This month is Black History Month (BHM) in Britain. BHM is a month of events in October which takes place annually and celebrates the culture, history and achievements of Britain’s African and Caribbean communities in the country.
Although the event had its origins in the United States, the British version has become more and more attuned to what is unique to Black history in this country. It has taken place every October since 1987 and, importantly, helps us remember that the United Kingdom has a long history of contributions from people with African and Caribbean heritage, together with those of Asian ancestry, and that Britain thus enjoys a vibrant and diverse cultural heritage, including here in south-west London.
In recent years, for example, Kingston University’s History teaching team has used BHM to help celebrate the life of Cesar Picton, a local resident.
Cesar Picton (1755-1836) was brought to England from Senegal as a gift for a local family in 1761. He went on to become a coal merchant and a wealthy and respected gentleman. He remains Kingston-on-Thames’ most famous eighteenth-century black businessman, and his previous homes in Kingston and Thames Ditton are marked by commemorative plaques.
He has also been commemorated at Kingston University’s main campus through the Picton Room, which was named after him. However, as recent scholars have shown, Picton was just one of a growing community of black Africans in Georgian London.
Other well known black contemporaries included people such as Dido Belle, Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano, and – via new avenues of important research on Black British history – it has been estimated that some 10-15,000 Africans lived in Georgian London alone. BHM has been instrumental in raising more awareness of this fascinating and relatively neglected dimension to our national history.
Indeed, BHM has helped contribute much more research on general Black British history, an approach to the past which explores how Black history is part of national, local and community histories, as well as identifying and celebrating the many ways in which black individuals have impacted on economic, social, political and cultural histories across the UK.
This was especially the case when we recently commemorated the end of the First World War, when various exciting pieces of research appeared on the contribution of the African and Caribbean communities to Britain’s war effort in 1914-1918, including from those in London. BHM has been instrumental in raising public awareness of this fresh scholarship.
In fact, recent research is now beginning to show that there were many people of African descent who fought for ‘their’ country and empire during the Great War. One of these people, for example, was Walter Tull (1888-1918), a professional footballer for Tottenham and also a war hero. Both he and his brother served in the military. Tull fought in the first Battle of the Somme in 1916 and was killed in the second Battle of the Somme on 25 March, 1918, near Favreuil, France.
By then, Tull had become an officer in command. Moreover, not only was he the British army’s first black officer, but he had been the first black officer to lead white troops into battle. Last year, in 2018, the Royal Mail issued a striking postage stamp with Tull’s image on it (see photo), which helped create even more interest in his life and times.
So far, this month has seen many events to celebrate BHM across the country, with lots more still to come. What originally started as an event in the USA to help celebrate the history and cultural heritage of the black community in the New World has now very much become an established event in Britain and has grown in popularity with each passing year.
As one commentator (on www.history.co.uk) has so aptly pointed out, perhaps one day ‘the need for an annual celebration will no longer be required, when black British history is universally accepted as British history and is studied and celebrated year long around the country’.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey
(Images: Hayward and Wikimedia Commons)