Monday, 2 November 2015

Black British history is happening – but to what end?

Guest blog by David Killingray 

Talk at British Black History Conference 29 October 2015 at Senate House, Malet St

Much excellent work has been done recently on black British history.  This rich fare consists of biographies, family histories, lengthy studies of political groups and organisations, theses and books on the slave trade and slavery, and a broad range of studies that place Britain’s black population in the context of the Imperial world and the Black Atlantic.   As we applaud achievement, it is also useful to ask some questions about the endeavour: what is missing?  What is new?  Is it bold in challenging received ideas?  Are there people, group interests, relational networks, ideas and beliefs that are being neglected or ignored?   And who is reading what has been written?  

Historians are faced with a particular challenge.  By writing history they have the responsibility and privilege of helping to shape how the past is viewed and understood.  Are they being true to that calling to be objective and accurate in the analyses that they write?   History does strange things to emotion, and this appears to be particularly so in the case of black British history.  It stokes passions for the past, it kindle fires, a longing to right wrongs, and sometimes a delight in identifying and magnifying the role of heroes and denigrating rogues   - all of which can also distort vision and analysis. [1]

Let me examine some of the challenges that I see facing black British history. 

First of all its Context and Dimensions

I don’t think there is a specific ‘Black British history’.   We might choose to study the activities and institutions of black people in Britain but that is research into a vital aspect of British history.   That labour is for two primary purposes: first, to write a largely untold history of black lives and activities principally of interest to a contemporary black constituency; and second, to bring to the attention of as many people as possible an important aspect of this country’s past that has been ignored.

Black British history is not exclusively about black communities in Britain.  However distinctive a minority, it is important to see its members in the context of the larger, in this case, white population with whom they interact and relate.   Due recognition needs to be given to the way in which black ambitions and struggles frequently involved white Britons.  We can see this in Caroline Bressey’s recent book on Catherine Impey;[2] work on the Brotherhood Movement;[3] the Pan-African Conference of 1900 which, although in the hands of people of African origin and descent, leaned heavily and eagerly on the support of humanitarian-minded whites.[4]  The small handful of black Marxists in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s worked with white comrades, and sometimes bitterly disagreed with them, as we see in the two very substantial books by Hakim Adi and by Holger Weiss published in 2013.[5]  And, as with the earlier African Association of the late 1890s, the League of Coloured Peoples in the 1930-40s worked closely and profitably with its ‘honorary’ white members.[6]

Secondly Direction

I see a danger in black British history of a desire by some to continue ploughing the same old furrow.  There is more to black British history than Equiano, Mary Seacole, Walter Tull, and C.L.R. James.  This approach is sometimes marked by a lack of curiosity, an apparent sense of  comfort secured by adherence to old received opinions, and a strong reluctance to think beyond a polarised world view of black people as victims involved in an heroic struggle against white racist villains.  It is incumbent upon historians to be broad in reading, deep in thinking, rigorous in critical scholarship, making judgements and analyses that are firmly based on evidence, and, because the aim is to get as many people as possible to read what is written, to write texts marked by clarity and integrity.  

Over-reliance on old texts can continue to shape current views of black British history.  For example, the books by Folarin Shyllon and Peter Fryer written decades ago are still used uncritically by many as authoritative touchstones.[7]  Fryer’s seminal Staying Power was written with a Marxist perspective which severely limited the author’s range of enquiry in to the lives and activities of black people in Britain’s past.   All these books will no doubt continue to be of value but what now is needed is a published history which takes account of the substantial volume of research undertaken during the past 40 years.

So what is left out of the picture of black activity in Britain over the past 400-500 years?   In addition to what I have already said, there continues to be a substantial focus on the role of the political left, work which I generally applaud, but its rhetoric should not be allowed to frame the history of black activity and endeavour in Britain.   Black British history is wider and more complex than that. 

May I suggest four examples of that needed breadth:

(1)  The ideas advanced by Kathleen Chater about the status and role of black people in England and Wales during the 18th century need to be further investigated.[8]  Studies of the presence of black peoples in specific localities would help further understanding of the diversity of black lives and activities.

(2)  More attention needs to be given to the endeavours of black liberals and democrats from the Caribbean and Africa who shaped pan-Africanist ideas in the early 20th century, and in the 1920s-40s, for example those who congregated around Harold Moody and W. Arthur Lewis of the Fabian-minded League of Coloured Peoples.  The League presented another radical and, I would argue, a more dominant and effective voice.  While Padmore, James, and Jones wished to kick down the doors of government offices, and were thus ignored, Moody and Lewis knocked politely and were invariably admitted across the threshold where they persistently presented firm arguments, which actually led to limited changes.  At the same time it is wrong to imagine that all black people living in Britain were caught up in some kind of struggle for civil rights and representation.  It is clear that there were a good number of individuals who just got on with their lives and, as with their white neighbours, made the best of what they had.

