No figure embodies the excitement and tensions inherent in the black student politics of 1930s London quite like Ladipo Solanke, founder and long term secretary-general of the West African Students Union Association, (WASU). In a career of activism spanning three decades, Solanke rubbed shoulders with countless celebrities and politicians, both black and white, and helped to fundamentally reshape the geography of black London…
In 1922, Solanke moved to London to study law at University College. A proud Yoruba from Western Nigeria, Solanke was shocked by the lack of interest his fellow West African students displayed towards their heritage whilst in London. He began to teach the Yoruba language and perform Yoruba poetry, but felt that a greater effort was needed. So in 1925 Solanke founded WASU, which not only served as a cultural focal point for West African students in London, but was also intended to offer a place to socialize and to discuss politics. In 1926 the organization began to publish its own journal, WASU, with the articles inside being mostly written by Solanke himself.
Solanke’s dream was to create a hostel which would offer black students in London a place to stay whilst also serving as the headquarters of his new organization. He was most likely encouraged to pursue this goal by the rampant housing discrimination black people experienced in interwar London, with comfortable and affordable lodgings difficult to find. The problem was raising funds, a problem that dogged the impoverished Solanke and WASU throughout the entirety of the organization’s existence. To raise money for his project, in 1929 Solanke embarked on a three year tour of West Africa, sponsored by West Africa magazine.
Solanke’s tour was well reported by the West African press, and he became something of a minor celebrity in many of the places he visited. He spoke excitedly of his vision: a centre for black learning in the very heart of London, commanding the respect and attention of the imperial government, all possible with only a small donation. This was an intoxicating vision and many West Africans signed on to the project – something that was to have mixed results in the years to come.
In the short term, Solanke secured enough money to open a hostel and in March 1933 ‘Africa House’ opened on 62 Camden Road, with Solanke as Warden. Camden was over an hour’s walk from the centre of London and the rent was exorbitant, but the hostel provided Solanke with a much-needed base from which to launch his activities and attempt to repair WASU which was undergoing the first of many splits between Nigerian and Gold Coast members. The new hostel was almost immediately popular, attracting not only students but also general visitors from West Africa.
The Colonial Office observed Africa House with distrust, fearing that WASU was using the hostel to promote anti-imperial attitudes to visitors. The British government soon founded their own hostel, Aggrey House, to which Gold Coast members of WASU – still smarting over Nigerian influence at Africa House – flocked. At first Solanke derided Aggrey House, but encouraged by vague promises of financial support he agreed to participate in a series of ‘peace meetings’ between representatives from the two hostels, after which an uneasy truce emerged.
Africa House continued to attract an eclectic mixture of visiting celebrities, from actor Paul Robeson to king Ladapo Ademola II and even Nnamdi “Zik” Azikiwe, the future President of independent Nigeria. All of the visitors met with Solanke personally, with Zik spending an evening dancing with the warden in the Soho nightclubs and eating at Amy Ashwood Garvey’s ‘International Afro Restaurant’. Visitors were well supported at the hostel by the all-female support staff, including headed by the ‘matron’ Olu Solanke, whom Ladipo had married following his trip to Africa.
WASU, and by extension Solanke, reached the height of its influence in the early years of the Second World War following a financially-motivated move to South Villas, also in Camden. By now WASU was known not only for its cultural and political lectures, but also for its social events and dances, which would go on all night. During the Blitz, as clubs across London closed their doors, WASU remained open and would often be jam packed with visitors – both black and white. Solanke greeted ever-more important officials, culminating with the visit of Clement Attlee, Deputy Prime Minister of the UK, in August 1941.
The Colonial Office, noting that WASU was not going anywhere and was playing an important role in rallying black London behind the war effort, began increasing the money they were putting into the Africa House project. As they did, however, they noted in their reports a number of concerns regarding the way Solanke ran things. For one, he drew a greater salary as Warden than was usual, whilst massively underpaying his wife, who not only did most of the cleaning in the building but all of the cooking as well. Not only this, but Solanke had ensured that the vast majority of the leadership positions in the ‘West African’ hostel had gone to Nigerians- and of those the majority were fellow Yoruba.
Dissatisfied West Africans wrote to the Colonial Office to complain that Africa House failed to live up to the promise of a central location and that the building was run down and the facilities poor. Solanke, they said, had sold them a lie – one gentleman even claimed that the warden had told him it was possible to live in London on less than £100 a year before taking that much from him in residency fees when he arrived, leaving him destitute. It came as a relief to many when Solanke departed in 1944 on another funding trip. During his absence, WASU increasingly came under the sway of a non-Nigerian group, left-wing group centred around Kwame Nkrumah and, citing opposition to communism as his motivation, Ladipo stepped down as secretary-general in 1949.
Solanke was never able to wrest WASU away from the organization’s left-wing and in 1953 he left the union following its decision to close Africa House. Keeping the hostel going on his own, Solanke passed away from lung cancer in 1958, aged 72. Although his career ended in controversy, the fact that Solanke was able to keep Africa House running until the end speaks to the level of care which he had towards his project. Solanke may have never built a hostel in central London, but in a sense he did something even more extraordinary – he shifted the centre of black London northwards, to a shabby little hostel where the dancing went on until dawn and one might even spot the occasional celebrity.