Lost Legacies

Last week, I attended the annual Black History Month event at County Hall and have previously blogged about the first speaker, Paul Crooks, who “pioneered research into African Caribbean genealogy during the 1990s and is credited with an upsurge in the interest in Black and British ancestry” (ref: www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk).

Like Paul, the second speaker, Dr Gabriella Beckles-Raymond (Senior Lecturer in Womanist Theology, Philosophy and Culture at Canterbury Christ Church University) talked about several women who have made significant contributions to social and racial justice in the UK, but none of whom the audience had heard of.

Gabriella conceives history in very much the same way I have come to:

“History is not in the dates, but in the stories and in the lessons we learn”.

Again, like Paul, the black women Gabriella showcased were ordinary people, of black women living their own lives and making a difference to the lives of others along the way.  All the heroes and legends we remember started out as ordinary people.  People like Rosa Parks, (remembered and honoured for her symbolic ‘stand’ in December 1955 of refusing to give up her seat on the bus for a white passenger) were once just “ordinary”.  However, as Gabriella pointed out Rosa Parks was one of many women who made the same “stand” and were arrested for doing so – including Irene Morgan in 1944, Lillie Mae Bradford in 1951, Claudette Colvin in 1953, Aurelia Browder in April 1955, Susie Macdonald and Mary Louise Smith in October 1955, and Jeanette Reese.  All these women contributed to the cause, and some directly participated in the landmark case (Browder vs. Gale) that ended legal segregation in the United States.  But, Gabriella says “change agents do not appear from nowhere”, Rosa Parks had been involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for over 20 years and was a civil rights activist for the rest of her life:  it is “small actions that lead to big changes” – the social butterfly effect.

Gabriella talked about the strategic, structural and personal lessons we all must learn in order for progress to be made and quoted the title of Angela Davis’ 2016 book “Freedom is a Constant Struggle”.  A struggle represented in the lost legacies of the three women she went on to discuss;-

  • Born in Guyana where she was a teacher at the most prestigious school in the capital, Georgetown, Beryl Gilroy arrived in the UK as part of the Windrush generation and became the first black headteacher in the country.  She went on to write children’s books, pioneering the reflection of black British life in literature, and later novels for adults too.
  • Olive Morris was born in 1952 in Jamaica and arrived in the UK aged 8.  Olive died aged just 25 (from non-Hodgkin Lymphoma), but achieved so much as a black feminist and nationalist in just a few years, as well as campaigning for squatters rights.
  • Recently made a Dame, Elizabeth Anionwu was born in Birmingham to an unmarried Irish mother and Nigerian father in 1947.  Having started her nursing career aged 16, she has made significant contributions to understanding and improving the disparities in healthcare provision for black and ethnic minority communities, particularly with regards to Sickle Cell Disease which is mostly found in people of African descent.  Dame Elizabeth also established the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice and was responsible for the first UK memorial statue to a black woman: to Mary Seacole at St Thomas’ Hospital unveiled in June 2016.

The real lesson of Gabriella’s talk was not necessarily these women in themselves, but the fact that none of us in the room, including those from the BME community groups, had heard of them:  “history is something we all need to be taught”, to learn and discover because (as with all history) “the danger of not knowing black history is that history will repeat itself”.  A point brought into sharp focus by the fact that both Gabriella and a member of the audience explained that they have started writing their own children’s books because the books their children were reading at school again failed to include a reflection of themselves – an issue that had inspired Beryl Gilroy over 40 years ago.

Of course, the legacies of these and other black women are not lost, just a little concealed.  “Legacies are far more complicated than we realise”:  Gabriella is a part of Beryl Gilroy’s legacy as she was a pupil at Beckford School when Beryl was the headteacher.  “We are all a legacy of everything that has come before us”, and we will all leave a legacy to everything that comes after us.  Nowhere is this more true than in the work we do at the record office, in collecting and preserving the evidence of who we all are and what we all achieve, or sometimes fail to achieve, and then in providing access so that stories and legacies can be remembered.  We deal in “histories, not a single narrative”, and Black History Month encourages us all to remember that  stories are there to be found, shared and preserved now and for the future.

