Chris Upton explains why black history in Britain didn’t just begin with the arrival of The Windrush.
You were told at school, I guess, that the most important thing to remember about history is the dates. As a result 54 and 1066, 1208 and 1485, 1914 and 1945 were hammered into your heads. Forget them at your peril.
Yet in many ways the dates are the least important, and they certainly cause the most nuisance.
Take black history, for example. It is just as relentlessly driven home that black migration to England began with the arrival of the Emperor Windrush at Tilbury Docks in June 1948. Mike and Trevor Phillips’ major book on Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community takes this event both as its title and its starting-point.
Not everyone would agree. Thomas Richards, for one, would disagree most strongly.
Thomas was the seventh son of Jeremiah and Hannah Richards from the Black Country, and was born in Wood Lane, West Bromwich, in 1874. His grandfather – Jeremiah’s father – was a black ex-slave, brought across to Wolverhampton as a domestic servant. For the grandson – a black man in the Victorian Black Country – life was not easy either.
Thomas worked mostly as a pavement artist – a skill not entirely vanished today – including a spell working for a grocer in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. Thomas would make sketches of the goods on the pavement outside the shop in an effort to lure customers inside. It was said that he could earn as much as £4 a week.
But we can go much further back than Thomas Richards. We can go back to James Albert in the 1770s. Or perhaps we should call James by his real name, which was Ukawsaw Gronniosaw. He adapted the English monicker to fit in better with people who struggled to spell their own names, let alone a foreign one.
Gronniosaw arrived in the town of Kidderminster in 1771, almost 200 years before the Windrush sailed. He was an ex-slave, the grandson of an African prince from Bornu, in what we would now call north-eastern Nigeria.
Sold into slavery, he was lucky enough to avoid the West Indian plantations and worked instead as a domestc servant in New York, before crossing the Atlantic to seek a new life in England.
He married in London, but James and Betty did not remain there for long, moving to Colchester and then to Norwich in search of work.
It was the writings of the theologian, Richard Baxter, that inspired Ukawsaw to come to Kidderminster, and here at last the family settled – Ukawsaw, his wife and their three children. Their father found work in a silk manufactory and, a year or so later, published an account of his life, the first former slave to do so.
We can go back further still, to the unnamed Black furnaceman, who was working at Lloyd’s Slitting Mills at Birmingham Moat in 1749. A Swedish engineer, undertaking a tour of industrial England in the mid-18th Century, happened to notice him and made a note in his journal.
And further again, to a “Negro gardener” called Samson, who was working on an estate in Oswestry in Shropshire in 1662. There are sure to be others.
The stories of Ukawsaw Gronniosaw and Thomas Richards and many others have been uncovered by a team of “history detectives”, led by David Callaghan and Barbara Willis-Brown of the Sparkbrook Caribbean and African Women’s Development Initiative (SCAWDI).
Armed with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Barbara put together a team of historians – many of them new to the business of archival research – who have spent six months scouring record offices, newspapers and estate records to unearth a largely lost and forgotten history.
The end result of the project is a newly published book, History Detectives: Black People in the West Midlands 1650-1918, and an exhibition currrently running in the Friends’ Meeting House on Moseley Road.
It will then go on tour. It’s an appropriate highlight of this year’s Black History Month.
So readable and engaging is the finished publication that it’s easy to forget how tricky this kind of research can be. The black community of the 18th and 19th century in the West Midlands were, in the main, ordinary working class people, even if the routes they or their ancestors took to get here were anything but ordinary.
Like their white counterparts, they tended to tread lightly on the earth as far as historical documentation goes. Turning the casual reference in a newspaper or parish register to “a man of colour” into a life and a story does not come easy. The team are to be congratulated for doing just that.
It would have been nice if the researchers had found space to reveal the sources for their fascinating stories. Showing the steps might also encourage others to follow.
Nor are are references themselves always easy to interpret. What do we make of the reference to the ‘son of an Egyptian’, imprecisely buried by the vicar of Chaddersley Corbett in 1667. Was he ‘a child of colour’ too or was he of gipsy stock, for gipsies at this time were generally believed to have originated in Egypt.
The 200 or so names that began the book – all of them black people living in the West Midlands before the First World War – shows that there is still much work to do in turning these into life stories as well.
Together they show that our region has been culturally and ethnically diverse for many centuries before the Windrush arrived with its Caribbean passengers 60-odd years ago.
* Windrush – The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, by Mike and Trevor Phillips (HarperCollins)