Eileen Taylor came to Leeds in the 1970s. Now she is the city’s first black Lord Mayor.
We shine a light on the story of how Eileen got to where she is and how she sees the future of Leeds.
Maggie Poppa meets Eileen (over the phone) and delves a bit deeper.
In all the references I have read about Eileen Taylor, our current Lord Mayor, she is always referred to as “The First Black Lord Mayor of Leeds”. Having spoken to her I assure you that, although that is true, she has other qualities in abundance. When she was elected Lord Mayor in 2019 there were so many kind words from fellow Councillors. Stewart Golton, Liberal Democrat leader within the Council said, “She is an effective politician and when she talks to other members of the chamber, she is a great human being. She makes us feel special, and it is this humanity that will make her a great Lord Mayor.” That is exactly what I found when I spoke to her. She has a great understanding of people. I did regret that due to Covid-19 I was unable to meet her face-to-face, but I will try to engineer that at a later date.
It seems we are still
fighting for unity
and it’s why Black Lives Matter has emerged. I know we have to work together
Eileen Taylor first came to Leeds in 1974, arriving from Jamaica to join her father who had arrived here in the sixties along with many people from the West Indies. “Where I lived in Jamaica we hardly ever saw an aeroplane, so when I arrived at the airport and saw the huge plane it was quite scary, but I did feel safe once I was on board.” Travelling alone, she landed first in London and then flew up to Manchester where she was to be met by her father. As she hadn’t seen him for many years he had told her what he would be wearing so that when she came through she could recognise his clothes if not his face. It was a strange meeting for both of them.
Eileen arrived here in June so she had the rest of the summer to settle in before she went to Park Lane College. “My Dad worked shifts so I was alone and lonely indoors all day.” One day she crossed Chapeltown Road where she lived and met another girl in a similar situation to herself; newly arrived from St.Kitts. They talked and exchanged names and soon they met every few days outside. She had her first friend. “I worked at Grandways, one of the early supermarkets, as a Saturday girl and I began to talk to people there, but on my first day at Park Lane I was very much the new kid on the block. I think my strong Jamaican accent got in the way at first, but after about three or four months I had a few friends and was settling in.”
Lord Mayor of Leeds Cllr Eileen Taylor with current Children’s Mayor Wania Ahmed
After leaving college, Eileen joined the NHS as a nursing assistant, working with people who had learning disabilities and poor mental health, and worked in this area until retirement. Some years later she started to become interested in community affairs. “My father was passionate about the labour party and insisted that I should join too. It was at these meetings that I met Alex Sobel (now Shadow Minister for the Arts, Heritage and Tourism) and he encouraged me to stand for the council. I remember thinking ‘Me? – on the council – no I don’t fit the criteria’, but I am passionate about people so eventually I decided to stand in 2007.” Eileen was successful at her first attempt. She decided to retire from the NHS in 2012 and so she was then able to put all her energies into her Council work. She must have made a very good impression on her fellow councillors as she was elected as Lord Mayor to serve from 2019-20. Because of COVID-19 it was impossible for a new Lord Mayor to be ready to stand in May 2020 so she agreed to stay on for another year.
For her first year the biggest event by far has been COVID-19. Eileen says, “That just came from nowhere and hit us like a hurricane. But we have been doing our best.” Then in the current year, the big explosion has been the resurgence of racism, stemming from the death of George Floyd in America. I wondered how Eileen felt about this. “These are my own thoughts not the opinion of a councillor and my thoughts went back to the people who like my father came here in the sixties because we were asked to come and help – the Windrush generation. I look at the growth of England then as if we were making a cake and the Windrush people were an ingredient. All the other ingredients go mixed together and a cake was baked. It’s natural that if you were one of the important ingredients then you want to have a slice of the cake, but to many people it seems as if we only got the crumbs, so that makes people angry. It seems we are still fighting for unity and it’s why Black Lives Matter has emerged. I know we have to work together.”
Eileen meeting veterans of Leeds
Every year the Lord Mayor selects a charity which will benefit from the events held in that year. As Eileen Taylor was for many years working in the NHS in the mental health area you might have imagined that her charity choice would reflect that. Not the case. The charity selected is ‘Support After Rape and Sexual Violence’ (known as SARSVL). Why this choice? “In my role with the NHS I realised over the years that many of the mental health problems people we were facing were as a result of either rape or domestic abuse as a child. We don’t talk about rape enough but it causes so many problems after the event – a feeling of worthlessness and being unable to talk about it. So maybe my charity choice seems unpredictable but there are strong links to the work that I used to do. I am passionate about preventing mental health problems and this is one area where we can start.”
We had already mentioned COVID -19 and I came back to it in respect of the older people of Leeds and how they are coping. “Do you know, I think about them every day, especially those who are alone and realise they must be so lonely. My heart goes out to them. We have opened many groups throughout Leeds, to support in every way we can think of. In fact we have tried to find ways to do everything but give them a hug and I know that’s what they are waiting for.”
I asked the Lord Mayor to look back to the time she came in the seventies and tell me what she sees as the major changes in Leeds. “First and foremost, we are very multicultural. The world has changed and Leeds
has changed with it. We are a more welcoming city than before and a passionate city. However I regret that there are still little pockets of racism there, mainly hidden but still there.” I had noticed looking at pictures of the events that she has attended in her year, that she never wears a hat. That’s a difference from the seventies when the Lord Mayor or Lady Mayoress would always have a fabulous hat to go with her outfit. I asked why. “I’m not a hat person. The only time I wore one was when I went to Buckingham Palace. I look at where I’m going and try to dress so that I fit in and will be accepted as one of them. I once went to an all-male meeting and decided to wear trousers and a waistcoat. When the President met me, he said, ‘Oh you’re one of us!’ That idea works.”
I asked about the Lord Mayor’s own family – her husband, two daughters and several grandchildren – and was told that they are very proud of her. I wondered whether her husband, Audley, had felt fed up when her year was extended rather than ended. “Oh dear me, no. It was me that was looking towards the year-end date and thinking I could then have a rest, because it’s hard work, you know. But my husband was the one who was thrilled we had another year as he enjoys it all so much. Like me he’s a people person and loves to chat to everyone wherever we go.”
Having talked to Eileen Taylor, our Lord Mayor, I agree with Councillor Stewart Golton. What comes through is that she is a great human being
At her office in Leeds Town Hall
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