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Trip down memory lane

CHILD’S PLAY: Schoolboys from Trench Town Comprehensive School, in Kingston, Jamaica, enjoy a game of cricket (1965)
[PIC CREDIT: The National Achives]

IS IT possible to trace your ancestry back to slavery? If not, how important is it to keep the stories of today’s older generation alive?

Absolutely vital, is the answer from historical experts who have teamed up with the National Archives to ensure that it happens.

Family historians joined elders from the London boroughs of Hackney, Lambeth and Haringey for the Caribbean History Mash-Up at the Government’s official records office in Kew, southwest London, on March 25.

Its focus was to reinforce the value of protecting heritage. Studies show the African Caribbean community is reluctant to express and record their history, putting valuable heritage at risk.

Community Project officer Sandra Shakespeare said: “I hope the event will engage the elders and help them engage with their Caribbean history, so they have a sense of the archive. We want them to come back and feel they have connected with it.”

The archive’s Caribbean Through A Lens collection includes hundreds of digitised images from the old British Colonial Office, which are available on website Flickr. It includes historic images of Caribbean people, towns, buildings and landmarks dating back to the middle of the 19th Century.

Heritage expert Patrick Vernon OBE and steering group member for the project emphasized its importance.

TAKING FLIGHT: Hostesses from British West Indian Airways (1955) [PIC CREDIT: The National Archives]

“We have to ensure that the institutions and bodies that we pay for continue their good work so our history is respected, valued and that we have access to it,” he said.

Lesley Allen, a group coordinator at Stockwell Good Neighbours, which has been running for 38 years, explained how the community group involved its elderly members in social activities to keep their minds and bodies active as well as reduce isolation.

She said: “Many don’t have any information beyond their grandparents. I’ve been involved with the group for ten years recording their stories. The younger generation don’t know about them and they will disappear when they pass away, so you’ve got to keep their legacy going.”

One of the members is 73-year-old Ann Daley, who has been living in Lambeth since she moved to the UK in the Sixties.


She said: “When I was younger, if you asked a question about your family tree, they ask, ‘why you questioning me?’ and tell you to sit down. They didn’t think it was important for us to know about the past. Some of them say, ‘you already know your name, and your mother’s and father’s – what more do you want?’”

She recalled going back to Jamaica and not having anyone to ask about her history, as all the elders had passed on, taking their anecdotes with them.

Now the proud mother of four children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, Daley said: “It’s even more important for the younger generation as they’ve grown up in England and don’t know nothing about where they have come from.”

HARD LABOUR: A Guyanese farmer and his wife make the journey home by horse and cart (1953) [PIC CREDIT: The National Archives]

She believes that more knowledge about the past would encourage the community to achieve more.
Connie Bell and Etienne Joseph, founders of Abela Culture, an organisation which offers cultural therapy for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s to stimulate their memory, also collaborated with The National Archives on the project.

Abela Culture also reaches out to people who are culturally removed from their history because of post-traumatic slavery syndrome or because they are from mixed backgrounds.

Bell said it was the community’s responsibility to educate young people about their identities.

She added: “The importance of elders is known, but is it something we put into action? As a result of a gap in our heritage practices, we have opened the door to negating other important aspects to maintain our existence, which is our youth. To ignore the problem is to commit an intellectual and cultural genocide.”

The National Archive’s long-term plan is to partner with local organisations and primary schools to encourage people to visit their local archives.

Speaker Sharon Tomlin, a Caribbean family historian and genealogist, shared how she traced her family roots using the Internet, and encouraged others to do the same even if information at first seems scarce.

MATERIAL GIRL: Operator Joyce Gall working at a cotton factory in Georgetown Barbados (1955) [PIC CREDIT: The National Archives]

She told how she was inspired by Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, which references the words of Marcus Garvey.

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind’, is what attracted me to family history,” Tomlin said.

However, the heritage enthusiast explained that other histories could be hiding right under one’s nose.

She said: “Each and every one of you represent walking historians, who have your own journeys and fabulous stories to tell.”

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