All quotes from Dr Gabriella Beckles-Raymond’s presentation unless otherwise stated.

“History is no good if it doesn’t empower you in some way” – Paul Crooks

October is Black History Month in the UK, and for several years the Record Office has taken part in the annual event hosted by the Council’s BME Employee Network.  Today I was fortunate to be able to attend on behalf of DRO, and take the opportunity to promote to local organisations our collections and deposit services, to learn more about how we can support BME historical discovery, and also to indulge in some amazing Caribbean food.

With so many of our visitors and enquirers researching their family history, I was really looking forward to hearing Paul Crooks speak about his own experiences of researching his African and Caribbean Ancestry, and perhaps even learn some tips to help us support others along the same journey.  In fact, Paul’s talk was much more wide ranging and after an introduction to the Maroon Wars of Jamaica between 1720 and 1739, he talked about two women he has discovered through his own historical and family history investigations.

The first, Nanny of the Maroons, was the matriarchal leader of “freedom fighters” who had escaped slavery in Jamaica and fought to liberate others from the island’s plantations.  A running theme throughout the day was the significance and value of individuals and individual actions on the wider world, and Nanny’s story highlighted this perfectly – the efforts of the Maroons of Jamaica may have delayed the coming of the Industrial Revolution, but they were certainly an early incarnation of the abolitionist movement of the later 18th century.  (Until today, I hadn’t heard of the Maroons – have you ever noticed how the heroes of the abolitionist movement who feature in our collective national memory are white men?  They were certainly the only people taught in my history lessons).

The second woman was somebody whose story may have remained untold had Paul not discovered her during the search for his own ancestors.  Ami Djaba was Paul’s great-great-great-great grandmother.  Born in 1777, from Krobo in Ghana, Ami was sold into slavery as a child, transported across the Atlantic and died aged 47 on a Jamaican sugar plantation.  Of all the slaves on that plantation, Ami was the only one to retain her African name.  Unfortunately, there was no time today to learn more about Ami and her life, but I shall certainly be looking up Paul’s books to find out more:

Ancestors: a novel inspired by Paul’s own forebears.

A tree without roots: the guide to tracing British, African and Asian-Caribbean ancestry

Without Paul’s fascination and determination (having been told in the 1980s that no records survive that would help him discover his ancestors), Ami’s story and her legacy could have lain hidden in the archives forever.  Archives – including at Derbyshire Record Office – are full of stories waiting to be told.  History still happened even if no-one has written it down yet and shared it with others.  The role of the archivist is to preserve the rich and wonderful evidence of people from the past who created, developed and inspired the communities we live in today so that their stories can be told.  Anybody (Everybody!) can be a historian, can discover a story, can uncover a hidden legacy, can share with the world the lives of individuals who have changed our world but are yet to be recognised.

We have been raised on a British history full of empire yet almost exclusively white (and for that matter mostly male too).  BAME individuals, families and communities at worst have been written out of our national and local histories, and at best have been merely overlooked.  Black History Month is just one way of starting to put this right, but it is through the efforts of people like Paul telling the stories of their own ancestors that as a nation we can start to put the black (and Asian, and Chinese, and all minorities) back into our shared history.

Putting the black back was very much the inspiration of the day’s next speaker Dr Gabriella Beckles-Raymond (Senior Lecturer in Womanist Theology, Philosophy, and Culture at Canterbury Christ Church University), but more on this soon.  For now, I want to end in the same way Paul ended his presentation as it genuinely brought tears to my eyes, thinking not only of the powerful story he shared of Ami’s stolen childhood and freedom, but of the power of or rather in history…

Having spent 13 years researching his ancestors (mostly before the availability on online research tools), in 2004 Paul visited Cape Coast Castle in Ghana where Ami had been imprisoned before walking through the ‘Door of No Return’ and onto the slave ship that transported her to the other side of the world in 1785.  From the 16th-19th centuries, over 3 million human beings were sold into slavery, walking through similar doors knowing that there would never be coming home.  When Paul visited,  he too walked through the door of no return, but in the opposite direction.