(3)  Then there is the long-enduring and important Christian dimension to black British history which has largely been ignored, less so for the late 18th century, but certainly through the 19th and into the 20th centuries.[9]  The primary sources for this are vast, not least the ecclesiastical and Christian missionary records, and the burgeoning religious press and missionary magazines generated over the past 200 years.   Such sources reveal a good deal about the lives of John Jea, Zilpha Elaw, Celestine Edwards, Theophilus Scholes,[10] Amanda Smith, Thomas Brem Wilson,[11] Felix E.M. Hercules, Joseph Jackson Fuller, and the 12 or more black Anglican clergy working in English parishes between 1799 and 1950.[12]   Not long ago I was dismayed to be told by the archivist of the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton that there were no plans to collect material generated by the many black churches on their very doorstep in London.

(4)  Black British history also needs to be seen in the wider context of the Atlantic world.   There has been a substantial output of scholarly work on the African slave trade, but to what extent has it informed school teachers’ thinking, and the minds of others, about black British history?  That research raises serious questions about the patterns of transatlantic slave trading, and the extent of West African merchants’ involvement in shaping that commerce.[13]   Let me again emphasise that the task of the historian is to analyse complex data and draw reasonable conclusions; their job is not to label permanently Africans only as ‘victims’ however terrible the structural violence and the inequalities in trade which helped sustain and shape the transatlantic commerce in slaves over so many centuries.

Finally let me say a brief word about Dissemination and Communication

A good deal is happening in black British history, but there is a serious challenge as to how new research, writing, and ideas can reach the wider readership it deserves.   Many studies appear in local and provincial publications, or get buried in expensive scholarly books and academic journals that are largely inaccessible to people up and down the country.  

With the demise of the BASA Newsletter in mid-2012, as a community of scholars and enthusiasts we have lost a convenient medium for our research and queries.  There is an urgent need to rescue current research from obscurity.  Perhaps this requires a new online journal, freely accessible to all, a reference point focussed on black British history and related overseas activities, which might include peer-reviewed articles, research findings, and also a ‘notice board’.    Is it too much to ask that this meeting endorse such an idea and take action to put it in place?    

David Killingray is Emeritus Professor of Modern History, Goldsmiths, and a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Advanced Study, University of London.  He taught in secondary schools in Britain and Tanzania for 12 years, then helped train teachers, studied for a PhD at SOAS, and subsequently for much of his career taught African and Caribbean history in several universities.  He has written books and articles on aspects of African, Caribbean, Imperial, and English local history as well as on the black diaspora.

[1]   David Olusoga, ‘Back History Month needs a rethink: it’s time to ditch the heroes’, The Guardian, 9 October 2015.
[2]   Empire, Race and the Politics of ‘Anti-Caste’ (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).
[3]   David Killingray, ‘Hands joined in Brotherhood: the rise and decline of a movement for faith and social change, 1875-2000’, in Anthony R. Cross, Peter J Morden, and Ian M. Randall, eds., Pathways and Patterns in History.  Essays on Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Modern World in Honour of David Bebbington (Didcot: The Baptist Historical Society, 2015), pp. 319-39.  I mention this here, and other chapters and papers of mine below, partly to emphasise a point already made in the text above that work on black British history often appears in fairly obscure publications. 
[4]   Marika Sherwood, Origins of Pan-Africanism.  Henry Sylvester Williams, Africa and the African Diaspora (London: Routledge, 2011).  The ideas of pan-Africanism in this period form a central part of a book that I hope to complete in 2016, provisionally entitle ‘Race, Religion and Gender in the Black Atlantic World, 1890-191’.
[5]   Hakim Adi, Pan-Africanism and Communism.  The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939 (Trenton, NJ.: Africa World Press, 2013).  Holger Weiss, Framing a Radical African Atlantic.  African American Agency, West African Intellectuals and the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (Leiden: Brill, 2013).    See also Christian Høgsbjerg, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (Durham, NC.: Duke University Press, 2014).
[6]   I am currently completing a book-length biography of Dr Harold Moody and the League of Coloured Peoples.
[7]   Folarin Shyllon, Black Slaves in Britain (London: Oxford University Press, 1974); and Black People in Britain 1555-1833 (London: Oxford University Press, 1977).  Peter Fryer, Staying Power.  The History of Black People in Britain (London: Pluto, 1984).
[8]   Kathleen Chater, Untold Histories.  Black People in England and Wales during the period of the British slave trade, c.1660-1807 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).
[9]  Several of the black writers in Britain during the late 18th century, Phillis Wheatley, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Ottobah Cugoana, and Olaudah Equiano, were all evangelically-minded Christians.  See the recent research by Ryan Hanley, now at New College, Oxford.   For a broader perspective on black British Christians see David Killingray, ‘’Black evangelicals in Darkest Britain, 1770s-1930s’, in Mark Smith, ed., British Evangelical Identities Past and Present (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), pp. 128-42; and David Killingray and Joel Edwards, Black Voices.  The shaping of our Christian experiences (Nottingham: IVP, 2007).    
[10]   On Scholes see David Killingray, ‘The Reverend Dr Theophilus Edward Samuel Scholes: Baptist missionary and imperial critic at the heart of Empire, 1856-c.1940, in Anthony R. Cross and John H.Y. Briggs, eds, Freedom and the Powers.  Perspectives from Baptist History (Didcot: The Baptist Historical Society, 2014), pp.175-202.
[11]   Brem Wilson’s diaries, covering intermittently the years 1899-1925, were located with his descendants in southern England.  I have transcribed them and, along with an accompanying essay, they are soon to be deposited in various appropriate archives and libraries.
[12] I have recently written a paper on ‘Black Anglican clergy in the Established Church in England, 1799-1950’, where I examine the ministry of, and public responses to, black clergymen who served as parish ministers.   In addition there were the many black Christian ministers who served in British dissenting churches during the same period; my files on that topic measure some six inches. 
[13] For example, Rebecca Shumway, The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Rochester, NY.: Rochester University Press, 2011); and Randy Sparks study of the West African trade of Anamabo , Where the Negroes are Masters: An African port in the era of the slave trade (Cambridge ., MA.: Harvard University Press, 2014); plus the articles by Lisa A. Lindsay and James A. Sweet in the Journal of African History, 55,2 (2014), 133-59.  

