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'Black history is coming home…

DEDICATION: Members of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal Committee at the site dedication ceremony in Westminster last month

ALTHOUGH THERE has been a black presence for the last two thousands years in Britain I would say that 90 per cent of this heritage is still invisible and not part of the national narrative or reflected in mainstream bodies and institutions. Also, the international branding of this country for tourism, inward investment and cultural representation in the media and arts gives the impression that we do not exist.

What history tells us-like the creation of our great African civilisations, fighting for our emancipation and civil rights-is that we have to reclaim this. We have to create spaces and our own institutions to give us the self-belief, confidence and the legacy planning for future generations.

I might be a bit myopic or an eternal optimistic but over the last few months there are some clear signs through a number of events that we can create the 21st Century foundations of permanent mainstreaming of the black historical experience.

CARICOM, which represents a group of 15 Caribbean governments, have developed key demands which will form the basis of a lawsuit against European powers involved in the transatlantic slave trade. This has helped to re-energise the debate in the UK for an approach and strategy based on our demands for reparations. This was highlighted in a successful event in Parliament on July 16 hosted by Diane Abbott MP where Sir Hilary Beckles was the keynote speaker.


This momentum provides the opportunity to build on the Bernie Grant's Early Day Motion in 1993 and the various grass roots organisations to engage with the community. A new fundraising video will also be launched to coincide with Emancipation Day Memorial 2007 to raise £2million for a statute on a dedicated site in Hyde Park reflecting the lost lives and souls as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.

There were a number of events taking place on June 22 supporting the campaign to promote the idea of a public holiday or annual celebration of Windrush Day, recognising the contribution of African, Caribbean and other migrant communities contribution since WW2. Over the last few years there has been a growing momentum by MPs, faith leaders, journalists and community activists ensuring the Windrush contribution is not forgotten by this country.

On July 9 there was a site dedication event on the grounds of St Thomas hospital for the Mary Seacole statue. Since the time she was voted one of the 100 Great Black Britons of all time in 2004 there has been a major fundraising campaign to raise £400k for her statue reflecting her contribution to modern day nursing and as a war heroine.

The Mary Seacole Memorial Appeal Committee was established and chaired by Lord Clive Soley of Hammersmith with Professor Elizabeth Anionwu as vice chair. With the support of RCN, UNISON, UNITE, the Jamaican High Commission and a range of key influential people in the NHS and public life along with thousands of people who have donated and supported various events over the last 11 years, the statue will be installed by the Summer of 2015. Once installed, it will face The Place of Westminster across the Thames which will be another symbolic message on the issue of black representation.

In 2013, she survived Michael Gove’s ill thought-out plans to remove her along with Olaudah Equiano the father on the UK reparation movement from national curriculum as a result of over 40,000 people signing a petition and a letter in the Times from celebrities, MPs, peers, and people in public life and the trade union movement.

On July 16 there was the unveiling of the latest blue plaque for the late Dr John Alcindor, a local GP who lived in the Paddington area of London and volunteered for the British Red Cross during WW1. Over the last 20 years there has been a concerted effort across the country by a range of heritage organisations and community activitists to ensure the recognition of black women and men who have contributed to this country.


However, special recognition must be given to Nubian Jak Foundation which has unveiled over 32 Blue Plaques in the last six years. Nubian Jak has plans for a Walter Tull blue plaque and a war memorial later this year. In 2013, I worked with the family of the late Rev Lyesight, New Testament Church of God and the Wolverhampton Historical Society to have a blue plaque in Wolverhampton as the founder of the first black majority church in the country in 1953 who also was joint second in the 100 Great Black Britons campaign.

LANDMARK: The new Black Cultural Archives building in Windrush Square, Brixton, south London

The official opening of Black Cultural Archives (BCA) on Thursday, July 24 in many ways reflects the opportunities and challenges of mainstreaming the black experience and breaking the shackles of the legacy of enslavement by controlling and recasting our interpretation of history.

The launch of the BCA cannot be understated as this is a key landmark timeline in our 2,000 year history in Britain. It brings together talent, commitment, leadership and a collective community effort. The support of Lambeth Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund has been crucial to its development. The late Len Garrison one of the founding members of Black Cultural Archives can now truly rest in peace now that his vision and dream has been realised. Our job is to continue the legacy and support the organisation to become sustainable and a permanent institution for future generations.

However, the list is endless of good causes such as the Walter Tull campaign led by Operation Black Vote for his military cross recognising heroic deeds during WW1; Huntley Archives; George Padmore Institute or the Bernie Grant Trust in promoting the legacy of politics and community activism. Also, don't forget the elder and photographer Charlie Phillips crowdfunding project for his book and exhibition called How Great Thou Art documenting 50 years of African Caribbean funerals in London. These are just the tip of the iceberg of some of the examples of how we are trying to preserve, restore and share our history.

The energy, commitment and leadership in preserving and protecting our history today could be on the same par leading to the creation of Black History Month in 1987. However, Black History Month has lost its essence and the quality control that is required to be reflective and authentic. This has led to a lot of frustration and anger at times over the two decades. However, for better or worse Black History Month is still important and one of the few areas where our history has partly being recognised.

Again, history tells us that if we don’t take our history seriously and invest in ourselves and young people then it will be invisible and be at the mercy of others.

To have more black heritage organisations, blue plaques, monuments, books etc will require ongoing fundraising and putting our hands in our pockets. The Mary Seacole Memorial Appeal Committee still needs about £90k to meet its target for next summer. Although the BCA has a new building it needs ongoing revenue funding to cover the running costs, develop its archives and commission new exhibition and education programmes.

PLAQUE HONOUR: A blue plaque was unveiled in Paddington for Trinidad-born Dr John Alcindor

Yes of course we need to campaign for our fair share of public funding from the Arts Council, Heritage Lottery Fund and local government along with charitable foundations, and corporate social responsibility programmes.

However, I think we are a long way from the level of funding that we need and deserve. We do need to be more effective in the lobbying and leveraging of this funding for community-led programmes. The general election in 2015 and the London mayoral election in 2016 provides an opportunity to lobby the main political parties for support and resources.

In 2005 The Mayor's Commission for African and Asian Heritage which was chaired by Dame Jocelyn Barrow launched a successful report which forced the major funders and cultural institutors such as V&A, Imperial War Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate, National Maritime Museum and others to seriously look at issues such as racial inequality in the arts and heritage sector particularly around workforce, audience development, education and exhitions in making them more reflective of our multicultural society. Some of these bodies rose to the challenge and have given support to artist and heritage practitioners, while sadly others are still paying lip service!

The report also made the case that the BCA, along with other BME-led organisations should be taken seriously by funders. As a former Commission member it would be great as part of the 10th anniversary of this report that the Commission would come together to reflect on the state of the sector in the light of the period of austerity and the debates around immigration and identity.


Finally, if we want black history to come home and not be evicted or made homeless as a community we need to create a culture of philanthropy where we make a personal financial contribution on a regular basis in the preservation of our history. However, this does also require our celebrities, movers and shakers in political, business and public life to provide more leadership similar to our compatriots in the USA who recognise and value investing in black history and organisations for future generations.

Patrick Vernon OBE is a Clore Fellow and founder of 100 Great Black Britons and Every Generation Media

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