Throughout the last 200 years, people of African descent
have made great contributions to the shaping of modern Britain. Explore the individuals,
communities, events and pivotal moments that
have aided in the shaping of the core values that are celebrated in Britain
today such as democracy, equality and individual liberty.
The Georgian period (1714 to 1837) was a time of immense growth and change in Britain, a pivotal point in British history. This period was the height of the enslavement of Africans in the British colonies of the Americas. The wealth produced from the system of enslavement was unprecedented and many believe that this financed the industrial revolution during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This changed the landscape and economy of Britain, through the introduction of steam engines and large-scale production factories. While the enslavement of Africans in the British colonies is a well-known and documented period of history, little is known about the range of Black experiences in Britain during the Georgian period. During the eighteenth century, there were a number of pioneering individuals who worked relentlessly as abolitionists, poets, political leaders, and radicals.
Phyllis Wheatley (c. 1753 – December 5, 1784) was born in the Gambia/Senegal region in West Africa. As a child she was purchased by the Wheatley family in Boston and was enslaved. She was taught to read and write by members of the Wheatley family and she quickly demonstrated great ability in these areas and utilised this later in life as the first published woman of African descent in Britain.
Acts of Parliament (1835-08-31) by Home OfficeBlack Cultural Archives
The Sons of Africa were a group of educated men of African descent dedicated to the abolition movement. Among the 12 members were notable individuals such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano who both challenged the enslavement of Africans through their published work.
Publications were a powerful campaign method in the effort to abolish slavery as people were able to read personal accounts of enslavement and were able to empathise and support the movement.
Equiano also led representatives of the Sons of Africa to Parliament to persuade MPs to abolish the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. In 1807 the Slave Trade Act was passed which outlawed the trading of human beings. Slavery was officially abolished in 1838 after the apprenticeship period.
Black Victorians 1837- 1901
Much like the Georgian period that proceeded it, Britain changed immensely during the Victorian age. Some historians refer to this period as the era of social reform as a plethora of reform acts were passed through parliament. Although Britain had abolished the enslavement of Africans 3 years prior to the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign, this abhorrent system still existed in North America and the French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Notable Black Victorians such as Celestine Edwards, Ida B. Wells and Ira Aldridge used methods such as publishing and speech to campaign against enslavement. The Victorian religious code of conduct was challenged by many African American preachers who toured the country to promote racial equality.
This image is an article of the Victorian actor, Ira Aldridge. The article was published in 'Dragon's teeth' (c1980) which was an educational journal article which aimed to promote positive images of Black people. Ira Aldridge (July 24, 1807 – August 7, 1867) was born in New York City. He attended the African free school which was built to educate free people of colour and children of enslaved Africans. While at this school he was exposed to theatre and developed a passion for acting. Aldridge made his acting debut in the early 1820s and in 1824 he emigrated to England with a view to excel his acting Career as Britain had a flourishing theatre scene. The wealth generated from the enslavement of Africans in the British colonies helped to finance the industrial revolution during this period. This triggered radical economic growth in Britain and part of this wealth was used to expand the British theatre scene. Ira performed roles at the Royal Coburg Theatre which is now called the Old Vic theatre in Waterloo, London. Initially, his critics were harsh and noted his lack of formal training. The harsh critics did not discourage Ira who continued to act and perform prestigious roles such as Othello. He received rave reviews for his later performances. He used his privilege and platform to challenge injustice and frequently spoke out against enslavement after his performances. Ira Aldridge was one of many privileged black individuals who challenged racial discrimination and injustice. Some of these individuals included Ida B. Wells and Celestine Edwards.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1912-10-22) by Samuel Coleridge-TaylorBlack Cultural Archives
(15 August 1875 – 1 September 1912)
Coleridge was born during the Victorian period. His Mother was English and his Father was a doctor from Sierra Leone. Samuel grew up with his Mother in Croydon and at a young age he joined a choir led by Colonel Herbert Walters. He attended the Royal College of Music with the financial support of Colonel and later became a prestigious classical music composer.
