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Honouring our plaque heroes

REMEMBERED: Malcolm X’s 1965 visit to Smethwick in the West Midlands is hailed as an important event in black British history

FOR THE family of Laurie Cunningham the unveiling of a blue plaque outside their former family home in Stroud Green, north London, rekindled poignant memories.

Terisa Wauchope, the 49-year-old cousin of the late footballer who was killed in a car accident in Madrid in 1989 at the age of 33, described what the unveiling in September meant to those close to the Cunningham family (pictured below).

She said:

“The erection of a blue plaque was overwhelming and is indication of what Laurie meant to fans, some of whom travelled from the Midlands.

"At a time when racism in football was rife, Laurie took it in his stride and dealt with it in a charming manner. Although he was taken from us at a young age his achievements live on.”

Cunningham, who played for Leyton Orient, West Brom and Real Madrid during the 1970s and 1980s, was the first black player to represent England at under 21 level. He is also the first player to be recognised with two blue plaques.

The most recent memorial to the ‘Black Pearl’, as he was fondly known, was significant for other reasons.

On the same date that Cunningham’s fame was rekindled in north London, English Heritage revealed a new working group, tasked with proposing black and Asian nominees for the iconic London blue plaque scheme. Currently, less than four per cent of English Heritage’s 900-plus blue plaques across the capital are dedicated to Black and Asian figures. English Heritage isn’t the only organisation setting the agenda for the unveiling of blue plaques, to commemorate people from black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.

Communities

Last month, the BBC’s Black and British Season: A Forgotten History featured the unveiling of Black History plaques across Britain, former colonies and the Commonwealth.

The Nubian Jak Commemorative Plaque Scheme (NJCPS) has also been commemorating important figures from ethnic minority communities across Europe since 2004. The NJCPS, based in central London, has erected 36 plaques, including one to Bob Marley, which is the fourth most visited memorial of its kind in London.

Many of the individuals celebrated by the NJCPS were later recognised by other organisations, including English Heritage. For example, a blue plaque honouring Cunningham was unveiled by NJCPS at the Leyton Orient Football Club in October 2013, three years before English Heritage followed suit.

Commenting on the growing number of organisations involved in erecting memorials to black Britons, NJCPS chairman Jak Beula said:

“There are individuals who are annoyed that various mainstream organisations are attempting to set the agenda for black plaque schemes, but the more organisations there are that recognise notable individuals of colour, the greater will be the awareness of black history.

"History will judge who set the agenda for erecting plagues and memorialising black individuals in the UK.”

According to English Heritage the lack of BAME representatives is partly explained by the low number of public nominations fulfilling the blue plaque criteria. The lack of historic records establishing a definitive link between the person in question and the building in which they live, is also blamed.

The English Herritage working group will be led by panel member historian and TV presenter Gus Casely-Hayford. Speaking about the role of the new group, he said:

“The blue plaques scheme faces certain specific challenges when it comes to recognising the achievements of individuals who have faced institutional barriers and who have often lived outside of the official records.

“We want to look at how those challenges can be overcome and partner with the British public in uncovering the stories of those unacknowledged heroes who helped make our great city what it is.”

English Heritage’s curatorial director, Anna Eavis, commenting on the unveiling of the blue plaque to Laurie Cunningham, agreed. She believes English Heritage needs to keep pace with changing perceptions of London’s historical characters.

“Since 1866, when the blue plaque scheme was established, our idea of which figures from the past are significant has changed.

"Today we are honouring an incredibly gifted footballer (pictured below) who paved the way for many other black players, but there are many others of national importance within the black community who have not been nominated for plaques.” she said.

"That’s why we have established this group to help get their names and stories in front of our panel and ensure that their achievements are considered for recognition.

“We want the blue plaque scheme to celebrate the contributions of those groups which traditionally have been under-represented in history including women and the working class, black and Asian communities.”

Recipients of the English Heritage blue plaque must have been dead for at least 20 years and lived at the location they are being connected with for either a long time or during an important period, such as when writing their seminal work or creating their key invention.

