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Black History Walks

'Black History is literally on their doorstep': Interview with the Tony Warner from 'Black History Walks'

Sky HISTORY spoke to Tony about his new book and the importance of learning about black history in schools and wider society.

Black History Walks has been running historical guided tours around the capital that uncover 3,500 years of black history. Founded by Tony Warner in 2007, Black History Walks provides authentic, stimulating, and engaging walking tours that help to educate people from all walks of life about London’s black history.

Published on 27th October, Black History Walks Volume 1 is a new book by Tony Warner that collects some of his favourite walks in London.

From Southwark to Westminster, it takes readers through historical sites, highlighting the embedded history of black Britons around the city of London and its fundamental links to Africa.

Black History Walks Volume 1 is an essential read for anyone wishing to understand the history and culture of one of the oldest and most influential metropolises in the world.

Sky HISTORY spoke to Tony about his new book and the importance of learning about black history in schools and wider society.

Can you tell us more about Black History Walks?

We've been going since 2007. We organise walking tours and films on black history. We have about 15 different walking tours in Hackney, Mayfair, St Paul's, Elephant and Castle, and Trafalgar Square.

As well as the walks, we do a bus tour and a river cruise, and we show films once a month at the BFI Southbank on a Saturday from 2pm-5pm. It's the only cinema in the country that has a regular slot for African and Caribbean films.

On top of that, we now have a plaque initiative with this company called Nubian Jak. They put up plaques for black people who have not been recognised by history.

We've sponsored 10 so far. Most recently was a plaque for Darcus Howe, the very well-known black civil rights activist in Brixton. We're working on another couple now for two black boxers called Tom Molineaux and Bill Richmond from the 1800s. Bill Richmond was a champion boxer, and he had a pub in the West End where he trained people like Lord Byron. We're hopefully putting up a plaque for him in Trafalgar Square shortly.

Other than that, my book has just come out called Black History Walks Volume 1.

What inspired you to start Black History Walks?

I've done a whole bunch of regular tourist walks and after two or three hours of walking there was no mention of black history. After whinging for a while, I decided to set up my own walks. That was in the Bank - St Paul's area. That first time we did it we had two people but now it's snowballed.

is it a different experience learning about history on a walker tour compared to in a book?

It's more immersive. What people say to me is: 'I've worked in this area for the last 5/10 years and I never knew that that thing was there.’ For instance, they never knew there was a black guy on Nelson's Column, or they never knew that the Bank of England was full of coins called Guineas because the gold used to mint them came from the Guinea coast of Africa.

They never knew that all this Black History is literally on their doorstep, and they find that quite revealing, interesting and exciting.

Is there an area of London that people will be surprised has a connection to black history?

People say to me the most surprising is the City of London. We have the St Paul's - Bank walk where we talk about William Davidson, a Jamaican guy who was studying in Scotland in the early 1800s during the time of slavery. He was a free, wealthy, black man.

Davidson moved to Manchester and, in 1819, was really moved by the Peterloo Massacre, where many working-class white people died. He was also upset by how black Caribbean people were treated at the time. He was involved in the Cato Street Conspiracy which planned to take over the country in 1820.

That's an amazing true story about revolution, class, wealth, and empire. Yet no one knows about him. He was tried, convicted, and hung at the Old Bailey in 1820. People always say to me, 'How come I've never heard of him? I've heard of Guy Fawkes, but I've never heard about William Davidson'.

What do you hope people will get from your walks?

What people tell me is that they feel proud, and they feel informed. But often they say that they feel cheated. They ask themselves 'How come I didn't know about this stuff before?'

There's a good example of this. I do a walk in Elephant and Castle where I talk about WW2. There's a guy called John Henry Smythe, a WW2 hero from Sierra Leone. He leaves Africa, joins the RAF as a bomber navigator and he flies 28 missions over Germany. On his 28th mission, he survives his plane being shot down. He was captured and sent to a Prisoner of War camp in Pomerania - a very rural area in the middle of Germany - where he was one of about 1,000 POWs.

This black guy from West Africa ends up on the escape committee, planning escapes for the other people in the camp. After the war, he goes back to the UK, becomes a barrister and a member of the King’s Counsel, and then he returns to Africa to become the Attorney General of Sierra Leone. That's a movie, right? That story should have been in schoolbooks since 1945.

It's an amazing story, true story full of heroism, intrigue and adventure and reflects the massive contribution made by Africa and the Caribbean - and India too - to WW2, which is not recognised in the history books.

What do you think of the way black history is taught in schools?

It's very lacking. What's weird is that a primary and secondary school pupil will be taught chapter and verse about the bus boycott in Alabama in 1955, but we do not learn about the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963 which was a similar sort of thing.

The ironic thing is that Johnny Smythe, who was a WW2 hero, would not be allowed to drive a bus in Bristol in 1963 because he was black. He could fly in a bomber from here to Germany 28 times, but in 1963, 18 years after the war was over, he couldn't drive a bus.

The boycott was successful in getting black people to work on the buses, but it also led to the very first Race Relations Act of 1965. That story is not part of our curriculum and it's perverse.

How did you select the walks for the book?

I picked the ones that were less well known because I thought, why not expose the history to other people?

My book is called Black History Walks Volume 1 because I know for a fact I can do ten books and still have stuff to include. I know that because, for this book, I had to leave out so much stuff it was ridiculous.

Take part in our competition to win a copy of Black History Walks Vol 1 or purchase ayour own copy here.