Nondescript buildings where black Britons once built the future

Historians are calling for blue plaques at locations that first brought together Britain’s African and Caribbean diaspora and supported politicians, activists, artists, migrants and visitors

A report by Sifa Manara and Mark Bridge for The Times of London.

Sifa Manara, Mark BridgeSunday October 25 2020, 6.00pm GMT, The TimesShareSave

To mark Black History Month, The Times has identified four sites with extraordinary histories that shine a light on the experiences and achievements of black migrants and visitors to Britain in the 20th century.

As heritage sites go, they are unassuming — ordinary shops and houses, a small community centre and a block of flats. Yet they are also among the cradles of Britain’s modern black communities, playing host to transformative organisations in this country and black leaders in politics and culture who went on to have a global impact.

Historians and individuals who are part of these stories believe that they deserve to be commemorated with blue plaques.

The South Villas hostel, once referred to as “Africa House”, was opened in 1938

The South Villas hostel, once referred to as “Africa House”, was opened in 1938

‘A focal point before Windrush’
From 1925 until the early 1960s, the West African Students’ Union (WASU) was instrumental in campaigns for independence in Britain’s West African colonies and against racial discrimination in the West.

Founded by the Nigerian activist and University College London student Ladipo Solanke and Herbert Bankole-Bright, a politician in Sierra Leone, it set up four hostels around London to provide a base for African students and visitors, who were often excluded from white-owned accommodation. The second hostel, on 1 South Villas in Camden, was opened in 1938.

The South Villas hostel, once referred to colloquially as “Africa House”, is now indistinguishable from the other 19th century homes in its gentrified neighbourhood.

Few realise that it was once a meeting point for future West African leaders, as well as a focal point for the pre-Windrush black diaspora. Among the WASU members who congregated there were Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, first president of Nigeria, and Fela Kuti, the Afrobeat pioneer.

WASU was founded by Ladipo Solanke, then a student at University College London. He is pictured, right, in 1936 with a fellow barrister after a service in Westminster Abbey

WASU was founded by Ladipo Solanke, then a student at University College London. He is pictured, right, in 1936 with a fellow barrister after a service in Westminster Abbey

Describing the significance of WASU and its Camden hostel, Paul B Rich, a historian who researched the subject for his book Race and Empire in British Politics, said: “The WASU hostel was set up when Solanke remained a pan-Africanist, particularly [concerning] the British colonial territories in West Africa like Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.

“He wasn’t a hardline radical nationalist, but in the Forties the Colonial Office was increasingly worried that [WASU] was becoming a venue in which there was a younger generation of African students who would become much more militantly nationalist.”

These fears were well-founded. Mr Rich added: “Kwame Nkrumah was there in the Forties; Solanke went back to West Africa for four years, 44-48, and while he was away the younger generation, including Nkrumah, basically seized control of WASU [and] the hostel, so by the time Solanke came back he was faced with a younger generation of militants.

“He called them Communists, and he veered increasingly into a sort of right-wing anti-Communist stance, but he was defeated. The organisation he set up overthrew him.”

Rich strongly believes that a plaque should mark the former hostel. “It was undoubtedly a focal point for what I termed the ‘black diaspora’ [and] functioned really before the advent of the Windrush generation of postwar immigrants from the Caribbean.”

‘It was the go-to place’ 
At the junction of Upper Parliament Street and Park Way in Liverpool, a Victorian house that was once the go-to place for Liverpool’s black community was demolished in the 1990s and replaced with a nondescript block of flats.

Stanley House flourished in the mid-20th century before falling derelict in the 1980s after damage sustained in the Toxteth Riots. It was run by a committee which, according to 1940s reports, “pledged to improve the conditions of coloured people on Merseyside” and to serve as a “cultural and social centre for coloured people and their white friends”.

Learie Constantine, the West Indian cricketer and lawyer, articulated the need for action as principal speaker at the committee’s inaugural meeting in October 1943, saying: “Negroes remain a depressed people all over the world, and still occupy in the main a position of servitude”.

Ray Costello, a historian whose black family has been in Liverpool for seven generations, visited Stanley House regularly as a young man and had relatives who were closely involved in its running.

