Beyond the SS Empire Windrush: London’s Black History in the Archives

An invaluable London resource for reconsidering black British history, explored by Charlotte Taylor (KCL).

Earlier this year I, along with my fellow classmates on Dr Alana Harris’ module Society and Culture in Twentieth Century London, visited the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. Officially established in 1981, the archive hosts not only records from (mainly) the twentieth century, but it also operates as a ‘living archive’ actively taking in (or generating through oral history interviews) records every week. The historian Laura Miller describes archives as ‘cultural touchstones to the past’, and this statement holds particular resonance for this archive – without it, a significant proportion of black British history may well have been forgotten amongst the vast sources for white British history.

Amy Barbour-Jones, born 1906 in Acton, West London.

Amy Barbour-Jones, born 1906 in Acton, West London.

When considering black British history, the popular narrative marking the 1948 Windrush voyage from the Caribbean to England as the beginning of a collective and definitive black British presence in Britain seems to dominate. However, the records at the BCA provide resources for the scripting of a different narrative – for example, the original photo of Amy Barbour-Jones that we examined (alongside others of her mother) contradicts this typical chronology by demonstrating a young, black toddler in a photograph reminiscent of those we saw in our visit to the London Metropolitan Archives to view the Victorian London in Photographs exhibition. The Barbour-Jones family were a middle-class black family from Guyana who settled in London around 1904, whilst still conducting business abroad through imperial connections, and who increasingly became involved in black British affairs. For example, the pictured Amy went on to become Secretary of the League of Coloured Peoples in 1942, an organisation which aimed to promote racial equality and black achievements.

Excavating the stories of individuals such as Amy is incredibly important as it complicates seemingly settled histories: the Barbour-Jones family defy the typical assumptions of an early twentieth-century black British family both through their class and wealth, but also through their pre-1960s political engagement. This theme of activism fits perfectly into the ethos of the BCA itself – its origins lie in a grassroots movement to create and maintain a distinct Black British history. Throughout our exploration of other archival materials, we discovered rich resources for writing about black presence and activism in 20th century London, such as the black women’s movements of the 1970s, and collectives such as the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD).

Ban the Jab poster from OWAAD’s campaign against the Depo-Provera jab.

Ban the Jab poster from OWAAD’s campaign against the Depo-Provera jab.

OWAAD, the organisation set up by Stella Dadzie, was an organisation aiming to promote equality and protest specific issues for African and Asian women. One particularly prominent instance was their ‘Ban the Jab’ campaign in which they rallied against the testing of the Depo Provera contraceptive jab on African and Asian women.  Some examples included women being unwittingly given the jab immediately after giving birth, being too exhausted to properly give consent. OWAAD in their 1979 Conference highlighted the pressure placed on African and Asian women to take contraception, contrasting it to the reluctance that doctors had providing birth control to white women. Such targeted, racialist practise seems abhorrent (and almost inconceivable) now, but OWAAD also identified key issues that sadly remain all too relevant to today.  For example, the pressure on black women to meet beauty standards that equate whiteness with beauty, and the structural exclusion of black and Asian children from the best standard of education. When reading these original conference papers held within the archive, it seemed astounding to us all that issues so hotly debated in 2016 were already being aired back in 1979.

The Black Cultural Archive is an invaluable (and highly accessible) institution which is crucial to the development and maintenance of black British histories. Its records demonstrate the narrowness of many ‘British history’ narratives which neglect the importance and contribution of black British individuals and organisations as black history is often still relegated to the position of a recent, and sometimes contentious side note within the wider narrative. All of the records we examined on our fieldtrip explored themes we were familiar with from our module, however this visit complimented and complicated these perspectives through allowing us to interrogate fascinating primary sources – such as Stella Dadzie’s satirical feminist board game, Womanpoly, devised as a humorous consciousness-raising tool as well as a rallying call to action. Our immersion in primary source materials relating to Black Edwardians and Black (and Asian) feminists allowed us to ensure that race and ethnicity, alongside gender, class and locality, remain central in the histories we will write about 20th century London.

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