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It is our Black History Month - Passing the Baton on

Mia Morris & Maureen Roberts

Black History Month is celebrated in the UK mainly in October each year. We may well take it for granted that events and activities take place, but let's remember and appreciate the contribution made by those who came before its establishment in 1987 by the London Strategic Policy Unit.

The late Len Garrison - one of the founder members and chairman of Black Cultural Archives (BCA) - said, "Remember what we inherit today has been won with bloodshed and sacrifice by others yesterday".

Mia Morris

Mia (Left) & Maureen (Right)

Maureen Roberts

In 1977, Len Garrison founded The Afro-Caribbean Education Resource Project (ACER) to publish and produce learning materials, drawn from the Black British experience, for use in schools. This project was one the cornerstones for ILEA’s multi-ethnic and anti-racist policy in practice. Through this work, he also established the Black Young Writers Award, which encouraged and exposed the talents of scores of young Black writers in the 1970s and 80s. Some of those writers who benefited form this initiative included Nicola Williams, Michael McMillan and Michael Beckles.

The Black Cultural Archives (BCA), established in 1981, organised a series of classical music events celebrating the life of Samuel Colleridge Taylor (composer of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast) and Alexander Pushkin (a black-a-moor) revered in Russia as much as Shakespeare is in England.

The Centenary of Marcus Garvey's birth was celebrated by a number of events in London, and at the Nottingham Playhouse. In London, The Commonwealth Institute was the venue where flautist Keith Waithe made one of his key performances. It was also the debut of the First Black Classical Concert at the South Bank. Performers included Shirley Thompson, Tunde Jegede, Clement Ishmael (Director of the ‘Lion King’).

In West London, BHM founding member, publishing house Bogle-L’Ouverture also contributed to the Centenary events by publishing a book entitled Marcus Garvey - A Hero by Eric. L. Huntley. Together with the book, was a pictorial portfolio of forty panels depicting Garvey's "Life and Times".

Some years later, in 1998, Keith Waithe, composer and arranger, was instrumental in obtaining the support of the London Borough of Ealing, as its Principal Arts Officer, in borough-wide activities commemorating centenary events.

Flip Fraser and Junior Douglas’ Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame, encapsulated our world, giving us a sense of pride in our achievements (nice to see that is has been revived). Though there have been some tremendous theatrical productions since, this in essence was the forerunner, capturing the imagination of contemporary youth and families at the time whilst propagating our history.

The role of the Keskidee Centre in Caledonian Road, North London, and the late Oscar Abrahams who ran the centre, together with the West Indian Student Centre in Collingham Gardens, and the Abeng Centre, plus bookshops like New Beacon, Grassroots, and Headstart, gave birth to a number of project activists. These were the places where our culture unfolded. Many an actor, comedian, writer, community worker and teacher met with like-minded people and attended events such as lectures by Angela Davis, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

This is an opportunity to recognise the rich contributions to our history made by elder statesmen Lord David Pitt, our first Parliamentarian, former chair of the British Medical Association, and the Greater London Council; by Berry Edwards, from Manchester, who ran a bookshop, regularly organised cultural activities, and of course the late Bernie Grant MP.

Pearl and the late Edric Connor ran the first theatrical agency in Shaftesbury Avenue giving support and life to actors of a by-gone era. Sandra Boyce, Paulette and Beverly Randall managed a number of our contemporary acting fraternity. Actors and actresses we are indebted to include Rudolph Walker, Oscar James, the late Norman Beaton, Clarke Peters, the late Joan Campbell, Hugh Quarshie, Yvonne Brewster, Carmen Munroe, Earl Cameron and Corrine Skinner-Carter. Now we are regularly seen in the professions as well as the regular stereotypes on television.

Alongside Keith Waithe, comes the stalwart work of Jessica and Eric Huntley now in their early 70’s who are actively involved in community work, whether it be the establishment of a supplementary school, a sickle cell support group or the fight for criminal justice. All this, whilst still running Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, and the Walter Rodney bookshop (no longer operating). Their home in Ealing has been a place of refuge and support for a multitude of authors, writers and parents. An evening in their company is uplifting and special, as they embody all that is good about coming from the Caribbean.

They were joint directors, with John La Rose (New Beacon Publishers and Bookshop), in 1982, of the first international radical and third world book fair, held in Islington Town Hall, which subsequently contributed to establishing latter day poets such as Benjamin Zephaniah, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Lemn Sessay, John Agard and Valerie Bloom. There was a time when people travelled to them from all over London, literally in times of difficulties and unrest, to get a better understanding of how things were taking shape.