Monday, 13 July 2015

A Fresh Start for Croydon Communities Consortium

Since my plea for the ending of the toxic personality attacks in relation to Croydon Communities Consortium in Croydon Citizen, there has been a buzz on the grapevines of support for this plea. It looks like the AGM on 15 July will be well attended.

The central challenge for those attending is to ensure that the last few months of toxicity is put behind us, and that a fresh start is made with a completely new set of officers and committee members untainted and damaged by that toxicity.

Need for Vision

Whoever seeks to be elected needs to have a vision based on understanding that they have to put aside their own personal agendas and views because CCC is not about trying to reach a consensus view, but to facilitate debate, information and ideas sharing and networking. Its constitution states:

· To encourage and promote engagement of groups and individuals within and across Croydon.
· To disseminate information.
· To promote debate.

A potential  new approach to the way CCC undertakes this work was discussed at the public meeting session that immediately followed the AGM last November. Unfortunately the current Committee were distracted from implementing that new approach because of the toxicity.

New approach to meetings

The minutes state: ‘The meeting opened with a question from the committee on what people would like from CCC meetings. Several suggestions were offered, including devoting the first half hour to specific issues. …… A suggestion that a set topic could be discussed for the first half hour with a view to taking a vote on how the community feel about one particular thing was suggested. Another suggested that themes could be built around presentation of four areas of accountability of Croydon Council - Engagement, good governance, financial transparency, and the issue of whether they are adequately putting into implementation their policies. This would help gauge public opinion. The Chair asked for an indication of hands to see who was in favour of this approach. A majority were in agreement.’

As the proposer of that last suggestion I hope that in their statements on why they should be elected that people will outline their vision, their view of the suggestion, their commitment to being non-party political in their elected role, how they will further develop the constitutional objects of the group, and their ideas for improving public participation in CCC’s meetings.

Britain's fracturing society

Toxicity is not unique to Croydon and CCC. It is becoming a dangerous phenomenon in British society as a whole, partly because Britain is becoming a very fractured society. The negative aspects of human attitudes and behaviour are gaining ground: sexism, racism, often portrayed as concern about immigration and Islam, religious intolerance, social intolerance as more and more groups become tarred as ‘the enemy within’: people on benefit (scroungers), Moslems, immigrants from East Europe,  lone parents, people with mental health problems, young people up to the age of 25 – who next? – so called Nimbys who stand up for their local communities against unwanted developments?

We have seen this played out in the posturing of the main political parties, the behaviour of some of the media, and even in the rows within the Anglican Church.

The glue that holds society together is being dismantled and the chances of social disorder and riot will increase.


Britain is made up of multi-cultures. Their lack of inter-connectivity prevents it  from becoming an integrated multi-cultural society. The worst offenders in this are those sections of the white British who forget their own historic immigrant roots, often consume the best of other cultures, but  who expect everyone else to integrate into British society without taking steps to positively welcome and help the process. This pressures minorities into being inward looking.

Negative changes

Most of the economic, social, physical and environmental changes that are happening are in the control of people and businesses which have no lasting commitment to Croydon. e.g.

·        Landlords increasing rents creating fast turnover of residents and demographic change and destabilising neighbourhoods.
·        Commercial landlords rent increases forcing businesses out and letting to ones which seem to have no relationship with the needs of local people.
·        Developers of all types changing the built environment and in the case of the bigger ones erecting more and more inhuman scale tower blocks.

With the increase in the dormitory nature of Croydon it becomes more difficult to encourage people to become involved in local affairs and organisations.

It is important to understand this context because it poses serious challenges for how community activists can operate.

