worked all night at odd jobs and went to school during the day. Mrs Palmer noticed, and Odlum explained that he was almost at a breaking point. He was not eating well, his rent had backed up, and he was not properly clad for the winter. Mrs Palmer invited him to stay with her family, where he lived for the rest of the school year.
Mrs Palmer introduced him to classical music, literary genres, performing arts, and coached him in debating. She also helped Odlum apply to the University of Bristol and played a pivotal role in his early education in the UK.
On Odlum the impressive and exceptional student
Odlum was exceptionally gifted. He was charismatic, engaging, articulate, witty, a people’s person, a humanist. He possessed an acute, restless, curious intellect and was a very empathetic person. All these qualities endeared him to people and made him stand out as a leader.
From childhood, his father’s barbershop was a place where men from all walks of life came for haircuts, as well as to discuss and debate the issues of the day. This would have fed Odlum’s budding intellect and served as the earliest preparatory school for a developing political career.
The flair Odlum showed in his speeches had roots in the arts. Odlum attended Saint Mary’s College in Saint Lucia, a training ground for his famously spellbinding oratory skills. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, he acted and directed plays at the Saint Lucia Arts Guild, allowing him to hone his dramatic talent.
On Odlum’s journey to a political career
Odlum was inspired to work in politics by world events like the 1950 Sharpeville Massacre, where police opened fire on a crowd protesting South African segregation laws. He said this was one of the turning points that switched his focus from the arts to politics. It’s also possible that other international events, like the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, or Odlum’s own experiences in England prior to the Race Relations Act of 1968, rife with discrimination, racism and social inequality, forced him to reflect on the world’s injustices.
Odlum came of age during a time of national liberation for St Lucia, as well as a wider international landscape of dismantling colonialism and the American civil rights movement. Socialism and communism were on the move. Marginalised and colonised people were seeking to rid themselves of their oppressors.
As a conscious, educated person, it was almost impossible for Odlum not to be touched by what was happening in the world around him. As a university student in Bristol and later Oxford, he was at the cross-current of world history and current affairs. During his time at university, Odlum was participating in passionate discussions and debating Third World liberation, development, and empowerment. All these influences, exposures and interactions may have contributed to his decision to veer towards political leadership.
On Odlum’s legacy and enduring lessons for Saint Lucia
His politics were inclusive; he treated people fairly no matter their position in life. Odlum championed the poor, powerless and downtrodden. He engaged working people, farmers, the unemployed, labourers, stevedores and Rastafarians into the political fold: people who had long been designated as secondary citizens and relegated to the margins of Saint Lucian society. Odlum embraced every Saint Lucian with warmth, understanding, empathy and brotherly love. He helped those considered the least of society realise that Saint Lucia was also theirs: that they too deserved decent jobs, liveable wages, and to send their children to secondary schools, colleges and universities.
Odlum’s charisma and oratorical prowess never failed to simultaneously educate and entertain. His message of hope and political, economic empowerment appealed to young people and brought them into the political process. These people are now in their 60s, but often say that period was one of the highlights of their lives.
Odlum wasn’t a very successful politician, and he never became Prime Minister. He lost more elections than he won, yet he was a political giant, and many would consider him one of Saint Lucia’s most influential people of the 20th century. Enlightening people and helping to break their mental shackles can be just as important, impactful and enduring as building roads, bridges, cities and empires. Odlum’s weapons were ideas and precepts, his battlefields were the hearts and minds of nations. He showed selfless leadership in his life and political career, and refused to compromise his political ideals and values for personal gain. Odlum showed Saint Lucia the importance of standing up for one’s rights and opposing injustice wherever it arises.
You can purchase ‘They Called Him Brother George: A Portrait of a Caribbean Politician’, Dr Anderson Reynold’s book about George Odlum, here.