Black History Month 2021: Our African door

As part of Black History Month 2021 we are appealing to you to help us understand an object given to us a number of years ago by a former Lord Mayor of the City of Kingston upon Hull, Honorary Alderman David Gemmell – a carved door. David’s sister was an avid visitor to Africa during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. On one of her visits she acquired a door that he later presented to the Institute for us to look after. 

The 45 x 75cm door, pictured above, appears to be made out of planks of a hard wood, nailed together using handmade nails. It has some impressive carvings on the front with a clear handle near the centre. The reverse is plain. But what do the symbols represent? Where was the door originally used? And where in Africa does it originate? We would love to know more so that we can share the story with visitors to the Institute.

A quick search on Google images returns numerous types of African doors variously described as ‘traditional’ doors, ‘Dogon granary’ doors, ‘palace’ and ‘shrine’ doors, for example. The doors themselves come in various shapes and sizes, and the patterns appear to reflect the traditions of a range of wood carvers right across Africa.

Wooden doors with elaborately carved reliefs may at one time have been reserved for the wealthiest and most important of African chiefs and created by professional carvers.  In any case it seems likely that the size of the doors and the quality of the carving would have reflected the status of those who commissioned them. The carvings themselves, symbolic representations of gods or celestial bodies, animals or plants, or scenes from everyday life, can sometimes give a clue to the purpose of the doors.

Where did our door originate, and who might have produced it? Could it perhaps be a Dogon door? It certainly has a number of similarities with Dogon doors for sale on the Internet. The Dogon, who live in present day Mali, produced carved wooden doors for their granaries, and the elaborate designs they used were intended to provide ritual forms of protection for their food supplies. These appear to be very popular with collectors and were sometimes sold in craft markets. Many are likely to be copies, produced expressly for the consumer market.

We have had our door for a number of years now, and would like to know more about it.  So if you are able to add to our knowledge in any way, please get in touch with Nick Evans at N.J.Evans@hull.ac.uk or Judith Spicksley at Judith.Spicksley@hull.ac.uk

Images of African doors taken from Google Images

Wilberforce Institute Webinars at the Freedom Festival

Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th September, 2020.

Whilst September marks the return to learning in British schools and universities, for the City of Hull it also heralds the beginning of a four-day festival that has grown to become one of the cultural highlights of the year. Since 2007 the Freedom Festival, beginning on Friday 4th September this year, provides the opportunity for artists and champions of freedom in all its forms to raise awareness about human rights. Whilst this year’s activities are centred firmly on virtual cultural gatherings, the programme provides something for everyone.

The Wilberforce Institute has played a key role in supporting the festival since its foundation during the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the British Slave Trade in 2007. This year we are delighted to be contributing four ‘Freedom Talks’ that are part of their exciting programme. From the director of our Institute, to PhD students at the beginning of their academic journey, members of the Institute are looking forward to sharing the fruits of their research with audiences around the world. All four events are free to attend, delivered online, and don’t require any booking. In this blog we aim to provide you with a taster of these activities that we hope will encourage you to join us to find out more.

  • Black Peril

Throughout this summer, British streets, squares and bridges that were the scene of violent race riots in 1919, were transformed into dynamic stages, galleries and plinths to creatively explore this past. It’s easy to get the idea that mobs of ‘woke’ millennials are suddenly forcing Britons to confront ‘diversity’ for the first time. However, from Glasgow to Barry (via Hull), and indeed Chicago and New York the entire western world was engulfed in racial conflict over 100 years ago. The backdrop of today’s civil unrest, statues being torn down and serious soul searching across Britain, mean that there has rarely been a more opportune moment to explore ignored British history, radically challenging the way ‘British’, ‘White’ and ‘Working-Class’ identities have been constructed. As Soweto Kinch has argued, ‘1919 established and entrenched hierarchies of racism that have yet to be undone’.

