In this guest article, Tony Warner, the founder of Black History Walks and author of Black History Walks Volume 1, explores why there is such a significant void when it comes to Black British history being taught in schools.
If you ask British schoolchildren to list the names of people they learn about in Black history sessions, it does not take long to notice that most of the names are American. In fact, up until at least 2013, there was a section on the Key Stage 3 syllabus known as ‘Black People of the Americas’. However, there has never been a section titled ‘Black People of the British Isles’ even though there is easily evidenced history to this effect going back to Roman times 2,000 years ago.
Curiously, children here know chapter and verse about Rosa Parks and the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, but these same children will look at you blankly if you mention Paul Stephenson and the Bristol Bus Boycott he led in 1963. In 1960s Bristol you could ride the bus and sit where you wanted if you were Black, but there was a colour bar against Black people driving buses. This was quite perverse as Black pilots and navigators were flying Spitfires and Lancaster bombers to protect the nation during WWII.
Mr Stephenson’s boycott was successful and contributed to the creation of the Race Relations Act of 1965. That law was the building block for later Race Relations laws in 1968, 1976, 2000 and 2010.
The boycott and subsequent law was endorsed by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. So why are British children taught details of a bus boycott 4,000 miles away in America, but taught nothing of a similar boycott which took place in their own country?
Paul Stephenson's lack of profile in education compared to Rosa Parks' is hard to explain, especially considering he was granted an OBE, the Daily Mirror Pride of Britain Lifetime Achievement Award and has done countless media interviews on 21st-century racism.
Similarly, British adults and children are familiar with the 1963 March on Washington and the famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech by Martin Luther King Jr. They will also have, at least, a vague knowledge that Black Americans were not treated equally and had to lobby, protest and demonstrate for their rights.
If the names Darcus Howe, Jessica and Eric Huntley, John La Rose and Menelik Shabbaz are mentioned alongside the phrase ‘Black Peoples’ Day of Action’, there will be even more quizzical looks. The Black Peoples’ Day of Action took place on 2nd March 1981 when no less than 15,000 people marched from New Cross to the centre of London to lobby, protest and demonstrate for equal rights and an end to racism. It was the biggest Black protest in UK history.
The catalyst for this march was a fire known as the ‘New Cross Fire’ or ‘New Cross Massacre’ which occurred on 18th January 1981, at 439 New Cross Road SE14. 13 young Black people lost their lives in what was widely suspected to be a racially motivated arson attack. At this time, arson attacks on Black people’s premises were quite common; for example:
• 1971: Unity Centre, a Black community venue in Brixton was firebombed
• 1971: the Caribbean Overseas Association Hall in Ealing suffered three
• 1977: Moonshot, the first Black youth club in Lewisham, was burned down by the National Front, a racist political party with members known to attack Black people on the street.
• 1978: Albany Theatre in Deptford was also gutted due to arson soon after it had hosted a 'Rock Against Racism' concert.
In 2011, 30 years after the event, Nubian Jak erected a plaque on 439 New Cross Road in memory of the fire. At the ceremony, neighbours, passers-by and even the people who presently lived in the house had no idea of the tragedy or its aftermath.
It seems there is a chasm of memory when it comes to the lived experience of the Black population of this country. Even when such tragic events take place within the gaze and living memory of the community, they are not remembered.
As a result of this memory void and the mainstream school curriculum, civil rights and the fight for racial equality is seen as an American phenomenon, rather than a British one. This has widespread effects, not least the idea amongst the white majority and increasingly Black youth that there is no Black history here in Britain.
This is one reason why, since 2007, Black History Walks has run walks, talks, films, bus tours and river cruises all year long and, in 2020, wrote Black History Walks Volume 1.
In 1987, thanks to people like, Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, Ansel Wong, Linda Bellos, Ken Livingstone and others Black History Month was established in this country to deal with the ignorance mentioned above.