When you think of Brixton, what comes to your mind? Ackee and salt fish, Bob Marley, spicy patties, Reggae music, the famous Cold Harbour Lane Street Market, the Ritzy Cinema and of course the Windrush generation, the young men and women who came to the UK in 1948 and made Brixton and other parts of London their home.
Brixton invokes many images, most good, some sad, such as the race riots of the 1980s and 1990s, and the misconception that all things drug related spring from the loins of this London suburb.
But Brixton is WAY more than the sum of all things good, bad, beautiful and ugly. Brixton has history, its own history, with its roots in Saxon times, windmills and plush houses built in the 1860s when the middle classes suddenly wanted to make their mark in the cities and towns in which they lived and worked.
Brixton’s other history reflects its cultural diversity that has grown, blossomed and thrived since 1948 and in 1981 the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) took its first tentative steps toward collecting, preserving and celebrating the heritage and history of Black people in the UK.
In 2016, people are now able to access a dedicated learning space, look at themed regular exhibitions, and do research in a modern digitally enhanced building.
On Thursday 10 March 2016, several people with ties to the Brighton & Hove Black History Project were lucky enough to be taken in wheelchair accessible transport to the BCA for a tour of the building including the archives, and a firsthand view of their amazing exhibition of Black Georgians.
Although BCA has only been in existence since 1981, they have only been in this particular building since 2014 but it was well worth the wait with its crisp clean lines, easy access doors, a lift to the upper floors, accessible bathrooms, and a café and small shop on hand for visitors, browsers and academics.
When we arrived at BCA we went straight into the cafe for a cup of tea and then up in the lift (at least for me) to a large room where the digital age was well and truly in situ with a huge interactive screen that you could browse through to get a feel of what was on offer.
We were given a short talk by Victoria one of the Archivists about the history of how BCA came into existence then we got to have a look around the climate controlled archive itself. Just before that though we got to see the BCA library which was filled with the most amazing books, many out of print, but of great significance to researchers into British Black history.
I picked up a book with the enticing title The Black Jews of Harlem written in the 1950s but for Susi Maxwell-Stewart there was a more poignant moment when she came across a publication called Broadwater Farm Revisited which contained information about a childhood friend, Mark Braithwaite, who was wrongly accused of PC Blakelock’s murder in the 1980s.
The BCA collection is very much 20th century-centric but they do have materials going back as far as the second century. They also hold many Black organisational records, rare books, photographs, and even a sculpture of Marcus Garvey’s head tucked away in the air conditioned vault where the more fragile of their collection is held. I also glimpsed the name of Mary Seacole on a shelf during our visit.
“It’s amazing,” Rami Mansour one of Black History’s volunteers said when I asked him what he thought of the Black Georgians exhibition and others in the group called it “poignant, informative, fascinating, surreal and disturbing”
Victoria showed us old sepia photos donated to BCA which told the story of Amy Barbour-James whose African parents settled in England in the early 1900s. Amy’s father worked for the post office and her brother played in a local football team. Amy never married and if not for the existence of BCA the memories of her life and that of her globe-trotting family would have been lost forever.
Victoria did try and find something from the archives for us to look at about Brighton but all she could locate was a newspaper clipping about Nelson Mandela’s visit Brighton in 2000 during a Labour Party Conference.
The Black Georgians exhibition that is on 9 April 2016 tells the story of black people in Britain during the Georgian period. It is a collection of images and installations that draw you into a world that history has tried to forget.
You can listen to chairs that “tell stories” of Black Georgians such as the freed slave Mary Prince, the passionate abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, the mixed race radical Robert Wedderburn, and the first published African-American poet Phillis Wheatley who spent some of her life in England. You can look at brightly coloured pictures of Black pugilists, and follow the trials, tribulations and even successes of many Black Georgians who left their mark on a society that had no laws to protect them.
In BCA there was a lovely shop in which to buy a souvenir of your visit. I choose two books by Jamaican born Len Garrison, a graduate of both Ruskin College, Oxford and the University of Sussex. His contribution to BCA helped make it into the establishment it is today.
And I have to mention the cafe that is attached to BCA. Clean, and elegant with the gorgeous smell of cooking food tickling your nostrils the moment you enter, you are hard pressed not to go there immediately as it is all so very inviting. The cafe serves beautifully prepared vegetarian food; the Red Bean soup with roti that I had was a mouth watering dish that I could have eaten ten times over. I also snacked on plantain chips which invoked long ago memories of my childhood in Jamaica when you could buy salty or sweet chips from the street vendor outside your school.
Ultimately the exhibition and the archives made me acutely aware of how Brighton and Hove are part of a bigger Black History picture within Sussex itself with West Indian Soldiers buried in a Seaford Cemetery, Chinese labourers working on the docks of Newhaven during WW1, Haile Selassie’s time living in Woodingdean, along with the construction of houses on Royal Crescent in Brighton by a West Indian, a one J.B.Otto, and of course Doctor Brighton himself, Sake Dean Mohamed.
Mary Seacole herself even passed through Brighton on her way to the Crimea and the grave of a freed slave child Tommy Highflyer lies in Woodvale Cemetery whilst the Chattri Memorial high on the Sussex Down’s commemorates the lives and deaths of the Indian soldiers who died in one of Brighton’s many WW1 military hospitals.
Black History permeates not just Brighton and Brixton, it is part of the very fabric of the whole country and every city needs a “Black Cultural Archive” because all history has a right to be heard, visualised, absorbed and ultimately remembered.
As Martin Luther King once said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history”
–Written by Suchitra Chatterjee
With thanks to the attendees: Susi Maxwell Stewart, Cuthbert Williams, Josef Cabey, Sarah Naomi Lee, Edi Mandela, Judith Ricketts, Rami Mansour, Helen Mears, Maureen Harkness, Terry Welsh, Fiona Sharpe
Tuesday – Saturday, 10am – 6pm
Closed on Mondays and Sundays
Late opening until 7pm, every second Thursday of the month
The Reading Room is open Wednesday-Friday 10am-4pm, & extended Saturday opening hours 1 pm – 4 pm