You might expect this. It was also celebrated in Lincolnshire, a county of three quarters of a million inhabitants, with only 31,000 residents from an ethnic minority background, just 4% of the population, compared with 89% that is white British. That is something you might not expect. I went along to find out what had been organised.
Black History Month
Black History Month (BHM) has been marked in the United Kingdom since 1987. It has been around a lot longer than that. Originating in the United States, it was the brainchild of Carter Woodson, the son of former slaves who was born in 1875, got an education and became a professor at Harvard. Inspired by the examples of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, who did so much to end slavery in the USA, he started Black History Week in 1926. From 1976 onwards, it has been a month-long event. The Black Lives Matter and the Windrush campaigns have given it added emphasis and importance, both in America and the UK.
BHM events in Lincoln
The series of events in Lincoln was organised by Dr Sheine Peart and based at Bishop Grosseteste University. It included film screenings, several public talks, live drama and music with contributions from Professor Heather Hughes and Dr Victoria Araj from the University of Lincoln.
It’s the third time Dr Peart has organised an event at Bishop Grosseteste. She believes it’s important to find untold stories that need to be revealed, that can contribute to the growth of knowledge and awareness and that can change perceptions. Culture plays an important part in this process – not just the arts and literature but things like food culture which help create common ground for many.
This year’s programme has tried to strengthen that idea of community engagement by involving different audience sectors. Storytelling activities were held in community venues like local libraries and were aimed at younger children, while secondary schools were invited to talks such as one that explored the lives of black mathematicians from the county.
While recognising the positive progress which has occurred over the last three years, Dr Peart is keen to grow the BHM programme and involve even more sectors of the community as well as working with the local media to promote events. Like many places, Lincolnshire is proud of its heritage and within the context of Brexit where Lincolnshire recorded the largest leave vote in 2016, media promotion of Lincolnshire’s black history could help to spotlight a largely hidden and potentially forgotten world.
Against a background of a rise in racist incidents in the European Union and within the context of those demonstrating against accommodating asylum seekers at RAF Scampton, the need for events which demonstrate the positive contributions of minority groups is all the more important.
The black presence in Lincolnshire
This undiscovered history was clearly demonstrated in a talk headlined The Black Presence in Lincolnshire. It was given by Professor Hughes and Dr Araj who have been researching the subject for many years and have uncovered some intriguing details. Though documentary evidence is scarce, they have found information pointing to a black presence in the county from 1700 onwards.
This may well have been as a result of the trading activity around ports such as Boston, and in the nineteenth century, exports around the world of heavy machinery from Rustons, the Lincoln-based engineering company, would likely have led to regular visits to the county.
The research has identified two significant people with notable connections to Lincolnshire. Richard Hill was the son of mixed-race parents who was born in Jamaica in 1795. He came to England to receive an education at a grammar school at Horncastle and then returned to Jamaica to become a lawyer and to lead the fight to ensure slavery was abolished on the island.
An even more interesting resident was Mahomet Phillips. Born in the Congo, again as the result of a mixed marriage, Phillips came to England where he revealed his ability as a sculptor. By the start of the twentieth century he was based in Peterborough and from there, he ended up in Stamford. His body of work includes several war memorials (in Sleaford, Grantham and Hereford), contributions to St George’s Chapel in Windsor and several cathedrals including Bradford, Chelmsford, Southwark, Manchester and Peterborough.
What of the future?
Dr Peart is already in the early stages of planning for next year’s event. Ideas such as a fashion show and the contribution African films have made to world cinema have already been discussed. As Lincoln – driven by the success of both its universities – becomes home to a multicultural population, the potential exists for other stories to emerge and for greater audience involvement to occur.
Young people will be the key. Whatever Home Secretary Suella Braverman says about the failure of multiculturalism, they are leading the charge towards the changing attitudes we are already seeing. The efforts of those bringing Black History Month to public attention will not go to waste.
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