Africans in Yorkshire

Gifty Burrows

Educator and Project Lead

Honorary Fellow at the Wilberforce Institute

g.burrows@hull.ac.uk

To mark her appointment as Honorary Fellow at the Wilberforce Institute, Gifty Burrows, Project Lead, talks about the African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire Project.

The history of Black presence in Britain is evident in the sensational rediscovery of human remains among Anglo-Saxon and prehistoric burial sites. However, given that Britain had an empire with subjects in colonies around the world, it is puzzling that many people still have some difficulty in understanding the longevity of Black presence in British society. This is not surprising however, given the paucity of historical research to show that people of African descent have lived, worked and visited Britain for hundreds of years. Instead, there is a persistent myth that Black presence began in the 1950s with the call for workers from its territories, heralded by the arrival of the Empire Windrush ship. Indeed, it is ironic that although Black people are hypervisible as a minority group in society, they are rendered invisible in terms of their narratives and their achievements too are diminished.

There is very little representation of Black people as individuals in fiction or nonfiction. Stories of their direct experience in historical narratives are rare and when they appear, they are often written by a second hand who has the power to edit their truth. It is also the case that despite Black people being the global majority, any aspect of history about them is consigned to a label of ‘Black history’, separating them from the main discourse and preventing them from influencing a long-established view of traditional beliefs. This can leave voids where context is omitted, and what is left is a truncated and incomplete picture. In 2015, African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire was created to rebalance this absence at a local level and bring the hidden stories of remarkable everyday lives to the fore as a reflection of an honest and inclusive view of British social history.

The project

The strength of African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire was that this type of study had not been done before. It gained support from the Heritage Lottery Fund with a remit of looking at the presence and contributions of people of African descent from the Wilberforce era of 1750 up until 2007.  It was bold and challenging to look at a region that has never been demographically diverse.

Stories were difficult to unearth. A disheartening parallel between the past and the present (that quickly became apparent) is that race is often only deemed important in criminality. Therefore, for the majority of ordinary people for whom that was not relevant, careful survey and meticulous research of local and national archives was needed to yield results. The emergence of themes such as maritime, religion, education, service members, judiciary, occupations, sports, activism and the arts demonstrated a broad Black presence in Hull and East Yorkshire. The outcome was helped by the project’s design, inspiring energy and contributions from a broad sweep of people from various backgrounds.

The project was further bolstered by a number of families who directly asked for their histories to be included as a celebration and acknowledgement of their presence in this region. This, together with the Contemporary Voices oral history series, represented over two hundred stories, providing an archive on the website that remains in the public domain.

Legacy

The African Stories project has been hugely successful. The unearthed material had the potential to expand further by the end of the funded period, and the level of interest has remained very high. To maintain the integrity of the project, requests to expand its scope were rejected as well as stories with insufficient proof of presence. That said, for people who wish to research the stories further, accurate references and signposts have been included in all entries so there is a factual base to work from.

The reception of the project outcomes has engaged and surprised many. It has fed into media broadcasts, online articles and six exhibitions, as well as inspiring similar research by other local historians and academics. This demonstrates an appetite for an inclusive history that would be more reflective of modern society and address an absence in national education.

The continued interest in the African Stories archive shows that the passion for local history does not stay local. Rather, it feeds into the social history of the nation itself. The stories provide an insight into historic and contemporary life experiences with aspects that will resonate. Indeed, if it is the case that the value of research is in its relevance and impact on society, then it can be said that African Stories has been successful by having started a much needed conversation about Black presence – particularly in light of the current discourse about Black lives and as we continue halfway into the UN International Decade for People of African Descent

For the African Stories website go to: https://www.africansinyorkshireproject.com/

For a virtual library focusing on Africa and the African diaspora go to: https://www.theafricanist.co.uk/

Exhibiting the African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire

Then and now, campaigning against Modern Slavery in Hull and the Humber

Andrew Smith

Coordinator

Humber Modern Slavery Partnership and the Wilberforce Institute

a.smith9@hull.ac.uk

Times change, as does the seemingly endless tide of social and humanitarian injustice that weighs on some of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Brought to the forefront of the public consciousness once again and increasingly apparent this last decade is the global epidemic of modern slavery and human trafficking. Here in Hull the focus and determination to fight is as stout as it has always been.

