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History of Leeds West Indian Carnival told in new project

A TEAM of students has created a special multimedia archive which tells the story of how the Leeds West Indian Carnival was created.

The project, called Critical analysis of carnivals: transitions, culture, diversity and purpose past and present was created by University of Leeds mature student Claire Heyliger, from Chapeltown, alongside fellow undergraduates Kristen Hartley and Katheryne Kenward.

Heyliger had the idea for the project after talking with her uncle Arthur France MBE who created the Leeds carnival in 1967.

After starting the project last year, the trio led by Heyliger researched local newspaper and photography collections and conducted interviews with the event’s leading figures to create the archive which not only traces how the event was born, but also analyses the impact it has today.

Now Heyliger, together with France, is working on plans to use the research she gathered during the project to create a module on black history to be used as part of the national curriculum in Yorkshire schools.

She told The Voice: “I started the project after realising my own lack of knowledge around the carnival. Going to university studying for a degree made me realise that lack of knowledge even more, and then of course there is the family link with my uncle Arthur who started the event in 1967. Because I wanted to know more, I suggested a research project looking at the history of the Leeds carnival as part of my undergraduate thesis and it was accepted. Over the six months of research, I learned so much because I’ve had to read a wide variety of books on black history.

LIVING LEGEND: Leeds West Indian Carnival founder and chairperson Arthur France, MBE, recently receiving a civic award from the Lord Mayor of Leeds, Cllr David Congreve

“And as we were working on the project we realised there was so much information, it was difficult to decide where to begin so we had to break it down into little sections to show how carnival has evolved into the event we have today. If the local black community knew the history of carnival they would have a deeper appreciation for the event. It’s come from the depth of African people’s suffering, our rituals and our cultural practices that we had to continually fight to keep alive.”

In 1967, France, then a university student from St Kitts, proposed the idea of creating what would be the first Caribbean-style outdoor carnival.

The Leeds West Indian Carnival or the Chapeltown Carnival, is now Europe’s longest running West Indian carnival which attracts a variety of commercial sponsors.

It is held in the Chapeltown and Harehills parts of Leeds and features a wide range of floats, dancers, steel pan bands as well as a variety of stages and stalls providing entertainment and refreshment for carnival-goers.

Every year an estimated 150,000 take part in the 3 day event which climaxes in a carnival procession on Bank Holiday Monday.

RICH HERITAGE: Carnival historian Claire Heyliger

Heyliger said: “To properly tell the story of how the Leeds Carnival evolved, we started with some key questions. Where did carnival come from? Does it mean the same thing to people when it was introduced to Leeds as it does now? And we also wanted to know whether the diversity and popularity of the event has had an impact on its African cultural identity. As part of that research, we interviewed a range of people who are strongly connected to the Leeds carnival such as costume designer Hughbon Condor, steelpan players, teachers and people who would have attended the event in its very early days.”

The second year undergraduate is clear that she wants the project to leave a legacy.

She said: “As black people, we do not document historically. A lot of our history has been documented by white elite academics. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that we started to get our black historians coming through. If we don’t undertake these types of projects and document our history, the elders in the community who were involved in shaping it, when they pass, the history passes with them and we have very few reminders about their contributions.”

Carnival founder and chairperson France is delighted with the project.

He said: “I was overwhelmed with it. This is a great initiative by a young person who wasn’t even born when I started the carnival. It shows that our future lies with the youths. A project like this is important because there are a lot of people of African descent who want to believe they have no African ancestry in them. They sometimes see Africa as something out of the Stone Age. We have to make the wider world aware of the contributions of Africans. Carnival is about emancipation, freedom, a celebration of our past, it’s part of our rich heritage and it is very important that we celebrate and disseminate knowledge about what it is.”

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