Since its inception in the UK in 1987, October has been designated Black History Month. It was based on a similar effort in the USA, begun in the 1920’s and currently held in the month of February. There is still great argument around the separation of ‘Black’ history and the segregation of it into just one month, and not all twelve months, but the fact remains that there are still inequalities in public life directly related to the colour of a person’s skin, no matter how and who they identify with.
Today, Black History Month generally includes people of non-Caucasian heritage, rather than just those who have a connection to Africa, and is particularly significant for cities like Bradford which have experienced high levels of immigration from all over the world in the late 20th and 21st Centuries, really, the very recent past.
When reading about Black History as a subject, one tends to focus in on events and people which are fairly well publicised because it’s much easier to find out information about them. In my office there is a portrait (a copy of course – the original was painted by Thomas Gainsborough in 1768), of a well dressed Black man, at about the age I am now. Like me, at the time the portrait was painted, he had a wife and children and was making his living in the UK – although in London as a Grocer, not in Bradford as a Museum Curator.
Unlike me, he had experienced a hellish youth. Born as a Slave on the way to ‘New Grenada’ (The Spanish colonies of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela) where his mother died and his Father killed himself, and shipped as a child to the UK to serve aristocratic ladies as a fashionable ‘exotic’.
I often find myself looking at him while I work and having read his diaries and letters, knowing what he did in his spare time, the famous people and abolitionists he mixed with, wondering what life was really like for others like him, far away from the capital and fashionable society.
You see, Ignatius Sancho was a well known society figure and became famous in his own time, supporting the cause for Black education s well as for freedom. He was the first Black person on record with a vote in this country, and has remained fairly well known since his death in 1780.
But what about those who are not famous, the slaves brought to this country and those Black people who arrived after emancipation in 1833? Hundreds of thousands of immigrants flooded into an expanding industrial Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800’s..not all of them were white. Where did they go? How did they live and what happened to their descendants? They are invisible in records because colour is rarely recorded, and even if place of origin is, it’s often less than helpful. Neither are names.
My Grocer ‘Ignatius Sancho’ was named by Spanish Owners, and if he had ended up in Spain he would have disappeared into the crowds with all the other people bearing similar names. In the UK many Black Africans were known by Slave names such as Ceasar or Prince…but others quickly and anonymously became John Smith or Betty Price.
In some records such as burial, clues can be found such as ‘Robert Moore’ with the emphasis on the ending underlined or the use of a phrase like ‘A Stranger’.
It gets a bit easier in the age of photography, as looking at a crowd scene of a plate glass negative means picking out people with different complexions. But now we have the opposite problem – no name. Nothing to help find out more about that person and how they came to be there.
When it comes to finding and even representing Black people in museum collections, staff often struggle because of that anonymity. In the main, clothes, personal possessions and objects used at work often don’t tell us much about the owner’s ethnicity. Photos and portraits are a little easier, but equally, telling stories is not straightforward. Looking at a selection of images from The Industrial Museum’s Photo Archive is a case in point. Look here at a crowd shot and a photo snapped in a charity clothes jumble in Bradford. Neither of the Black people in the photos were the real subject of the photos, they are incidentally there.
One is a crowd scene of a Coronation day parade for George the Fifth on June 22nd 1911. A young black man is watching in the foreground – can you find him? Answer
In the other photograph, taken in motion, the little girl looking at second-hand bonnets is a rare glimpse of a Black Victorian Bradfordian. There may not be many pictures, but here are just two young people, growing up. So where are their children, grandchildren, and great, great grandchildren now?
Close up of the young girl.
Since the 1940’s and the arrival of the ‘Windrush Generation’ (those who came from British dominions to work in industry, transport and the new NHS to help get the country back on its feet again after World War Two), we have much more evidence of different ethnic backgrounds everyday through media and culture, but what about material evidence? How can we tell stories about ethnic or cultural communites through objects? How much do objects matter in Black History? How important (and different) are they in the telling of unique stories?
Black History is a frustratingly fascinating subject and an integral part of history on every level, from the famous to the anonymous, and continues to influence British culture. To be truly inclusive, we must share. To try to understand those things that we perceive as different as well as what makes us similar. How did any of us arrive at the place where we find ourselves today?
If you identify with a Black or Ethnic Minority culture and feel there are objects which help to tell the story of your, or your families lives in Bradford, we would love to know about them.