Black history is a subject we deal with in several modules, particularly in British and US history. However, Black History will be a theme in our blogs next month because every October Black History Month (BHM) is celebrated in the UK. BHM began originally in the USA and was instigated by an African American historian, and son of a slave, Dr. Carter G. Woodson. He established the Association for the Study of Negro (subsequently African American) Life and History in 1925 and began Negro History Week in 1926. This later changed to Negro History Month and then in 1976 became Black History Month. President Jimmy Carter gave it official recognition in 1978 and it has continued ever since. In the USA and Canada BHM is celebrated in February, the month of Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s birth.
The celebration did not come to the UK until 1987 when Akyaada Addai-Sebo, a special projects worker at the GLC in London, began it. This reflected the growth in the British black population after World War II, and was also perhaps a response to some of the tensions of the 1980s. Addai-Sebbo chose October as it coincided with Marcus Garvey’s centenary – and also because it followed shortly after the start of the school year. The event was endorsed by the then mayor of London, Ken Livingstone who declared that ‘In order to further enrich the cultural diversity of the Greater London area, it is imperative that Londoners know more about African influences on medieval and renaissance European music and more about the roots of Greek music so that accepted ideas about European music is changed. Despite the significant role that Africa and its Diaspora has played in the world civilization since thebeginning of time, Africa’s contribution has been omitted or distorted in most history books’.
This was of course true in for most parts of Britain, and BHM has since become well established and spread beyond London. Intended to widen British appreciation of the historical and cultural contributions of members of the African Diaspora, it has now become a celebration of key individuals, events, and movements in black life and history and the black contributions to our history and heritage. Locally, BHM will be celebrated by a series of events – all open to the public – organised by the Cheltenham West End Partnership: details can be found here.
There is also a lecture organised by the Historical Association on “Africans in Tudor and Stuart Britain” by Dr Miranda Kaufman at 7.30 pm at Friends Meeting Hose, Greyfriars, Gloucester. Entrance is free for all members of the university. And watch our blogs on various aspects of the theme through October!
This week, we welcome our new first years. Induction week is always an exciting time for everyone – but perhaps also a little daunting. As a way of easing our students into the facilities they enjoy here at Gloucestershire, and the ways in which they might make use of them during their studies, this year we’re asking our new students to investigate the history of the town which for many of them is a total stranger. Cheltenham’s past is all around us in so well-preserved a Regency town, so we thought we’d delve a little deeper with a visit to the FCH archive, a tour around the town, and a treasure hunt ending in a pop quiz!.
By way of introduction, here’s a great video via the excellent Twitter account, Old Cheltenham: rare footage of the town from 1910. Call it a game of spot the difference.
I spent some wonderful hours on Sunday at Gloucester Cathedral, taking in the Crucible2 exhibition which is on display there until October 31st. As well as a veritable who’s who of contemporary British sculpture, it’s also a fascinating study in how art and the spaces which contain art interact – the hundred sculptures are located quite carefully throughout the cathedral’s buildings and grounds, and that makes for some really interesting juxtapositions. It was exciting both to see such artwork in the wild (Damien Hirst’s Fallen Angel, for instance, has not previously been exhibited in public), but also to see so ancient a venue energised and re-contextualised in this way.
On the other hand, one of the effects of the statues is to direct visitors’ attentions back to the cathedral itself: as you inspect the walls and the floors for pieces of art (some are fairly squirrelled away in apses and chapels), you see again the fabric of the building itself, and it was great to see people inspecting the monuments and windows of the cathedral with as much interest as they took in a Chadwick or a Lucas.
For instance, my eye was drawn to the mortuary monument of three-time early modern mayor of Gloucester, Thomas Machen. Graduating from the position of Sheriff (which his father Henry had also held), Machen was mayor in 1579, 1588 and 1601. He is depicted in the monument wearing his mayoral robes and accompanied by his wife and thirteen children. What was interesting about this monument was the way in which the family were depicted: all were in pious poses and dressed in black, the colour of choice of the godly, those hotter kinds of Protestant posterity knows most popularly as the Puritans. Indeed, along with his son-in-law, Thomas Rich (who succeeded Machen as mayor), he was the leader of Gloucester’s godly faction: for instance, during the election for James I’s first parliament in 1604, Machen and Rich were arrayed against another alderman, John Jones, whom was described by Rich as being “dependent upon the bishop” – a sorry state of affairs for any self-respecting Puritan.
