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Work starts on long-awaited national black heritage centre

VISION: What the Black Cultural Archives will look like

THE JOURNEY to build Britain’s first national centre of black heritage took a major stop forward last week as construction officially got underway.

Building work on the future home of the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) has now started in earnest at Grade II-listed Raleigh Hall, overlooking Brixton’s Windrush Square, named in honour of the area’s early Caribbean migrants.

The £7m project, in partnership with the south London borough of Lambeth, has suffered a series of setbacks including its building contractor going into administration.

But it is now on track to be completed by 2014, two years after its planned opening date of 2012.

The milestone was marked with a site dedication on Saturday, June 8, with guests including patron Colin Jackson and singer Eddie Grant.

Speaking at the event, BCA director Paul Reid said: “One of the things I look forward to is that moment when young people we are working with are inspired by our history; great achievements, great inventions and great contributions.

“And as time goes on they realise those contributions weren’t one or two…that it wasn’t a sporadic sprinkling of achievements…That it’s not even something that we have to look overseas to America, Africa or the Caribbean to find, it’s something that is here and has always been here.

“And as they go back over time through the Victorian, Georgian and Edwardian periods and so on…we may see a shift that we can’t quantify at the moment. It might means that their relationship to this country, their perceptions of themselves and how others perceive them that might change. We might be opening something here that is truly groundbreaking.”

CELEBRATION: BCA director Paul Reid speaking at the site dedication

Once finished, the BCA will be the UK’s first national centre of African and Caribbean history and culture and has the backing of high-profile figures including Dame Jocelyn Barrow, actor Kwame Kwei Armah, opera singer Sir Willard White and poet Benjamin Zephaniah.

Currently based in Kennington, southeast London, the archives house more than 10,000 historical records documenting the legacy of black people in Britain.

Their collection includes donated papers, photographs, oral histories and a major reference library.

In addition to an archive built to the highest specifications, the new site will boast a café, shop, research centre and library, an exhibition gallery and dedicated areas for learning including spaces for conference and seminars.

Its major financial backers include the Heritage Lottery Fund, which pledged £4m, and the London Development Agency, which gave £1m.

The BCA was founded in 1981 by Pan-African educationalist and photographer Len Garrison and other contemporaries in order to collect, preserve and celebrate the contributions black people have made to British society.

Lambeth councillor Lorna Campbell, cabinet member for equalities and communities, said: “This iconic landmark is proof that not only have black people been here contributing to the borough, but we are here to stay…I am proud as a member of the black community [to know] that my children’s children will be able to learn something about their heritage much easier than I was able to.

“This is what I call a cultural imprint; making a mark and a public statement about how black cultures have shaped Lambeth and the UK in many areas, not least the arts.”

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