“The 20-year rule is quite important to us,” said Alexandra Carson, national PR executive for English Heritage.

"It gives us the benefit of hindsight and allows us to better judge their long-term legacy.

"Also, the building has to be the same as it was when they lived there because a big part of it is bringing history to life.

"It’s a really nice way of detailing the history of London and linking people and places.”

There are thousands of blue plaques around England noting significant people and the places they were born, lived, worked, visited or died. However, as there is no national body governing such commemoration, the criteria used to determine who and where gets a plaque vary widely from place to place. It is often left to local councils, charities and local history organisations to police the plaques issued in their areas.

Outside of the original scheme, the majority of plaques can be loosely grouped into four categories: birthplace, residence, visited by and place of death.

For example, the Southwark Heritage Association (SHA) was established 14 years ago and has 50 plaques erected across the borough, many stemming from African and Caribbean backgrounds. Rio Ferdinand, Marianne Jean-Baptiste; the first black British woman to be nominated for an Oscar, Sam King and Una Marson all have residential plaques in Southwark.

In contrast with English Heritage, the SHA unveils plaques to recognise individuals who are alive. SHA nominees are also received by members of the public, rather than a committee, and the individual who receives the most public votes has a blue plaque erected.

Commenting on the fascination of blue plaques in London, Veronica Alden, members' secretary at SHA, said:

“There is a growing interest in the history of London, which of course not only fascinates those living in the capital, but individuals from across the world.

"People from the Caribbean need to be recognised for their contribution to the history of Southwark, but if Londoners are not taught their history how can they nominate and vote for noted individuals?”

Recently, for example, a blue plaque was unveiled by the SHA, to commemorate the life of one of the first black men to fight in World War One. The memorial to George Arthur Roberts (pictured below) is in a Samuel Lewis Trust building in Camberwell, south London, where he lived for almost 50 years.

Stephen Bourne, historian of black heritage and the author who nominated Roberts, believes the SHA plaque will encourage greater diversity among nominees.

He said:

“I hope the plaque will inspire people to be more adventurous in their interest of black British achievers from the past, going beyond the normal historical characters and digging deep into the archives to uncover individuals who have been marginalised in history books."

George Arthur Roberts (see picture below for members of the fire service, politicians and members of Roberts’ family who gathered for the unveiling of a blue plaque in his memory in Camberwell, south London) was one of those individuals. Roberts was renowned for his bravery in warfare, including the Battle of Somme in France. The Trinidadian also saved countless lives as a fireman during the Blitz, for which he received a British Empire Medal in 1944. He also founded one of the UK’s first anti-racism organisations, the League of Coloured Peoples.

Recalling his historical significance, Bourne said:

“Roberts had a sense of responsibility to his community and is a very significant figure in black history. He spanned two world wars, fought fires during the Blitz and pioneered the cause of black people from the early 1900s.”

In some places, nominees are recognised because of fleeting visits, rather than being long- time residents.

Malcolm X’s visit to Marshall Street in Smethwick in the West Midlands nine days before his assassination in 1965 is commemorated as a landmark in black British history (see picture below for the plaque's unveiling with Jak Beula, left, Harbhajan Dardi, centre and Beenie Brown on the left).

In Norwich, there is a plaque marking the day in 1971 when Muhammad Ali visited a supermarket as part of a promotional tour by Ovaltine.

Malvern in Worcestershire is home to a number of plaques marking famous visitors. For example, there is the favoured hotel of exiled Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie between 1936 and 1941.

“Our plaques are for people and places that had an impact on the history of Malvern,” said Brian Iles from the Malvern Civic Society.

“They are not just for people who everybody knows, we also want to introduce important people who everybody should know about.

“We want to celebrate our history and make sure people don’t forget it.”

Beula has the same perspective. He said:

“I have data for 400 plaques and will continue erecting memorials and striving to set the benchmark for recognising black historical figures and places in the UK.”

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