Two times Mobo Award winning, Mercury nominated British Saxophonist Soweto Kinch will be talking to Dr Nicholas Evans from the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull about the Race Riots that took place in Hull in 1919-1920. This talk precedes the online performance of #BlackPeril2020 for five nights between Monday, 14th and Friday, 18th September 2020.

Watch at https://www.freedomfestival.co.uk/freedom-talks-black-peril-2020/ on Saturday, 5th September 2020, 1-2pm.

Join the live Q&A at @WilberforceHull or @FreedomFestHull on Saturday, 5th September 2020, 2-3pm using the hashtag #FreedomTalks.

  • Tacky’s Revolt

This webinar assembles a stellar cast of academics, all with specialist knowledge in the area, to discuss the largest slave revolt in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world, an uprising that laid bare the interconnectedness of Europe, Africa, and America, shook the foundations of empire, and reshaped ideas of race and popular belonging. Chaired by Diana Paton, William Robertson Professor at the University of Edinburgh (author of The Cultural Politics of Obeah), five academics discuss their understanding of Tacky’s Rebellion.

The panellists include: Vincent Brown, Charles Warren Professor of History at Harvard University (author of Tacky’s Revolt); Edward Rugemer, Associate Professor of History at Yale University (author of Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance); Lissa Bollettino, Associate Professor of History at Framingham University (author of the forthcoming Slavery, War and Britain’s Eighteenth Century Atlantic Empire); Robert Hanserd, Assistant Professor of History at Columbia College, Chicago (author of Identity, Spirit and Freedom in the Atlantic World); and our very own Trevor Burnard, Wilberforce Professor in the Wilberforce Institute (author of Jamaica in the Age of Revolution).

Erica Charters, Associate Professor of History at the University of Oxford (author of Disease, War and the Imperial State), will offer a final commentary.

Watch at https://www.freedomfestival.co.uk/freedom-talks-tackys-revolt/ on Saturday, 5th September 2020, 3-5pm.

Join the live Q&A at @WilberforceHull or @FreedomFestHull on Saturday, 5th September 2020, 5-6pm using the hashtag #FreedomTalks.

  • Falling through the Net

Around the world it is the most vulnerable who are often the victims of coerced labour. Such bondage is nothing new, and yet explorations of why children are especially at risk from exploitation has not received as much scholarly attention as other aspects of slavery studies.

Three members of the ‘Falling through the Net’ research cluster at the Institute, James Baker, Jasmine Holding Brown and Saphia Fleury will each talk about their individual projects in this webinar. James’ focus is on how heritage has been utilised to preserve and represent the experience of forced child emigration to Australia. Jasmine is looking at child rescue in Canada – the development of social movements aimed at ‘rescuing’ children, the agencies involved and the ideologies underpinning their practices. Saphia’s research concerns migration in the context of environmental change, particularly climate change.

Watch at https://www.freedomfestival.co.uk/freedom-talks-falling-through-the-net/ on Sunday, 6th September 2020, 1-2pm.

Join the live Q&A at @WilberforceHull or @FreedomFestHull on Sunday, 6th September 2020, 2-3pm using the hashtag #FreedomTalks.

  • Modern slavery in Humberside

The Humber Modern Slavery Partnership is a strategic partnership of front line organisations across the Humberside Police area dedicated to tackling all forms of modern slavery. Over 60 agencies have joined together to fight slavery and trafficking, and their Coordinator Andrew Smith and Vice Chair Alicia Kidd explain how forms of modern slavery are found in this region.

In this webinar, they discuss the local picture of modern slavery, looking at who the victims are and what they experience, how they become exploited, how they manage to leave the situation, what happens to them once they are out of exploitation and what the practitioner response looks like. They also consider the impact of Covid-19 and how this has changed the way that exploiters operate.

Watch at https://www.freedomfestival.co.uk/freedom-talks-modern-slavery-in-humberside/ on Sunday, 6th September 2020, 4-5pm.