What is ‘community’?

‘Community’ can be defined as the web of personal relationships, groups, networks, traditions and patterns of behaviour:

·        that exist amongst those who share physical neighbourhoods socio-economic conditions or common understandings and interests e.g. users, disabled, ethnic, faith, gender/sexuality, age based, interest, workplace, business, sport, hobby

·        that develop against the backdrop of the physical neighbourhood and its socio-economic situation.

The word ‘community’ is often treated as a single entity. It is not – it is comprised of many different overlapping communities.

People move in and out of different communities, and can belong to more than one community at any one time. Some communities are more privileged than others. Many communities can be excluded.

The Consortium should consider: 

·        What are the many varied ‘communities’ in Croydon?
·        Which are more privileged than others?
·        Which are excluded or perceive themselves to be excluded?

The answers to these questions should form part of any analysis which underpins what the needs and aspirations of residents are as individuals and collectively in their different communities.

The Importance of Networks

There are several important networks in the Borough that need to be borne in mind as part of the way in which people and organisations interconnect.

·        The political parties with members across the Borough.
·        The involvement of individual party members in various community and voluntary organisations.
·        Individuals who have wide network connections going  back years who are also important sources of background knowledge.
·        The trade union branches and their umbrella group the Trade Union Council.
·        The advice network.
·        The arts and cultural networks.
·        The environmental activists.
·        The members of national voluntary organisations which may or may not have local branches.
·        The heritage organisations and individuals involved in historical research and dissemination.
·        Web based information networks and bloggers.

All these networks contain people with skills and expertise that can be used to help communicate information and build interlinks.

Community Cohesion

One of the best definitions of the concept of ‘community cohesion’ is about the dynamic relationships between and within communities.

‘A cohesive community is one where:
·        there is a common vision and a sense of belonging for all communities;
·        the diversity of people’s different backgrounds and circumstances are appreciated and positively valued;
·        those from different backgrounds have similar life opportunities; and strong and positive relationships are being developed between people from different backgrounds in the workplace, in schools and with neighbourhoods.’

This is what Croydon Communities Consortium should be trying to contribute to.

The challenge of austerity

The potential harsh and devastating effects of many of the measures announced in the Budget, or on the back of it from benefit cuts to loosening planning controls, are going to make life even harder for many geographic and interest communities across Croydon. CCC can play an important role in encouraging debate and fact finding on what is happening in different parts of the Borough, and sharing information about ways in which different groups work to alleviate the worst effects. It is not its role to campaign on these issues; but it can feed the information and ideas into other groups so they can consider using it in their campaigns. Those wanting to campaign against the new round of austerity measures have political parties, trade unions, community and voluntary sector groups and the Croydon TUC Croydon Assembly as vehicles. Their attendance at future meetings of the Consortium will strengthen the way in which the Consortium can contribute to the wider good.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Labour May Day and Citizenship

"My duties as a trade unionist do not clash with my duties as a citizen. The object of good citizenship, I presume, should be the getting rid of abuses, the elimination of the cause of physical and moral degradation, and the establishing of those conditions which will operate most beneficially to the body politic. Chief amongst the causes that degrade are excessive hours of labour and insufficient wages. It is the duty of the trade unionist to rectify these wrongs; it is equally the duty of the citizen. To argue that all such changes should come solely by trade-union effort, as some politicians are doing, is to argue that the highest form of citizenship are to be left unperformed by the citizen."

So wrote Tom Mann one of the architects of the organisation of the first May Day labour movement demonstration in London 125 years ago on 4 May 1890.

His argument remains valid today for everyone  who wants to see improvements in pay and conditions in  the work place, the end to workplace exploitation, low wages, and zero hours contracts.

New Unionism

1890 was the time of the wave of worker militancy for better pay and conditions known as New Unionism, kick-started by the successful strike of the match women in the East End in 1888, followed by dockers and gas workers pay victories in 1889. One of the movement’s demands was for a legalised eight hour working day. The inspiration for this had come from the socialist Tom Mann whose advocacy led to the formation of a campaign organisation. This in turn led labour and socialist organisations across Europe to decide to organise demonstrations on May Day 1890.  As representative of the Battersea Engineers Mann persuaded the London Trades Council to support it. The Times reported that about 75 organisations sent delegates to the final planning meeting held at the pro-New Unionist Rev. Morris’s Workmen's Club in 

May Day 1890

The joint demonstration was attended by an estimated 200,000 plus  people walking to Hyde Park from different parts of London.  There were several speakers platforms. Tom Mann chaired one, while his comrade John Burns, who had been elected for Battersea as a socialist onto the newly formed London County Council, was a speaker on another.

This overwhelming support for the eight-hour day and the parallel success of the 'New Unionism', enabled Mann and Burns to have the eight-hour day adopted as policy at the Trades Union Congress in September 1890.

