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“I was coming out of brilliant sunshine”: Women’s stories from the Roots Family History Project #2

By Jo Manby

This second post in the two-part series on Elouise Edward’s and Marie Noble’s 1970s/80s oral history project, that became the Roots Family History Project, aims to give an overview of the women respondents and their experiences of settling in Britain during the 1940s – 1960s, covering discrimination, employment, housing and Black activism.

image of Roots History Project logo
Roots Family History Project: ‘A people without history is like a tree without it’s roots’

Varona Nurse, who we saw in the first of these two posts came originally from St Kitt’s, had experience of sewing clothes back home, and once she had settled in Manchester she took up work in a garment factory. She also worked as a house mother in children’s homes. She fostered for 19 years, and tells the interviewer some lovely stories about her wards:

I knew one, when it was my birthday, he used to rush out early and when I opened the front door, I used to meet a bunch of flowers… I went to a meeting one night and when I return home I met them painting the house.

Daisy Shortman spent 11 years as a typist in a typing pool at Great Universal Stores (GUS). Edith Stanley also worked at GUS. The women (as well as the men) had problems with the lack of union representation at work:

Even in Dunlop’s the union was no good, because you know they was working there for the firm… so they had to protect their own jobs as well.

Conditions could be harsh and dangerous. Many of the Roots respondents including some of the women worked for Vitafoam, a company manufacturing foam rubber seating and cushions, for example for bus seats. Dorothy remembers that while moulding the foam rubber, ‘the foam burned my hand like… something hot, that almost peeled me skin off me hand.’

Asked whether they experienced racism in these early years, many reported little details that nonetheless ‘added up’. Jessica Smith recalled that at GUS more Black women workers were searched as they left work than white women. The wages were generally accepted as being better for whites as a matter of course. Mrs Wilson said that there was:

always discrimination at work because for a start dey don’t want you, the Black people, to talk for yuh rights. However bad the ting is, you must just say “Oh, yes,” accept it.

However, when asked about discrimination on the streets, Mrs Wilson said it was nothing extraordinary. Alice Evans thought that while previously racism had always been there, but kept under the surface, during the 1980s, ‘I am sorry to say, racism has got respectable,’ referring to incidents in Moss Side. Edith recalls someone’s observation that in church;

they used to serve all the white first with the communion, and then go to the Blacks, so… it’s all these little things.

Many women married and settled in Moss Side where a strong community grew up over the decades. Many of them recall the early days of political activism: Jessica Smith remembers the Black Women’s Mutual Aid; Louise Da-Cocodia the West Indian Organisations Coordinating Committee (WIOCC), where she was chair; developing projects such as Caribbean Enterprises, Arawak Housing Association and the Positive Action Character Training Programme. Home Office funding and CRE (Commission for Racial Equality, now merged into Equality and Human Rights Commission) dispensation were acquired in order to empower young people to achieve higher level training, BTEC and above; and to negotiate with the Housing Corporation on behalf of the elderly.

Louise Da-Cocodia, who gives the longest interview in the whole collection, chaired Moss Side Women’s Action Forum (MOSWAF) and served on the Court of Manchester University and the Metropolitan University boards and was a magistrate. Coca Clarke, was one of the women who was involved in the Black Women’s Cooperative sit-in to occupy George Jackson House when they felt that they needed to gain independence from the male element that had crept in, and formed Abasindi.

Talking about the demolition of Monton Street, Coca Clarke said ‘They definitely destroyed Moss Side completely.’ Clearance of Raby Street and Cecil Street areas as well, had led to 90 percent of the erstwhile communities moving out. Pamela Lewis said that in 1966 when she arrived, Moss Side was;

beautiful… it was a community, not a false one that they are creating now.

Coming over to Britain in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, these women along with their communities made a huge contribution to the UK economy and played an essential role in developing a diverse, tolerant and multi-ethnic society. It is important that their investment in what a post-war Britain could be like, how it could be rebuilt, is never forgotten. These oral testimonies help retain the liveliness and individuality of their voices.

In the Resource Centre collection you will find the Roots Family History Project interview transcripts in bound volumes in our glass cases.

Elsewhere on the shelves and in the reference-only collection, you will find books to complement aspects of these lives and times.

John Benyon’s The Roots of Urban Unrest (PO.1.01/BEN) is a book covering the underlying reasons for rioting across Britain during the 1980s, including material relating to the Moss Side riots of 1981.

What Race Didn’t Divide: Some Reflections on Slum Clearance in Moss Side (MAN/HO.9.01/WAR), by Robin Ward, is a book that reflects on the decision by Manchester City Council to slum clear the Moss Side area, leading to the development of a series of housing action movements characterised by multiracial membership.

What Does Education Mean for African/Caribbean and Asian Women? Conference (MAN/ED.1/BLA) is a publication based on a conference held at Moss Side Community Education Centre in June 1987, organized by the Black Women in Education and Community Work Group.

You might also like the Roving Reader’s series From Jamaica to England, the first post is here.

By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

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