Join the live Q&A at @WilberforceHull or @FreedomFestHull on Sunday, 6th September 2020, 5-6-pm using the hashtag #FreedomTalks.

Image by kind permission of Soweto Kinch.

The centenary of race riots in Hull

Dr Nicholas J. Evans

Lecturer in Diaspora History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

n.j.evans@hull.ac.uk

Recent events across the UK and America remind us of the continual struggle for black and ethnic minorities to secure the equalities most of us take for granted. Despite Britain championing the historic and contemporary crusades against slavery, it has not prevented outbursts of violence scarring our nation. This month marks the centenary of widespread anti-black violence in Hull, what was then the third largest port in Britain and home to the world’s largest fishing fleet.

Whilst both the city and port of Hull showed sustained growth during the long nineteenth century, the outbreak of the First World War brought an end to both commercial and urban expansion. Following the outbreak of the war, Hull’s position as one of the world’s largest migrant entrepôts came to an abrupt end. During the war a shortage of maritime labour was supplemented by the casual employment of large numbers of non-white seafarers, especially on long haul routes to Asia and Africa. Despite valiantly staffing vulnerable steamers ploughing through bomb ridden waterways, and being paid less than their non-white counterparts, at the end of the conflict most non-white mariners were dismissed as military personnel returned from active service and demanded their jobs back.

For non-white seafarers, further misery followed as a wave of xenophobia swept British ports, including London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Cardiff, Salford, Hull, South Shields, Newport and Barry between 1919 and 1921. Despite being British subjects, competition for jobs fuelled blatant prejudice against the non-white seafarers. As Jacqueline Jenkinson has observed, this was not just related to the end of the war, but instead “evidence of a persistent anti-black sentiment in British society which, at times, in specific circumstances, spilled over into violence.” Though organisations in Hull tried to forcibly resettle mariners back to Africa or the Caribbean where they had originated, a colour bar on vessels bound for those destinations meant they could not work their passages back home.

Violence followed in June 1920 as those left stranded became the scapegoats for sustained outbursts of racial violence. Focusing upon Osborne Street, Pease Street and Lower Union Streets, close to the Paragon Railway Station, events reached a crisis when in one incident over 200 people were seen attacking a “negro child”. To try to bring some degree of order, the nearby pubs banned all non-white men, yet further attacks prevailed. Attempts were made to bribe sailors to leave Hull, but these too were largely ineffective. Meanwhile the wives and children of interracial unions were left traumatised.

Accounts published in local newspapers detail how xenophobia prompted Hull’s non-white population to decline to between 60 and 100 people by the close of 1920. In its aftermath the city developed a trend for growing intolerance to those seen as racial outsiders. Despite its proud record of accepting waves of migrants and refugees for centuries, the economic challenges of the interwar period made life for Hull’s ethnic minorities challenging. That racism emerged as the economic well-being of the port city diminished reinforced the close ties between austerity and racial intolerance.

Yet as we approach the centenary of these events, a real stain on Hull’s racial past, perhaps we need to pause and reflect upon how inclusive the city is to racial and ethnic minorities today. Despite the great work by organisations including Hull City Council, Hull Culture and Leisure Limited, Humber All Nations Alliance, the Freedom Festival, the University of Hull, and the creation of education resources like the Africans in Hull and East Yorkshire website, anti-black racism is again on the rise. Speaking to those who have chosen to make Hull their home in the past few decades, the pervasiveness of prejudice is once again alive. We all need to stand up during this centenary year for everyone. #BlackLivesMatter!

* This blog entry is based on Nicholas J. Evans, ‘The making of a mosaic: Migration and the port-city of Kingston upon Hull’, in D. J. Starkey, D. Atkinson, B. McDonagh, S. McKeon, & E. Salter (eds.), Hull: Culture, History, Place (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017), pp. 144 – 177

The headline of a report about the riots in the Hull Daily Mail, 21 June 1920.