The impossible becomes reality for East End’s first black teacher

THE first-ever black teacher in London’s East End came to the classroom after a life of injustice, a violent marriage, and eviction twice with her children.

Coralita Martin has now told her story for the first time in a biography about her life from her abandoned birth in the slums of the Caribbean to starting a career in East London.

‘Courage to Dream—the Impossible Becomes Reality,’ is her story.

But it only came to light by a chance five years ago when I met this tiny lady with an infectious laughter at a church youth group in Norfolk where the 77-year-old is now retired.

Her troubled life began when she was rejected by her mother in Antigua at just 10 days old. She lived with her godmother who she loved, in a tiny two-bedroom shack with a tin roof with no kitchen, bathroom or electricity—the young child washed outside, using a standpipe.


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At six, she was summoned back to the family home. There were no regular meals, she slept on the floor and fought rejection, but outwitted poverty selling empty bottles for a few pennies and helped with her mother’s fruit’n’veg business before school.

But Coralita had a dream, the first youngster from the slums of Antigua to win a scholarship. She excelled at her studies, survived a hurricane and worked at a Christian mission while having a heart fired with faith after attending a crusade rally by Billy Graham, whose gospel message cut across every culture and class.

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At 21, she began a life-long vocation without any formal teaching qualifications.

Yet there was always the struggle to make ends meet, raising her children.

“Provision was unexpected and divinely imparted,” this God-fearing woman recalls. “Sometimes there were anonymous finances and huge bags of potatoes left on my doorstep when I wondered how I would feed my children.”

The man she says she was forced to marry in Antigua left her and moved to Britain. But she joined him in London with their children in 1960, on a promise of a beautiful place to live—which turned out to be squalid rented rooms in Stoke Newington where she recalls facing racism and hardship.

But she was thrown out by her husband, she says, and had to take shelter in an East End hostel with her children.

That was the point when her life really changed, on September 4, 1964, the day she remembers landing a teaching job in St Peter’s RC primary school in Wapping.

Her career over the next decade included two other East End primary schools, in Whitechapel and Mile End, before going on to other schools across north London.

Her teaching career has spanned the generations and cultures from tough inner city classrooms to schools in Norfolk where she taught until she was 70.

“I wanted to be a teacher since I was a little girl,” she remembers. “If you want something badly enough, you have to keep persevering, although it may be a struggle.

“Looking back, I see my life as a rose bush among thorns. The thorns are the pain—but the roses are like the joy that has bloomed in the sunshine.”

Coralita, who raised six children of her own despite a full-time teaching career, has schooled future doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs and has dined with rich, influential parents.

She has also cried tears for the youngsters downtrodden by abuse, fear and poverty. They struck a chord of empathy in her.

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‘Courage to Dream—the Impossible Becomes Reality’ (Last Word Publications, �7.99) from Waterstone’s in Canary Wharf and other bookstores.

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