Chief Ladipo Solanke was born in the Yoruba town of Abeokuta, Nigeria around 1886. He was the second child and only son of Adeyola Ejiwunmi and her husband, who had adopted the name of Paley from the Scottish missionary who had raised him. He was educated at St Andrew’s Training Institution, Oyo, Nigeria, and at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1922. Later that year he travelled to England, completed his legal studies at University College, London (1923–8), was temporarily employed as a teacher of Yoruba at London University, and subsequently qualified as a barrister.
Solanke’s experiences of poverty and racism inspired him to organize other Nigerian students in Britain, and with the assistance of Amy Ashwood Garvey he formed the Nigerian Progress Union in London in 1924. In 1925 Solanke and Dr Bankole-Bright founded the West African Students’ Union (WASU) in London. Under Solanke’s leadership WASU became the main social, cultural, and political focus for west Africans in Britain for the next twenty-five years. It served as a training ground for many future political leaders, and played an important role agitating for an end to colonial rule in Britain’s west African colonies.
Solanke became one of the main propagandists of WASU, and in 1927 published United West Africa at the Bar of the Family of Nations, a demand for the recognition of equal political rights for Africans. Throughout his life he wrote many letters and articles demanding self-government for the west African colonies, especially Nigeria, and essays on traditional Yoruba institutions and culture. He was the first person to make a radio broadcast in Yoruba in June 1924, and, styling himself Omo Lisabi, made some of the first Yoruba records for Zonophone in 1926. In 1945 in Nigeria he was awarded the Yoruba chieftancy title atobatele of Ijeun.
Solanke was at the forefront of WASU’s attempts to establish a hostel for west African students in London. Between 1929 and 1932 he embarked on a fund-raising tour of west Africa, and became the warden of the WASU hostel that was opened in Camden Town in 1933. He returned to Britain with his future wife, whom he married in 1932, Opeolu, née Obisanya (b. 1910), the first matron of the hostel and mother of his three children. As a result of this tour, WASU branches were formed throughout the region, and Solanke and WASU were able to establish significant political contacts with anti-colonial forces in west Africa, and provide the link between them and the anti-colonial movement in Britain. Solanke also completed a further fund-raising tour of west Africa during 1944–8, prior to the opening of WASU’s third London hostel at Chelsea Embankment in 1949.
Solanke’s activities on behalf of WASU periodically brought him into conflict with the Colonial Office and sometimes with other black leaders in Britain. However, as WASU secretary-general, he was also able to establish the union as a significant anti-colonial and anti-racist organization in Britain. During the Second World War Solanke established closer relations between WASU and several leading members of the Labour Party’s Fabian Colonial Bureau, including Reginald Sorensen, who subsequently became godfather to one of his children. As a result of these links a west African parliamentary committee was established, with Labour MPs as members, that enabled WASU to act as a more effective parliamentary pressure group.
During the 1950s, due to political differences within WASU, Solanke was gradually marginalized from the central role he had once enjoyed. He continued to run a student hostel in London and formed his own breakaway organization, WASU Un-incorporated, which he led until his death from lung cancer at the National Temperance Hospital, St Pancras, London, on 2 September 1958. His funeral and burial took place on 6 September at Great Northern London cemetery, Southgate.