In May's issue of the journal  The Nineteenth Century Review Mann set out his version of the agenda that he and Burns were pursuing, in a review of 'The Development of the Labour Movement'. The motive force behind the new unionist wave of unrest and strikes, he argued, was revolt at the inequalities and deprivations that a modern society was capable of eradicating.

‘But the effort being put forward by the workers by means of their voluntary combinations justified them in using their powers as citizens to get their grievances rectified by means of legislation, either by local governing bodies or by Parliament.

The hope for the future lies in the extension of labour organisations on the side of the workers, corresponding combinations of employers adjusting differences by conciliation or arbitration whenever possible, the work of trade unionism being supplemented by the local governing bodies, by workers habitually taking a direct working interest in connection with them, such bodies absorbing all small and at present conflicting authorities, thus developing the best qualities of the citizen in the true work of citizenship and gradually assisting in the development of the co-operative ideal, when the workers shall include the whole of the able-bodied community, and when peace and plenty shall abound as the result harmonising the at present antagonistic tendencies of different sections of society.’

The Eight Hour Day

An early demand for an eight hour day had been made in Sydney Australia in 1855, then in the United States in 1866,  and was boosted when the TUC’s American equivalent decided in 1884 to start campaigning. In 1887 the British TUC voted for an international conference on the demand. The socialist  Second International declared 1 May to be an international day to demand a legal eight hour day. Demonstrations were seen across Europe.

The historian of May Day, the late John Gorman, explains that 

‘Labour’s May Day gave birth to a new visual culture’. In Britain there were banners, prints, posters and illustrations. Key in this was the artist Walter Crane. His ‘prints were to adorn the homes and meeting rooms of socialists and trade unionists throughout Europe for decades to come.’

The 1900 May Day  was held in Crystal Palace for a family day of sport and entertainment with a pyrotechnic display designed by Crane in which his ‘Solidarity of Labour’ cartoon was reproduced in fireworks , complete with the motto, ‘The unity of labour is the hope of the world.’ 

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Powells - A Liverpool Family

An extract from Jeffrey Green’s talk  at 
What’s Happening in Black British History? II 
in Liverpool 19 February 2015

The Powells came to my attention when I read a letter from Powell in Everton, describing himself as an “outlawed American negro” in a 1974 collection of letters between British and American abolitionists. Another letter, also dated 1859, stated Powell’s son was a surgeon. I looked him up in the Medical Directory 1859 and investigated on line to discover Dr Powell had served in the Union forces in the American Civil War and that his army file showed he was alive into 1915.

William Peter Powell left America with his six brothers and sisters in 1850, travelling with his namesake father and mother Mercy Haskins. She was a native American and her husband was of African descent. “He had come to this country to procure for his children that education and means of supporting themselves denied them in Boston on account of their colour” noted Dublin’s Freeman’s Journal of 8 February 1851. Their father has been called a “militant champion of black seamen”, and had run boarding houses for sailors in New York City and in New Bedford, Massachusetts.[1] The latter was part of the Underground Rail Road – which aided escaped slaves en route to freedom in Canada.[2]In Britain Powell moved on the edges of abolitionist circles and met American refugees, assisting newly-arrived Americans. In 1853 one such, William Allen, informed America’s leading white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison that on arrival in England he had spent two weeks in Liverpool “rendered more agreeable by the kindness of our mutual friend, Wm. P. Powell, Esq., formerly of New York”.[3]

 Powell attended a lecture in 1856 on “the African race” in Liverpool. Also present was “Josephine, the slave who has lately arrived here from New Orleans … accompanied by several coloured friends, and the audience loudly cheered her as an expression of their sympathy and good wishes”. Hidden for the twenty-five days of the voyage by the boatswain of the Asterion she reached Liverpool on 16 February 1856. There had been a $500 reward offered in New Orleans. She was “a mulatto” aged 20 or 23.[4] “At the close of the lecture, Mr. Powell, a coloured gentleman addressed the meeting with some humour and considerable ability”.[5] A later talk by American anti-slavery campaigner Parker Pillsbury claimed Josephine bribed a customs officer. This was investigated by the Collector of Customs at Liverpool. His refutation supported by a letter from Powell was published in the Liverpool Mercury.[6] Powell was “a coloured gentleman of much intelligence” employed by C. Bushell and Co., marine brokers of Dale Street, Liverpool. Powell had attended the investigation. His letter dated 18 March 1856 was from Field Street, in Everton.