Machen was a merchant dealing in wheat and malt, and Puritans have long been seen as associated with the burgeoning ranks of the ‘middling sort’ in this period. He was, however, conspiciously successful: his trade was so good that he maintained a farm at Crickley (where UoG students can today enjoy a walk in the country park), purchased the substantial manor of Condicote, not far from Stow-on-the-Wold in 1599 – and had a yearly income of £400, with between £5000 and £10,000 in assets. Perhaps this explains the detail of the monument that most struck me: his family’s elaborate ruffs. These fashionable neck decorations were often condemned by godly preachers as a sign of vanity, and in my own work I consider how popular prophets and so-called ‘monstrous births’ alike were often interpreted as offering evidence of divine disfavour for the frilly fashions of the day.
So: what was a good, godly merchant like Machen doing wearing a ruff for all eternity on his sober and pious monument? We might reflect that even godly factions had their spectrums of belief and practice, or that allegiance in the period wasn’t so easy to unpick (after all, Machen was an pro-corporation candidate for the 1604 Parliament, and an anti-corporation candidate in 1614!). These are some of the themes of my third-year module on Puritanism which is set to start in the next few weeks. Such, then, are the thoughts that can come to us about the past even when we’re only a little down the road from home.
I can really recommend a visit to Gloucester in the next few months – visit the statues, and Henry Machen!
Exciting isn’t it? And of deep interest to all historians we’d hope. Just recently the expertise we have here at UoG was recognised by our local radio station (Radio Gloucestershire) when I was invited onto the breakfast show, just after 7.30am, to talk very briefly about the historical roots to the often fraught relationship between Scotland and England. Or, as the Scots put it, ‘the Auld Enemy’.
And brief it was! I was just getting into my stride, having talked about tribal warlords, territorial struggles and the fact that the border doesn’t get fixed until 1552, and was just settling down for a nice natter about the battles of Bannockburn and Flodden (James IV of Scotland becomes the last British king to be killed in battle) when my time was up! So, I guess Radio Gloucestershire’s listeners will now know that tensions between the two countries (discuss) goes back a long way but will think it all a blood and guts Horrible Histories type-story. No mention of how much benefit Empire brought to Scotland or the links between Irish and Scottish Home Rule debates. Oh well!
I guess that if people want to learn more of this then they will need to take our modules. Anna French, for instance, covers Scotland’s very important role in the British Civil Wars, Vicky Morrisroe talks about Gladstone and Home Rule, whilst Iain has a second year module which explores Scottish, Irish and Welsh history in some depth!
A new academic year is upon us, and that also means a new round of fascinating talks from the Gloucestershire Historical Association. Topics include Africans in Tudor and Stuart Britain, the Napoleonic Prussian General Marshal Blucher, pilgrimage in Spain and William Gladstone. There are plenty more besides, so do download the programme – this year, all meetings are taking place on University grounds, at Park Campus, so we’ll see you there!
It was great to read today of the opening of the Black Cultural Archive in Brixton, London. After 30 years of campaigning and planning, this wonderful facility celebrating the British black cultural heritage is now providing exhibition and research facilities. The heritage centre is located on Windrush Square, in the heart of Brixton in Raleigh Hall, a Grade II listed Georgian building in central Brixton.
The £7-million project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the London Borough of Lambeth, the Mayor of London and the Biffa Award, retains aspects of the building’s original historic features, in addition to a newly designed annexe to create a purpose-built archive and centre accessible to the public. The first exhibition, “Re-imagine: Black Women in Britain”, traces the lives of black women in Britain from Roman times on. I was delighted to see that it includes a photograph of Adelaide Hall, one of the “forgotten black divas” I am researching at the moment!
Do go and see this new facility and exhibit. The exhibition runs from 24 July – 30 November 2014 and it is FREE admission! Visit the BCA site by clicking here.