The Stanley House committee during a visit by Paul Robeson, the American singer and actor, seated centre

The Stanley House committee during a visit by Paul Robeson, the American singer and actor, seated centre

He said: “It was very important to the black community. It was the go-to place. For instance, if you were left with no money or your husband had been killed in the war or gone missing, that was the place where you went and people would go there to get advice [and] legal advice.”

He added: “White people were welcomed there and did play their part; it was black and white unite. There weren’t any iconic all-black institutions in Liverpool [at this time] — Liverpool was far too oppressed a community.

He said that Stanley House was the base from which Liverpool delegates attended the 1945 Pan-African Conference in Manchester, where leaders including Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and Hastings Banda, future leaders of Ghana, Kenya and Malawi respectively, demanded independence. Issues around “the colour problem in Britain” were also discussed.

Stanley House established a nursery where Mr Costello’s mother was the first nurse. He said: “The problem was black kids didn’t go to nurseries because of prejudice of the time. The children were [expected] to be badly behaved or to have nits or exotic illnesses, so they openly did not let them in and they said we don’t take black children here, so Stanley House opened their own and we had a lady — one on her own to begin with — my mum, Edith Mary Costello.”

“I do think it should be marked on the pavement. In Liverpool city centre there’s a brass plaque in a concrete flag commemorating a church that stood on one spot, and you could have something like that.”

The West Indian Gazette newsroom at 250 Brixton Road closed in 1965

The West Indian Gazette newsroom at 250 Brixton Road closed in 1965

‘It would not just be a newspaper’
At the back of Theo’s record store at 250 Brixton Road — one of London’s first black-owned record shops selling discs from the likes of the ska pioneer Laurel Aitken — stairs led to the newsroom of West Indian Gazette, Britain’s first post-war black newspaper.

Founded and run by the journalist and activist Claudia Jones from 1958, the Gazette quickly became the voice for the emerging West Indian community and had a circulation of 15,000 at its peak.

Though popular, it struggled financially and in 1965, eight months after Jones’s death, it printed its last edition. Prominent figures visited the office, including the American civil rights leader Malcolm X, who was photographed holding a copy of the newspaper weeks before his assassination in 1965.

Today, graffiti is scrawled across its front door and there is nothing to show of the building’s history. Last year a frail elderly man, a former resident familiar with the area, visited the Xpress World off-licence next door and asked Kola, a Nigerian who works there, if he knew anything about the building.

Claudia Jones at the newspaper offices in 1962. The paper she founded had a circulation of 15,000 at its peak

Claudia Jones at the newspaper offices in 1962. The paper she founded had a circulation of 15,000 at its peak

Kola knew nothing of the building’s past, and told The Times he thought the lack of recognition was unusual: “Nothing is depicting this place as a place of history. There is no sign, nothing. Even people living here don’t know anything about it.”

Describing the contribution of Jones, a Communist who had been imprisoned in the United States and deported because of her political activities before she arrived in Britain, Carole Boyce Davies, of Cornell University, said: “She landed [from America] in the middle of what was then the start of the Windrush generation, which began in 1948.”

Professor Boyce Davies went on: “She met a community that was not yet quite a community, but Caribbean people without major institutions, and because of her training as a journalist she had all of the skills that allowed her to be able to develop a newspaper.

Malcolm X, the civil rights leader, visited the newsroom weeks before his assassination in 1965

West Indian Gazette became one of the founding institutions in the black community of London and helped to pull it together. It would not only be a newspaper office; Caribbean people would come there for all kinds of support — help with immigration issues, housing, employment.

“It should definitely be marked,” says Professor Boyce Davies. “What I love about the UK is that there are these markers for so many people of so many persuasions — artists, writers, activists and so on.”

The Black-Art Gallery was founded by Shakka Dedi and his then partner Eve-I Kadeena in 1983

The Black-Art Gallery was founded by Shakka Dedi and his then partner Eve-I Kadeena in 1983

‘There has never been another Black-Art Gallery’
Glance at 225 Seven Sisters Road and there is not a trace of the role this building once played in bringing to the fore the work of black artists nearly four decades ago.

Today the building is a charity boutique, but once it was the Black-Art Gallery, founded by the Organisation for Black Art Advancement and Leisure Activities (OBAALA) led by Shakka Dedi, an American-born artist and former Black Panther, and his then partner, