Harry Goulbourne obituary

Other lives: Sociology academic who set up and was director of the Race and Ethnicity Research Unit at London South Bank University

Harry Goulbourne, who has died aged 73, was a leading scholar and one of the first black professors in the UK. A prolific pioneer of qualitative social science, he authored or co-authored a dozen books, including Ethnicity and Nationalism in Post-Imperial Britain (1991), Race Relations in Britain Since 1945 (1998) and Caribbean Transnational Experience (2002).

His main research focus lay not exclusively on the black community but on those, regardless of race or ethnicity, who shared comparable experiences of migration or exclusion, and his key interests were politics, race and ethnicity, transnationalism, migration and Caribbean families.

Born in Clarendon, Jamaica, Harry was the fifth of the seven children of Lucy (nee Mickell), a market trader (or “higgler”), and Albert Goulbourne, a small-scale farmer and tailor. In the 1950s his parents migrated to Britain, settling in Camberwell, south London, where his father worked at the Woolwich Arsenal. Harry joined them in 1959, surviving the racial politics of the playground at Peckham Manor school before being taken under the wing of enlightened and progressive teachers who developed his curiosity and intellect.

As an undergraduate at Lancaster University he entered a world of radical politics, co-founding a group called Contemporary Blacks that was influenced by Marxism and Black Power, and later organising (with John La Rose) one of the first summer schools for black children.

After graduating with a history degree in 1971, he spent a year as a teacher at his old school before studying for a doctorate at Sussex University. In 1978 he became a politics lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, which was then a hub for many of the intellectuals of the liberation movements around the world.

He moved in 1980 to become a senior lecturer in politics and subsequently dean of the faculty of social sciences at the Jamaican campus of the University of the West Indies (1980-86), before returning to Britain to be principal research fellow at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick (1986-1994), then director of research for social sciences and arts at the (now) University of Gloucester (1994-98) and finally, from 1998, chair of sociology at London South Bank University, where he set up and was director of the Race and Ethnicity Research Unit, which he ran until his retirement in 2011.

I first met Harry in 1979, and had the pleasure of working with him on a large Economic and Social Research council-funded project on Caribbean families in the 1990s. He was always generous with his research, mentoring and encouraging young people, especially black scholars. A kind, gentle, intelligent and loving man, he had a passion for literature, music and art, and was also an accomplished poet.

He is survived by his wife, Selina (nee Rebelo), an academic lawyer, whom he married in 1973, their sons, Hugh and Neil, and three grandchildren.

Mary Chamberlain

The GuardianTramp

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