In a letter from there dated 21 January 1859 Powell informed the white Bostonian Maria Chapman “I came to this country a poor despised outcast – outlawed American negro – driven from my native country for no ‘color of crime’ but for the ‘crime of color’”. Two months later leading Irish abolitionist Richard Webb said that Powell “is a poor man in the employment of others. His heart is excellent – his judgment very small”.[7]

Where the children went to school is unknown.  All the Powells returned to America around 1861 in time for William Peter Powell (b 1834), Edward (b 1836), Sylvester (b 1838) and Isaiah (b 1842) to serve in the Union forces in the American Civil War. Mercy was born in 1840, her invalid sister Sarah in 1845, and Samuel in 1849. The Powells took pride in their first-born son for he qualified as a doctor in Dublin. Webb was rude about him, writing in March 1859: “He has a son a surgeon, very intemperate, & one of the stupidest men I have ever met with, in whose social position his father takes great satisfaction”.[8] I have no energy to detail this cantankerous ex-Quaker Irishman.
William Peter Powell had qualified in 1857-1858 (L.M., Dublin 1857; M.R.C.S. England 1858) and worked as a house surgeon at St Anne’s District Hospital, Liverpool and on a temporary basis at the Liverpool South Hospital (according to page 667 of the Medical Directory, 1859). Dr Powell then was one of thirteen black doctors in the Union Army, working in Washington DC.

Dr Powell worked in California but was back in Liverpool in 1902 where, on 7 June he was present at 46 Prescot Street, West Derby when his 59-year-old brother Isaiah Amos Powell died from asthma. He was a cooper (barrel maker). On 12 April 1916 Dr Powell died at the Kirkdale Home in Kirkdale, West Derby aged 81. The death registration said he had died from senile decay, had been living at 1 Cotton Street, Liverpool (which was a lodging house by the docks) and had been ‘a Doctor of Medicine’. His name has not been traced in medical reference books in the 1910s. His files in Washington DC indicate he was the last surviving child.[9]

Jeffrey Green

[1] Philip S. Foner (ed.), Essays in Afro-American History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978), p 88; Granville Allen Mawer, Ahab’s Trade. The Saga of South Seas Whaling (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999) reveals the cosmopolitan nature of Massachusetts-based whaling.
[2] See also Jill L. Newmark, ‘Face to Face with History’ on which used Powell Jr’s correspondence with the Federal government in the National Archives in Bethesda, Maryland. One website confused white Dr Peter Powell of Montgomery, Alabama and our subject. Foner’s plea that ‘the existence of William P. Powell [Sr] [should] be acknowledged’ (p 107) seems to have been ignored. The patriarch was traced in New York in 1873 but the man noted in San Francisco in 1879 may well be his doctor son (p 107).
[3] ‘Letters to Antislavery Workers and Agencies’, Journal of Negro History, Vol 10 No 3 (July 1925), p 471 taken from the Liberator, 22 July 1853.
[4] Liverpool Mercury, 18 February 1856; Liverpool Mercury, 20 February 1856.
[5] Liverpool Mercury, 29 February 1856.
[6] Liverpool Mercury, 19 March 1856.
[7] Clare Taylor, British and American Abolitionists. An Episode in Transatlantic Understanding (Edinburgh University Press, 1974), pp 437, 439. She does not detail Powell but these brief mentions triggered my research.
[8] Clare Taylor, British and American Abolitionists. An Episode in Transatlantic Understanding (Edinburgh University Press, 1974), p 439.
[9] My thanks to Jill Newmark.

All Aboard - Hold Tight! - The Black History Journey

Guest blog by Ray Costello

The following is the next of Ray's talk opening the Black History 2 Workshop in Liverpool on Thursday 19 February

Well, the Black History Month bus has long left the station to return next year - to repair a somewhat interrupted curriculum.

I’d like to share a few thoughts with you on that journey.

A few short decades ago even Black History Month did not exist. Previous notions of the recording and teaching of the history of black people of the Diaspora were conceived of in a very different way. In the United States after the Abolition of slavery in 1865, white researchers considering the implications of the dawn of a Post-bellum era adopted something nearer a detached anthropological study of black people. Even later sympathetic studies, like historian and sociologist Frank Tannenbaum's (1893-1969) image of the South in the 1930s and Walter White’s study of racial violence in the early twentieth century, still possessed an element of social distance.
Joel Augustus Rogers, born in 1880 and the grand-daddy of us all, is my hero, a very early example of an isolated individual black historian who laboured to alter this perception of a people largely consigned to the dustbin of history throughout previous centuries. This lonely pioneer could certainly be described as travelling on the Black History bus in more than any metaphorical sense.

A Jamaican-American author, Rogers worked as a Pullman porter, allowing him to travel and feed his appetite for knowledge by using libraries in the cities which he visited. Self-publishing the results of his research in several books, he used his light complexion to allow him entrance into places that, at the time, a darker-skinned black man would have found difficult. At one time, he also worked as a reporter for the Chicago Enterprise and for Marcus Garvey’s newspaper.

Those of us who have heard the youthful cry from the back of the car, ‘Are we there yet?’ may have resorted to occupying young fellow travellers by encouraging them to look for signposts to gauge the journey’s progress. But what if the markers aiding us to record our journey have been removed? Many of us have found building a narrative around the lives of people of African descent difficult enough without the coathangers on which we frame that narrative being actively interfered with, yet just that happened last year with plans to eliminate the few existing black figures in British history taught within schools in order to concentrate on Winston Churchill, Oliver Cromwell or Nelson.