Hull has long played a leading role in campaigning to abolish slavery, from the work of William Wilberforce who was the leading parliamentary spokesperson in the movement to abolish the slave trade (c.1759-1833), to Christian preacher and antislavery advocate Salim Charles Wilson (c.1859-1946). Our efforts in Hull have always been focused on one aim, a safer community.

But where are we today? In a somewhat fitting homage to the original Hull Anti-Slavery Committee, our efforts are channelled and coordinated in part by the Humber Modern Slavery Partnership currently based at the Wilberforce Institute next to Wilberforce House Museum on High Street in our historic old town. Today’s efforts are much more of a whole partnership response across statutory, third sector and business organisations. We still focus on the ideas of freedom, equality and social justice as our forebears did but in an updated and more contemporary way.

I have had the enormous pleasure to work in the social sector for the last ten years in my role as founder of a small local homeless charity after my own experience of losing everything. Our approach is holistic at its core, with the aim of – you guessed it – creating safer communities. Over this time, I have seen our collective approach towards at-risk adults and children change, mostly for the better, but I know you will agree that our task is harder than ever before.

It feels to me that poverty, destitution, homelessness, conflict, our fragile global economy, our unquenchable consumer greed and strained public services are making it almost effortless for organised crime groups to exploit our most vulnerable. Be it through forced or bonded labour, sexual exploitation or sex trafficking, county lines, domestic servitude or forced criminality, the trade in human misery is lucrative with often seemingly minimal risks for the perpetrators. The world has shrunk there is no doubt, and in many ways our now close-knit global community is more susceptible to crisis and abuse than ever before. It is often easy to feel like we live in a tiny Tupperware microclimate of injustice and some unseen power is holding the lid down so we can’t breathe. The time has come for us get together and punch some air holes in the side, or even lift the lid.

So, what can we do? I am certain we can use the positives of our condensed world to our advantage, much like exploiters and the countless menacing organised crime groups do. Using instant methods of communication, data sharing, awareness, training, campaigning and positive social action we can strengthen our net to protect victims and make sure the trade in human suffering is no longer an attractive prospect for these criminals. In Humberside we are working closely in partnership across the whole region better than ever, certainly in my professional life, to bring together everyone who can make a difference. Local authorities, the NHS, criminal justice organisations, charities, businesses, the University of Hull, the Wilberforce Institute, places of learning and worship and local support services share a vision of keeping people safe from abuse and making the area around the Humber a hostile environment for would-be exploiters.

Looking honestly at the factors that make people vulnerable to slavery will help us understand the steps we all need to take to make our communities more resilient. If we can prevent homelessness in more cases, empower children to say no to criminal gangs, or help people understand their healthcare entitlements for example, we will stop more people being in a situation of impending risk. Many young people and vulnerable groups on the fringes of our communities are not always aware of what support mechanisms we have in place to prevent crisis; they are, simply put, slipping through the net.

Over the next few years we will continue to make unwavering strides to identify and plug these gaps in provision with meaningful and substantive solutions that will afford everyone equal access to the full range of services that keep us all safe. A community is as good as the people in it, and I believe wholeheartedly that there is no place in Humberside for this woeful and rancid crime. I know that by learning from our past, and adding a spoonful of innovation and lashings of passion, we have a recipe that will transform our region into a safe space for everyone regardless of social or economic status.

#HiddenInPlainSight campaign at the University of Hull. See https://www.hull.ac.uk/work-with-us/more/media-centre/hidden-in-plain-sight