Archives, history and Black footprints

There is a tendency to see the history of Black people in Britain as a 20th Century history, and certainly the post-war period saw a large number of West Indian (not to mention African, Asian, European) migrants arrive here, what we call the ‘Windrush Generation’.  And this period is the focus of our own archive – a repository for recent histories and living memories.

But a trip to the Lancashire Archives (for a CILIP Black History day school) has really put this into perspective for me.

Image of Neil Sawyer 3

Archives Access Manager Neil Sayer (easily the most animated archivist I have ever met) has been scouring the stacks for evidence of Black families in Preston – he’s found a surprising amount, including the earliest record from 1602 (1602! In Preston! Incredible).  On the same theme Clinton Smith of the Preston Black History Group talked about uncovering Preston’s ‘Black foot print’. There are traces of Black British history well before 1900.

Image of Clinton Smith

But traces is often all we can find. One big issue for researchers is that Black people who came to Britain as slaves would have had their names changed, so their descendants are unidentifiable within written historical records. Some records include a physical description, which is great, i.e., ‘a man of coloure’. But these tend to be court, hospital or prison records, which don’t tell the most balanced story…

So the process of tracing Black history is, by necessity, a slightly creative one. Archives provide little snippets that fire the imagination. A West Indian man arrives at Preston dock in 1850 – what kind of reception did he get? An African mother sends her daughter to a Lancashire asylum in the 1880s – what kind of mischief could a Black teenager get herself into back then? Two Black families lived within a few streets of each other in the 1780s – did they know each other??

We’ll probably never find actual answers, but we can find clues – newspaper stories about dock life, records of the social activities of Black families in other parts of the UK – historical reference points. Maybe we do have to use our imaginations to do the rest, but this makes us engage with our history from new perspectives. A great example of this is the Juba Royton project our Archives+ partners and Loreto High School have recently done – you can read Joanne’s blog here – talk about bringing the archives to life!

There is an important political point here too, as both Neil and Clinton emphasised. Evidence of Black families living and working in Britain during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries overturns the ‘myth of return’ – the notion that all Black people are recent migrants and we can expect them to return their ‘homelands’. Actually, this is the homeland; there are Black footprints all over British history.

A great introductory book about the history of Black people in Britain is Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, available in the library.

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