Mary Seacole was obviously not an isolated anomaly to be revered as a black icon, rather was she a signpost for those engaged in repairing that very ‘grand sweep of British history’ called for - and was certainly not the only black participant in the Crimean War, my own great-grandfather, Bermudan-born seaman Edward James, being amongst them. Mary’s role is, we know, a rallying post for students, around which other black people can be grouped, heroic or commonplace, like Edward - encouraging, rather than side-tracking, valuable research into the social history of ordinary black folk.

Likening these historical markers to archaeology, a previously barren field might yield a few, often small, artefacts - the occasional shard of pottery or a piece of equipment - showing the existence of a long-forgotten people or society, leading to the discovery of a surprisingly large community on that site, challenging any previously-held view. We know that seemingly isolated black individuals serve as the posts in the ground of the building, the spaces to be filled in later in the course of newer discoveries.

There have long been complaints in conferences about an over-reliance upon African-American history and the neglect of British Black history dating back to at least the 1980s. Thankfully, the Black British community has thrown up its own pioneers of British Black history.

And there are others engaged in that struggle: The West Indian historian C. L. R. James was long ago cited in Peter Fryer’s Staying Power as saying – ‘The blacks will know as friends only those whites who are fighting in the ranks beside them – And whites will be there.’

Some white historians we know well are: Jeff Green, David Killingray, Marika Sherwood, Sean Creighton, Audrey Dewjee, Stephen Bourne, Kathy Chater and others working on a Black British approach.

The problem has been that a good deal of the material has to be from primary sources. This includes information to be found in the national archives – the official sources, so to speak - and another rich primary source, the half-forgotten memories of families to be found in their metaphorical and actual shoeboxes. Official sources should not be considered in any way superior to those found in the shoeboxes of ordinary folk. So-called primary sources found in archives are often transcriptions of a clerk writing his version of reports he believed to be true, whilst letters, photographs and diaries kept by descendants of black settlers offer us first-hand material, free from interpretation (John Franklin of the Smithsonian’s new African American Museum tells me that this was how his department started). The biggest problem is still a shortfall of anything in between primary sources and shoe boxes, normally to be found in secondary source books - ordinary library books.

Black people have lived in Britain for centuries, but Liverpool’s community is continuous, dating back to at least the 18th century. In my early study, I was able to find a variety of occupations and social classes including slaves and servants, freed black loyalists from America, the student sons of African rulers, courted for political reasons, and, more than any other group, seafarers.

Entries such as this in St. James Parish Registers 1783 (Sept 10th) are to be found–
“Peter Salisbury, Negro from Baltimore, Maryland, was baptised September.”
Black loyalists, black people who remained loyal to British rule were shipped out of America to Britain in the 1780s from the American port of Savannah after the British surrender to the American rebels.

But black children born in Liverpool, were not only those of black loyalists.

I mentioned African students: -

Some African students of royal descent have been shown to have either stayed or had their descendants return at a later date. In St. James Parish 1796, there is an intriguing entry:

“Samuel Baron, son of the African king Onramby, alias Johnson, was baptised January 21st.”

Was this prince born during a visit, to a king in exile, or to an older royal student settled in England? Whoever, it provides irrefutable evidence of early British-born Black.

I must say with some humour that I will not say too much about black seafarers on this occasion, as I have just written a new book to be published by Liverpool University Press, entitled Black Tommies: Soldiers of African Descent in the First World War – to be found in all good bookshops as they say!

The effects of lack of recognition of the existence of the history of British-born and domiciled black people can be quite far-reaching and damaging. Jeff Green will be talking later about George William Christian, the son of an Antiguan seaman who had left the West Indies to settle in Liverpool in the mid-nineteenth century. After serving as a clerk for Holt Shipping Line, George established his own merchant trading business in Nigeria and Cameroon, with European as well as black employees.

As a British ­born Black man, George was in an unusual position for his times. As a clerk, he occupied a role characteristic of colonial whites, yet he was not what was referred to back home as a ‘native’, a locally-born African. This often placed him in difficult situations. His oil­ exporting business in West Africa hit problems when he was arrested and fined on one occasion for not registering a title to land in German-held Cameroon, a prerequisite of native-born German African subjects. This required the intervention of the MP for Toxteth, as we will hear later.

And their troubles were not only as individuals. We know that at the conclusion of the Great War, black seamen and their settled families faced competition with poor whites. In May of 1919 severe riots broke out in which white rioters attacked individual blacks in the streets, their homes and lodgings. Returning black and white soldiers led to demobilised black servicemen being considered, along with other black settlers, as aliens, or at the very least late-comers, in spite of some being British-born Black or long-domiciled.