As a creative writer who has worked with people, programmed cultural activities in schools, prisons, colleges, universities and for the corporate sector, an event does not work unless you have the artists who can capture those all important moments..

Visual arts are again useful for BHM events as they help build a picture and further stimulate the mind beyond what you can really see. Recognising the major role and spectacle of Carnival, Trinidad and Tobago Carnival Club, Mahogany, Cocoyea and South Connections, - and the work of visionary, activist and journalist Claudia Jones.

The work of Sculptor Fowokan George Kelly should be revered - a bust of Jessica Huntley should really have pride of place in our own museum, which it will one day. These foot soldiers shoulder and cradle our creative community often with no recognition for their work. We certainly look forward to the day when there is a large public art display of his work. Maybe if London gets the Olympic bid his work will adorn the gates.

The role of those who operate behind the camera is invaluable, whether it be Menelik Shabazz, Albert Bailey, Kelvin Richards, Imruh Caesar, John Akomfrah or a photographer such as Armet Francis who has possibly the largest social documentary of photographs chronicling our life and times. Armet has been chronicling for over forty years and assignments have included The Times Magazine, Sunday Times Supplement, BBC and Channel 4. Later came the work of Neil Kenlock, Van Lee Burke , Robert Taylor and Anita McKenzie

Arthur Torrington who runs both the Equiano Society (better known as Gustavas Vassa) and the Windrush Foundation regularly organizes events and activities to promote the contribution of Equiano. Events have involved community conferences focusing on his contribution to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. Equiano stands shoulder to shoulder with abolishinists like William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Granvile Sharpe and others. The society played an instrumental role in ensuring together with the English Heritage and Camden council that a blue plaque was placed in central London for Equiano.

The Windrush foundation has grown to an awards ceremony but during that great period of celebration where our elders, and quite rightly so, are treated like Royalty. Where they as one said, ‘wore more different suits and tie in one month than he did in a whole life time of being in London’. Journalist, broadcaster and historian Steve Martin regularly lead walks revealing the hidden histories of black peoples. Martin’s in depth knowledge is superb .

Campaigning and sharing information about Black History has been for most a life long career. Take for instance, Professor Elizabeth Anionwu, Head of the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice at Thames Valley University in London (, who when she came across the life of Mary Seacole used her influence, her tenacity and her will power to ensure that all Nurses become more aware of her contribution. Joined up work between the Department of Health and various nursing and midwifery organisations, such as the Royal College of Nursing, Unison, the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association and the Royal College of Midwives, has meant that Mary Seacole's life is now remembered via a nursing leadership scholarship named after her and worth 250,000 per year - rather ironically the Royal College of Nursing has coined Black History Month "the Mary Seacole Black History Month".

Mia Morris runs the mentoring, motivational and management consultancy, Well Placed Consultancy. Well Placed Consultancy fields questions and queries all year round on their website, from schools who are keen to do a session on migration in 15 minutes, local authorities keen to get their hands on historical photographs, independent book shops keen for publicity, radio stations wanting to find out more about the lives of current classical musicians through to government department and employer networks. We took a query in Spring for a theatre company wanting to know whether they could include Bangra Dancing, Soca and Quadrille as part of the Black History in service teaching.

Queries and questions and points of clarification are all important real stuff which keeps the community going. In essence, with the absence of any clear centrally co-ordinated body, Well Placed Consultancy was recently told by an established media agency, who supply copy in advance, ‘we gather that you are the sole contact person for BHM’. Essentially we are of the opinion, that BHM has become so multi cultural that it is very much in danger of departing from its original roots.

As you read this, you will think of other people who should be mentioned, but what this article is attempting to do is to alert you to the people who, whether Black History Month is funded, part funded or not funded at all, will do what they can, where they can to make sure that it happens. It would be good if families were encouraged to attend events organised by the little people so that one day they will rise up like all of our heroes whom we revere.

We have heard the plight of several voluntary organisations who are still awaiting confirmation of funding for an event planned for the end of the year, which had a closing deadline of 31st March with the outcome being made in July this year and despite several phone calls and responding to various questions by funders are still none the wiser.

In actual fact, we should generate our own funds as well as press for adequate ring fenced funding for smaller organisations rather than the situation now of the larger museum just adding to their collections of work without generating any real benefits to communities.

For those of you who are considering their itineraries, bear in mind those who passed before us will not pass this way again, but not attending our own events organised within the community will ultimately destroy our creativity and resolve and essentially our spirit. So Enjoy.

Originally produced for the GLA London Live Black Heritage Magazine

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