How We Made The First Guidebook To Black History In London

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If you know where to look, the history of Black London is a rich story five centuries in the making.

By Jody Burton

Tuesday 17 August 2021 7:00 AM

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Most people, both black and white, would be aware of the African Americans Malcom X, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks but would have difficulty naming any three historical Black British figures. Black History Month in the UK has gradually increased the representation of Black British figures but there is still a long way to go before we see more inclusive history in ‘mainstream’ books and education at large.

Through my career in the library sector and adult education, I often felt that Britain was lagging behind America when it comes to understanding Black history. Having studied Caribbean history and worked for nearly ten years in libraries, it is impossible not to be aware of the limited Black representation in books generally and Black British history books in particular. I also have a passion for Black art and having hosted a Black Arts Group for three years, I felt some of these artworks and places should be better known. 

Through writing and publishing Black London: History, Art and Culture in over 120 Places, my co-writer Avril Nanton and I hope to help redress this imbalance and bring to light the moving, powerful and important stories of Black pioneers who deserve to be remembered. Researching the book has been a voyage of discovery through the streets of London, finding new meaning for sites that many walk past every day and we hope the book will kindle curiosity and passion about untold Black history that can be so easily explored through London’s streets and public spaces

 

If you know where to look, London is a rich tapestry of memorials, plaques, artworks and historic sites that tell stories.

I was struck that Avril was a tour guide with a difference. We met at an event in 2015 and I attended Avril’s ‘Black Statues Around Westminster Walk’ in 2018.  Avril’s Walks and Talks had been providing a way for Londoners and visitors to the city to learn about Black history through public monuments and sites through her fascinating guided walks. These tours had been growing in popularity and when the Black Lives Matter movement gained global recognition, there was a real hunger for information about the Black contribution to British history, but we realised people didn’t know where to look, what to read or where to go to deepen their awareness and understanding.

Avril and I wanted to combine our skills and passion to piece together the important ‘missing links’ in British history to create the first guidebook to Black history in London. This would illuminate the lives and legacies of historical figures who had blazed trails and made a difference in a wide range of spheres. If you know where to look, London is a rich tapestry of memorials, plaques, artworks and historic sites that tell stories about Black activists, reformers, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, artists and mavericks across five centuries. From politics to healthcare, music to sport, there is a hidden legacy of Black Londoners that many people had never heard of or learned about at school. We wanted to put this information together in an easy to use, accessible and enduring way.

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Jody and Avril at Buxton Memorial Fountain at Victoria Gardens, Millbank

And so, we began compiling and documenting information and stories about both local and global figures whose lives or legacies were represented through physical monuments, plaques, street art and statues across the different boroughs of London. As two Londoners from the south and north we were able to cover information in our localities and across London as well as combine our knowledge of different parts of the city. Fascinated by the untold histories we were bringing together, the initial concept was a history book, but it evolved into a pocket-sized guide-book format. It could be easily taken out and about to explore and its contents could be bought alive in a more interactive way. We liked the idea of deviating from a traditional history book – our book doesn’t have to be read from start to finish but can be opened at any page to learn something new. Readers can also easily look up their local area to find out what is nearest to where they live with easy-to-follow maps.

In the course of writing the book we learned so much and felt inspired by stories of ground-breaking individuals who often challenged the status quo and showed immense bravery against the odds. Some have already received some degree of public recognition, like formerly enslaved writer and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano and nurse and author Mary Seacole, but many are almost entirely unknown in mainstream awareness. We were struck by the ways these people were often striving to make a difference and bring about change despite the challenges and prejudices of the time. From ancient Egypt and Tudor courts to the Napoleonic wars and contemporary activists and pioneers, we came across fascinating stories spanning centuries. Our research led us through newspapers, museum archives, online resources and across all four corners of London to photograph the places where history was made or commemorated.

Our research was full of fascinating surprises. Some figures cast new light on the most ‘well known’ periods of history, including the Tudor era. John Blanke, for example, was a trumpeter in the court of King Henry VIII and is the earliest named Black person depicted in a work of art in England. Records also show that he had the audacity to ask the King for a raise and got it! Another intriguing person from this era is Balthazar Sanchez who was responsible for setting up Almshouses in Tottenham for the poor of the area. It was unusual in the 1600s for anyone to set up housing for the poor, and even more unusual as a Black man. He left so much money that they were able to look after the houses and the people who lived in them for 300 years!

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The African and Caribbean War Memorial in Windrush Square, Brixton

There were also very moving locations and stories that touched and inspired us personally. For me, the African and Caribbean War Memorial in Brixton stands out as it acknowledges and commemorates the two million service personnel who participated in both World Wars.  It was never something I was taught at school, and Black involvement has been largely ignored and forgotten by mainstream British society, historians and history books, but the scale of this figure alone is staggering. This selective history, which only tells part of the story, unfortunately, leads some people to question this important Black contribution, so a monument of this kind plays a vital role in education.

I’d love to see Black London used in schools and educational establishments to contribute to a more inclusive history as well as being part of the broader conversation regarding race and representation. We have been delighted and overwhelmed by positive feedback about the book and we’d love to see schools, libraries and education centres ordering copies.

Writing the book has been so rewarding and we hope both black and white readers will continue showing new curiosity about this subject. It was especially wonderful to hear Robert Elms of BBC Radio London calling it ‘a triumph!’. It seems many people were simply waiting for a book like this, and we are thrilled to have spread our passion and enthusiasm with so many people in London and beyond. We hope this is just the beginning of enriching and deepening historical understanding of Black contribution to British history so future generations will know new names and stories and why they matter.

Buy the book here