Another effect of the non-recognition of British-born Black is being considered a perpetual immigrant, never a citizen. Paradoxically, they were not eligible for any benefits relating to assignation to this group in terms of funding implications, such as Liverpool having a low rating as an EPA (educational priority area) in previous decades, as Section 11 funding of the 1966 Local Government Act or 1969 Urban Programme did not apply, as many British-born Black people were undifferentiated from the greater population in terms of language, religion or culture, which was provided for. Non-recognition is a serious setback to racial integration as it perpetuates two myths; one being that black immigration is a recent phenomenon, and the other that assimilation and acculturation can cure all of society’s problems of racism, a view supported in governmental circles of all persuasions, who seem to think that the key to integration lies solely in immigrants learning English and knowing about British culture, rather than taking any responsibility for external factors, such as racism.

Are we are anywhere nearer the ‘post-black’, or even post-racial, era talked about in the wake of the election of Barak Obama in the United States, suggesting the beginning of a period in which race was no longer a defining issue of daily life? This rather premature response to the euphoria of the election of an African American president was seen to be possibly harmful in that the very notion could have the effect of curtailing existing struggles to rectify inequalities. Nevertheless, it is perhaps worth looking at the feasibility of the term ‘post-black’ and perhaps redefining it into something positive.

Some believe its origin to lie in the  book The End of Blackness by Debra Dickerson, written in 1995 and, already, the term post-black has been used in the art world as a category of contemporary African American art in which the black experience is used rather perversely to dispel the notion that race matters. In the late 1990s, the artist Thelma Golden was attributed along with her fellow artist Glenn Ligon with coining the term ‘post-black art’, which she defined, rather paradoxically, as an insistence by certain artists who are “adamant about not being labelled ‘black’ artists, even though their work is deeply involved with redefining complex notions of blackness”. Golden gave a detailed explanation of the term ‘post-black’ art in 2001 in the catalogue for the Freestyle exhibition in the Studio Museum in Harlem showing the work of twenty-eight emerging African American artists. Some people felt that the notion of ‘post-black’ was, however, a strange avoidance of the unfortunate history of African Americans, particularly as it appeared to be contradictory in that it found its sustenance by delving into that very rich heritage. Golden even admitted that ‘post-black’ is “both a hollow social construction and a reality, with an indispensable history”, while others feel that the very use of the term defines it as an ethnic marker, in spite of a professed avoidance of identity labels. In the face of such a confused, enigmatic, and certainly arty presentation, we have yet to convincingly test this notion against other areas of the curriculum.

How, then, does the present state of Black British history stand up to the notion of us entering a ‘post-black’ phase? Eventually, there might seem to be some mileage in this idea, as to the ‘post-black historian’  the study of the history of people of African descent in British society should be merely filling the gaps in history left by previous scholars, rather than black history being considered a discrete subject, separate from the mainstream of British history. One of the problems of the designation Black History, is that it provides academic institutions with a concrete entity distinct from other topics within the history syllabus, thus providing a tangible target allowing administrators and decision-makers in schools and university departments to make judgements according to their own political, moral and emotional, leanings and, if their decisions are unfavourable, can have the effect of cutting out the history of a whole section of British society at the stroke of a pen. Thus, the very isolating of Black History (often, ironically, a self-elected title by proponents such as us) can provide an all too observable target, leading to a species of academic apartheid still practiced in some otherwise very credit-worthy educational institutions. In a post-black era, with the study of black historical figures and institutions becoming mainstream, any efforts to surgically incise it from the curriculum would obviously be far more difficult to implement. And it should be said that the section of British society likely to be deprived of having their history documented is larger than those walking the cloisters of hallowed halls might think, as the last census figures show.

Still, the Black History Month bus trundles on, regardless of obstacles and ignorance. Times can change after decades of hardship, as South Africans and African Americans, with their seemingly abrupt changes of leadership, know. The wheels of the carriage may rattle occasionally, but the momentum gathers and we may have to change to another vehicle in the course of the journey. The compartmentalisation and segregation of history cannot endure and must give way.

At a local level, there is now a very good exhibition put on by Karen O’Rourke, the Curator of the Liverpool Kings Regiment Gallery at the Museum of Liverpool, aiming at a more conscious integration. Using previously unseen images, it tells the untold stories of the First World War, complementing the Museum’s items on display in the City Soldiers Gallery and the ‘From the Waterfront to Western Front’ Exhibition. The stories of black families are shown alongside those of white, and other participants.

The nirvana of historical research of any sort is never attained, but the excitement of the struggle and the joy of new discovery in this virgin and fertile area of research is so much worth the struggle. I personally believe in an approach which works towards filling the gaps in history, rather than providing cynics (or racists) with an all too separate and isolated target. Nor am I an eventualist – this should be happening now in all educational institutions, but, unfortunately we still need the markers – much more work of discovery to be done.

These are just a few of my own thoughts on the journey, of course. So much work is yet to be done around the building of any narrative of Black British people, but history has taught us that talking about goals and labouring towards destinations can often bring them about, as our own abolitionist spiritual ancestors, black and white, would agree. Although perhaps struggling on the fringes of academia, hopefully we can make a contribution to that goal today.

Ray Costello