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The untold story of African Liberation Day

UNDOCUMENTED: Unlike their parents’ generation, young black people would speak out against racism, high unemployment and poor education (Image: Vanley Burke)

IF EVER proof was needed of the importance of Vanley Burke’s life work, it is his photographs of Africa Liberation Day taken in Handsworth Park in 1977.

The event is thought to be Britain’s largest gathering ever of black people at that time, but there are almost no records of it.

Searches of major archives throw up nothing. Tap ‘UK Africa Liberation Day 1977’ into Google, and it’s almost exclusively Burke’s photographs that come up.

So the event lives on only in the photographs and the memories of those who were there.

Now those photographs, and the significance of the day, are the subject of a new BBC Radio 4 documentary called Face in the Crowd. Burke’s been photographing – or documenting, as he calls it – the people of Handsworth and Birmingham for nearly 50 years.

He grew up in Jamaica with his grandmother and then an aunt, his parents having left for England some years earlier. His mother sent him a Kodak Brownie 127 as a present and he was hooked. First intrigued by the science, the magic, of how photography actually worked, the hobby grew into a life’s work. Arriving in England in 1965 he realised that the picture of England conjured up by letters and photographs sent to the island did not reveal everything.

This was a cold, dank, crumbling and frequently unwelcoming country still reeling from the war and he wanted to capture the truth. As the years went by he also understood that no one else was documenting his community.

He recalls: “I remember thinking that what was being written about and said about us as a people was not an experience I had and I felt the need to redress that. Rather than complaining about the lack of proper representation I felt that it was important that we documented ourselves.”

STRONG VOICES: One of the many passionate marches that took place on the day

What Burke captures are the everyday lives of people who, as Rhonda Nisbett, who is in the programme, says, care for each other and for their community.

This would explain why he found himself on the streets and in the park on Africa Liberation Day (ALD) 1977, taking photographs of the crowds.

And it is four of those faces in the crowd that I met with to make the programme.

Burke had long expressed an ambition to revisit some of his images and in particular the Africa Liberation Day photographs.

He remembers ALD as “the first time that I’d witnessed so many people in the park under a single banner”.

He continues: “There weren’t any white people in the park, there were no policemen, either. “It was just full of black people and it was strange to have that and it was also quite exhilarating to see that so many people could have come out for a cause and support for a wider community, obviously supporting issues they felt were dear to themselves.”

Burke took 10 rolls of film that day, more than ever before. The faces in the crowd that day were part of the first really big demographic group of black teenagers born in this country.

They were facing racism, atrociously high levels of unemployment and poor education. One of those in the crowd, Norville Bynoe, says in the programme that no one had any expectations of them, they were “factory fodder”.

But the factories were closing down in the 1970s. Their parents were sometimes struggling to understand or face up to what their children were experiencing.

PROTEST: Out-riders head the African Liberation Day rally

For our faces in the crowd Africa Liberation Day was a political awakening, as they began to question their identity and role in this country. Another of the faces in the crowd that day was Louisa Nisbett.

For her Africa Liberation Day was a celebration, as she began to learn to be proud of where she originated from. Another, Derek Douglas, could not “recall ever having a conversation at school around Africa or even around the Caribbean and how we got to where we are”, a view shared by the others interviewed in the documentary...

Caribbean and how we got to where we are”, a view shared by the others interviewed in the documentary.

So what he heard in the park was revelatory and that’s why, he says, he looks so contemplative in Burke’s pictures as he absorbs what he is hearing from the speakers who came from all over Africa and the Caribbean recounting their experiences of the struggle for liberation.

Burke describes the day as a “reporting back” as well as a celebration.

However, there appear to be no records of who spoke that day, which is not surprising given that the event was totally ignored by local and national media.

We started recording the programme in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The gallery has purchased a major collection of Burke’s work.

Norville Bynoe had never actually seen the photograph that Burke had taken in which he features.

He had been told by a friend that there was a famous picture in which he features.

It was really joyful to hear and watch his delight as he recognised his younger self of 41 years ago.

Sisters Louisa and Rhonda Nisbett had discovered photographs that Burke had taken of them that day in 1977 a few years ago in similar circumstances. A friend had alerted them.

And Derek Douglas saw an African Liberation Day photograph on the wall of a barber’s shop in Grove Lane, Handsworth.

He admired it, got a copy and only later spotted himself in it – centre stage with his head on his hand, contemplating, as he says.

There’s something striking about these stories and it is this. Burke’s photographs are not just on the walls of internationally renowned museums and art galleries, they are part of the fabric of his community in Handsworth.

They are seen and known and shared. The photographs are the community’s. Spend just a short while in his company in a cafe or on the street and someone will come up and talk to him.

Burke recalls one particular occasion. He said: “This lady, she came to me and said, ‘I have to say thank you very much for taking the photographs. Without it I wouldn’t be able to tell my children about my past.’ And I said, ‘Thank you for thanking me’.

“I walked on and she stopped me again and held my hand and she said, ‘I really mean it, thank you very much’.”

Photography has been a vocation for Burke: “I remember saying to someone ‘if I were to take all my negatives and publicly announce I was going to burn them in Handsworth Park just to see the reaction of people’ and he said, ‘They are not yours to burn’.

“Which, for me, was the answer that I needed. It’s almost as if I didn’t choose photography, it chose me.”

Face in the Crowd is produced by Caroline Raphael for Dora Productions. It will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4, on June 22 at 11am and can be heard afterwards on the BBC iPlayer Radio app.

For further information about the work of Vanley Burke please visit A book of Vanley Burke’s pictures, By The Rivers of Birmingham, is published by MAC Birmingham. Please visit to find out more.

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