In addition to composing music for large concert halls, Samuel also composed music for the first Pan-African conference held in London in 1900. Samuel is believed to be the youngest attendee at the first Pan-African conference which was organised by Henry Sylvester Williams. Pan-Africanism is an intellectual and political movement created to ensure that the political interests of people of African descent were looked after.
Black Victorians (2013) by Martin JenningsBlack Cultural Archives
(1805 – 14 May 1881)
Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805. Mary had a gift and great understanding of herbal medicine which was taught to her by her mother. This knowledge was utilised through Mary's travels as an adult where she treated patients during the cholera and yellow fever epidemic in Panama.In 1854, the year after the Crimea war broke out, Mary traveled to London in order to offer her services to nurse wounded soldiers. Despite her glowing references, she was rejected numerous times. Refusing to succumb to discrimination, Mary set up the British hotel where she treated many soldiers.
The Edwardian period takes its name from the reign of King Edward VII, which occurred from 1901-1910, and this period lasted until the start of the First World War in 1914. The Edwardian era was marked by significant shifts in the political landscape of the time. This era ushered a move away from the highly structured and moralised Victorian era, towards a more progressive and modern world. Black Edwardians were organising politically in order to challenge the colour bar. The League of Coloured Peoples and Pan African movement both organised in order to achieve equality for people of African descent.
Amy Barbour-James (Circa 1907) by This photo was retrieved from Amy Barbour's house by Historian Jeffrey GreenBlack Cultural Archives
This photograph depicts Amy Barbour-James as a toddler. It is thought that the image of Amy Barbour-James was taken in approximately 1907 in a professional photography studio in Shepherd’s Bush, London. The Barbour-James's were a middle class Guyanese family who lived in Acton, West London in the early 20th century.
The Barbour-James family were actively involved in the League of Coloured Peoples which was founded by Dr Harold Moody. This organisation aimed to eliminate racial discrimination in employment, housing and public places.
Amy's Father John was also active in the African Progress Union of London as well as the African Patriotic Intelligence Bureau.
In Amy's later years, she became friends with historian Jeffrey Green who was researching the Barbour-James family as well as the Black presence in Britain during the Edwardian period. Jeffrey Green was able to retrieve the Barbour-James photographs from Amy's house at the point in her life when she moved into a care home. Jeffrey then donated these photographs and his research to Black Cultural Archives during the 1990s.
These photographs can be accessed at Black Cultural Archives using the following reference number: GREEN/3/3/1
World War II and the Windrush generation
During World War I Britain drew on its empire for both human and material sources. Many Africa and the Caribbean volunteered to help their 'Mother country'. Britain’s war office initially rejected the recruitment of West Indian troops. However in 1915, the war office began to recruit West Indian troops. From this recruitment, a new regiment was formed called the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) which served in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Fifteen thousand Black British Caribbean men were enlisted. The Kings Afgrican Rifles (KAR) was a British colonial regiment comprised of soldiers from Britain's East African possessions. At its height, there were over 30,000 African soldiers.
This is a photograph of a deep air raid shelter built during World War II. In 1937 the British government passed the Air Raid Precautions Act. After the passing of this act, local authorities were obligated to protect citizens from attacks from the air. Deep shelters were built below tube stations one of which was Clapham South station. This deep shelter was a temporary home for many newly arrived Caribbean migrants who sailed to Britain aboard the SS Empire Windrush. There were 492 Caribbean passengers aboard this ship, many of whom were ex World War II RAF servicemen. These passengers responded to an advertisement in the Jamaica's Daily Gleaner which offered transport to the UK for £28.10s for anybody who wanted to work in the UK. Britain had been devastated after World War II and called to those in its Caribbean colonies to fill the labour shortage in an effort to rebuild the country. Many of the Windrush generation migrants made invaluable contributions to Britain including numerous nurses who worked across various NHS hospitals.
