Culture: Black history is British history

The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly dominated 2020. But there has also been something of a cultural awakening around issues of racism and injustice. As Black History Month gets underway, Richard Dawson speaks to Professor Donna Chambers about her newfound research into the history of anti-racism in Sunderland

Last Thursday (October 1) marked the beginning of Black History Month, which has been observed in the UK every year since 1987.

It’s a time for us to celebrate and reflect on the contribution black people have made to British history.

“Black history is British history,” explains Donna Chambers, professor of tourism at the University of Sunderland.

“For both the positive and the negative aspects, black history is very much intertwined with British history,” she clarifies.

In the North East, Black History Month gives us pause to re-examine our own past and focus minds on the black figures who visited and lived in the region as they set about changing the world.

Perhaps the most famous example being Martin Luther King Jr, who was given an honorary doctorate by Newcastle University on November 13, 1967.

It was a graduation ceremony like no other when Dr King held an audience spellbound in the university’s Kings Hall as he spoke about his vision to see racism eradicated everywhere.

His words are as true today as they were then.

“The world will never rise to its moral, political or even social maturity until racism is totally eradicated,” he said.

But Newcastle’s anti-racism history goes back even further.

In 1846, the anti-slavery campaigner, author and former slave Frederick Douglass came to Newcastle, speaking to packed out halls and churches about the miserable situation in his native country.

It was a journey that would fundamentally change his life and change perceptions in the North East around the plight of black people.

Sunderland too has a long and interesting history of anti-racism, one that is being brought to light by the efforts of Professor Chambers and the university’s Race, Class and Ethnicity (RaCE) network.

In the late 19th century, a renowned anti-racist activist called Celestine Edwards lived in Sunderland for around two years.

Thought to have been Britain’s first black newspaper editor, Edwards was born on the Caribbean island of Dominica in the 1850s, coming to Wearside in the 1880s.

While on Wearside, he delivered a number of lectures and events at the old Assembly Hall, which once stood on Fawcett Street in the city centre.

Sunderland was a global port hub and shipbuilding powerhouse at the time, and this led to immigration from all different parts of the world.

As such, Edwards worked with many other people in the area who advocated against racism and slavery, some of whom were part of the Quaker community.

Famously, it was two Quaker women, Anna and Ellen Richardson, who raised the necessary funds to buy the freedom of Frederick Douglass in 1847.

When Celestine Edwards arrived, the world was changing for black people in different ways.

Slavery had been abolished in 1865 following the American Civil War but the European colonial conquest or so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’ was just getting started, leading black people into a new kind of subjugation.

The emphasis of Edwards’ campaigning therefore shifted away from anti-slavery and towards anti-imperialism.

Donna explains: “Anti-imperialism was very much a part of what Edwards was talking about.

“He was a pan-Africanist in that sense because he was concerned with the plight of black people all over the world.

“I think what was also interesting about Edwards was that he had a very strong Christian faith and was part of the temperance movement.

“Even though he was a Christian, he very strongly criticised the role the church played in the racism that was going on in society.”

That such a central figure to the history of the anti-racism movement lived in Sunderland, shows a different side of Wearside.

The mainstream narrative is that Sunderland is a place dominated by parochial attitudes towards race where people live in isolation from worldly affairs, but there is also a long history of anti-racism, which the research into Celestine Edwards is helping bring to light.

This solidarity was on full display during the Black Lives Matter protests, which erupted all over the world this summer.

Big rallies and vigils were held in both Sunderland and Newcastle following the police murder of George Floyd, triggering a process of cultural awakening that gave many local companies and institutions pause to reflect on their history and ask whether or not they were doing enough in the fight against racism.

It also shed light on the vast racial inequalities that still exist in Britain today.

Donna explains: “If you look at almost every indicator, whether it be the gap between white students and black students on good degree attainment, there’s a double-digit gap in terms of achievement in society.

“When you look at health outcomes, it’s always worse for BAME people.

“To say that the UK doesn’t have a problem with race is either misguided or disingenuous.”

For Donna, Black History Month offers an opportunity to tell forgotten stories such as that of Celestine Edwards, but it must also focus minds on the need for action.

“What we want to see more of is people actually doing something that is really going to impact on black people’s lives today and in the future,” she says.

“We need to be thinking about what we need to do to address the inequalities we see.”