Chris Upton tells of former slave Moses Roper's lecture tour in the 1830s Birmingham - and its unpalatable truths.
From as far back as one can go, Birmingham has been a melting-pot of communities, not as diverse as today, admittedly, but always a mixture. There were the Welsh and the Scots, of course, but also Jews from eastern Europe, plenty of Irish and a scattering of Italians. And that was by the mid-19th century alone.
It was always a far guess that there were black people here too, as there were in other large towns, but historians have not found them easy to locate, if their presence was recorded at all. To be honest, there is no obvious place to look for them. They turn up when you’re looking for something else entirely.
As my humble contribution to Black History Month (which I’ve missed by three weeks) I offer up these new discoveries for some future book on the black (and Asian) history of Birmingham.
In 1837 the Congregational Church in Birmingham, whose headquarters, then and now, were in Carrs Lane, launched a town mission. The idea was to send three missionaries – Mr Clay, Mr Derrington and Mr Sibree – into the heart of darkest Birmingham to round up the lost sheep and turn them back to the ways of the Lord. The Unitarians set up a similar mission a few years later.
The Congregationalists believed – and the missionaries provided plenty of evidence to confirm it – that the slum streets of Birmingham housed people just as heathen as in the parts of the world missionaries had traditionally been sent into. They were, in the words of one of the agents “as ignorant as Hottentots”.
Armed only with a Bible and hundreds of religious tracts to distribute among the poor, the men headed off into the courts of Digbeth, Livery Street and Aston Road. Many they found there on the point of death, many more in abject poverty; unemployment in the late 1830s was rife, and ill health, destitution and darkness followed. These were the people whom even the Poor Law and the various relief funds left behind.
In addition, of course, the agents wrestled with what they saw as the unsavoury habits engendered
by urban life: drinking, Sabbath-breaking and socialism. They had a tract for every evil, and an unshakeable conviction that they were doing God’s work.
The three missionaries kept diaries of their daily work, how many houses they visited, how many prayer meetings they held, and described in unique detail the dwelling places of the poor, their lives and frame of mind. Those diaries, regularly scrutinized by the elders of the church, are now preserved in the archives and heritage section of Birmingham Central Library.
It is here, unexpectedly, that Birmingham’s black presence is felt.
One of the missionaries – Mr Sibree – had already come across one unusual group of men in Duke Street in June 1838. They were three “Mohammedans” from Cairo, who were over in Birmingham to investigate some of the local trades. Conversation inevitably turned to matters of religion and, amongst other things, the advantages (in Sibree’s eyes) of monogamy over polygamy.
A little later – in January 1839 – Mr Sibree met what he called “an African from Barbados”. This was in Tower Street. The man described to the missionary how he had been stolen from home and had spent 20 years as a slave in the Caribbean. Since that time he had lived by manual labour and by begging. Uncharitably the missionary reported that he suspected the truth of some of the man’s statements. Nevertheless, there he was. neither in Africa nor America.
Clearly the unnamed man had been a victim of the slave trade, but lived to tell the tale. Birmingham had been at the forefront of the campaign against slavery. William Wilberforce’s Act of 1807 had abolished the trade with the British dominions, but not the practice of slavery or the apprenticeship system which replaced it. The crusade, therefore, continued under the leadership of Joseph Sturge and others.
One of the other missionaries – Edwin Derrington (I know his Christian name only because a descendant of his now lives in Solihull) – saw the trade at first hand, when he attended a lecture given by Moses Roper at Carrs Lane.
Roper was the author of one of the influential “slave narratives” published at this time to sway public opinion. The Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper was first published in 1838. Moses Roper’s father had been a white plantation owner in North Carolina and his mother – Nancy – was one of Roper’s black slaves. He was born in 1815 or thereabouts.
Being of mixed race did not save Moses from the fate of his African-American compatriots. On his father’s death Moses and his mother were sold, and Moses was passed from slave-owner to slave-owner in the Deep South. In Moses’ opinion the harsh treatment he endured was partly due to his paler skin.
Eventually Roper escaped to New York and made his way to England, where he wrote an account of his life, and began an endless lecture tour to draw attention to slavery in the Deep South. In the West Midlands area alone he spoke to 30 audiences, from Stafford to Warwick and from Wednesbury to Walsall.
It was on February 23 1838 that Moses Roper came to Birmingham and spoke at Carrs Lane Congregational church. Derrington wrote in his diary that there were close to 300 people in the audience, and that Roper read from his book and added extra details as well. He also “exhibited the chains and irons he had had made to represent those he was enslaved with in America.” This must have been the most striking moment of the lecture.
The missionary had the chance to speak to Moses Roper after the meeting and found him – when not on stage – a man of very few words. Like his colleague, Mr Derrington had doubts about the narrative. It seems that both men were unsettled (and perhaps partly in denial) that the strongly Christian southern states of America were continuing to embrace slavery as a way of life. Derrington was also somewhat concerned that Roper had given the impression that some of the Christian churches in America were condoning slavery. Would he not like to modify his words ? Tight-lipped, Moses Roper’s simple reply was: “I shall tell the truth.”