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Providing food for thought

HAPPY: Mrs McGhie today at her beloved allotments.

THE RIOTING that has recently scarred Birmingham will resonate with grandmother Eunice McGhie-Belgrave, who was a pioneer during similar troubles in the city more than two decades ago.

Determined to stop what she described as the “restlessness” ruining her community all those years ago, Mrs McGhie launched a project called Shades of Black to bring people together.

That was in 1989 and Shades of Black is possibly one of the only schemes launched to unite a fractured community in the wake of the 1980s riots that still thrives in Birmingham today.

Her straightforward style and simple, practical ideas have stood the test of time and united people across all boundaries – and now at 77, Mrs McGhie, as she is known to generations of youngsters, is showing no sign of slowing down.

“What has happened here again in Birmingham has made me very sad, but we have to pick ourselves up and carry on,” says Mrs McGhie, who has amassed countless awards over the years in recognition of her work including an MBE and a Pride of Britain award in 2009.


BACK IN THE DAY: Black and white photo of Mrs McGhie launching Shades of Black in 1989

The Shades of Black Community Family Project was originally launched to enhance the life skills of a multi-racial community, promoting social activities at grass-roots level. Youngsters were taught the basics of a healthy lifestyle, and introduced to simple vegetable growing on local allotments.

“I was horrified at how little youngsters seemed to know about growing food. Many had never seen fresh vegetables,” explained Mrs McGhie, who left her beloved St James in Jamaica to arrive in a cold Britain in February 1957. Sadly, she has never returned to her homeland.

GROWING

What started with pupils from Handsworth Wood Girls’ School on plots at Uplands Allotments, spread to many schools across Handsworth. Soon, hundreds of pupils were learning the basics of growing and cooking their own food.

“I’m pleased that it’s a skill which has stayed with them all their lives,” says Mrs McGhie, who moved her allotment project to Francis Road nearer her home in Stechford in 1993 when the journeying to Handsworth became too much.

“I often meet some of the original youngsters who are now grown up with children of their own. But they always said they remember me showing them how to grow and cook food.”

And the scheme also cuts across the generations as local elderly are always given boxes of fresh vegetables grown by the youngsters at harvest time.


PROUD MOMENT: Mrs McGhie-Belgrave receiving her Pride of Britain award from comedian Lenny Henry

Featured on BBC’s Gardener’s World, the project was seen as a trailblazer for other communities across the UK. It even passes on gardening skills to young offenders – from clearing land for planting right through to eating the end results.

Not content with just Shades of Black, Mrs McGhie launched the Commonwealth World War I and World War II Black, White and Asian Veterans Research Project in Stechford with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2007.
Again, it’s united the community with more than 200 pupils from Corpus Christi and Stechford primary schools taking part in a special service of remembrance at Stechford cenotaph.

With research help from volunteers, it gave many youngsters a chance to understand their roots and how their grandfathers’ generation made the ultimate sacrifice.

Mrs McGhie is still just as passionate about her gardening and still spends most days tending the quarter of an acre she now runs at Stechford allotments where youngsters come to learn.

She puts her long healthy life down to “plenty of fresh air” but says her parents instilled in her a discipline that has stayed with her all her life.

“From the age of three I could face the public,” she says. “We had to read the Bible scriptures in church. It was all about communication and I got all that from my parents.”

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