Sam King (20 February 1926 – 17 June 2016)was a former RAF serviceman and a passenger on the Empire Windrush. The Empire Windrush brought one of the first post-war waves of British subjects from the Caribbean to Britain in 1948. King and many others of the Windrush generation had romanticised expectations of the ‘mother country’. The reality was far removed from their expectations as the colour bar often meant Caribbean people were discriminated against in housing, employment and public places. The tenacious and organised Caribbean communities of the Windrush generation used partner systems which was a system of saving money within a group of people. The partner systems were needed as banks rarely gave loans to Black people. The money saved was used by many to purchase homes. Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (C.A.R.D) later formed to challenge the colour bar that the Windrush generation and many before were fighting against. C.A.R.D lobbied with members of Parliament in order to create a law to protect citizens from racial discrimination. In 1965the first Race Relations Act was passed and in 1968 this act was ammended. The 1968 Race Relations Act outlawed racial discrimination in housing, employment and public places.
Late 20th Century - Early 21st Century
By the late 20th century Black communities across Britain were challenging the exclusion of Black history in schools and mainstream institutions. Numerous supplementary schools and resources were created by members of the Black community in order to teach Black children about their history.
Queen Mother Moore (1990) by Black Cultural ArchivesBlack Cultural Archives
Queen Mother Moore (July 27, 1898 – May 2, 1997) was an African-American civil rights leader and a black nationalist who was associated with activists such as Marcus Garvey, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and Jesse Jackson. She was a figure in the American Civil Rights Movement and a founder of the Republic of New Afrika. Queen Mother Moore was the inspirational woman who first motivated Len Garrison in his mission to establish Black Cultural Archives.
Queen Mother Moore was a major influence on the creation of Black Cultural Archives which is Britain's first Black heritage centre. Black Cultural Archives was founded in the 1980s by Len Garrison and 11 other founder members. In 2006 Len Garrsion spoke of Queen Mother Moore's influence:
'Queen Mother Moore came over from the United States in 1981 and she so inspired me and one or two other people who were around at the time, in terms of what she said, her teachings, and essentially what she was about - she had been involved with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States for so many years, and she had set up an institution of her own. She would always say, one of the things we should do was to memorialise our ancestors. [...] The whole idea then of a monument, a living monument, was the genesis of an idea from which the Black Cultural Archives was born. So we set up the African People's Historical Monument Foundation, soon after Queen Mother Moore's visit. She actually said to me that she would like me to continue her work here. She gave me this charge. I was already doing it anyway, so this just came as an additional empowerment.
Community activist and academic, Lenford Kwesi Garrison (1943-2003) was born in St Thomas, Jamaica. His parents moved to London in the early 1950s, and Len followed a few years later to complete his secondary education. He was the founder and Director of ACER, an independent educational charity researching, developing and producing learning materials drawing on the black experience. Home schools were supported by ACER, and links were forged with community schools. The Inner London Education Authority endorsed ACER's work and their resources and publications were used across the country. The project established the Black Youth Penmanship Awards scheme to enable young black people to be celebrated for their literary achievements. A number of black professionals including music critic Clive Davis, and novelist and barrister Nicola Williams received the award in their youth.
Len was also one of the founder members of Black Cultural Archives which he had set up in Brixton in 1980. In 1997 he became involved in a joint project between the Black Cultural Archives and Middlesex University with the aim of establishing the first Archive and Museum of Black History. Garrison was also a trustee of both the Yaa Asantewaa Arts Centre, and the Caribbean Teacher in Education Project. His portfolio of published material includes a volume of poetry "Beyond Babylon: Collection of Poems, 1972-82" (1985).
In 2014, Black Cultural Archives opened on Windrush Square, Brixton after eight years of fundraising. The organisation had been in existence for over 30 years.
A 360 degree view of the Black Cultural Archive's exhibition gallery.
All material in this exhibit can be accessed at:
Black Cultural Archives
1 Windrush Square
Tel: 020 3 757 8507
Black Georgians video: Steve Martin
Curated by Sarah Buntin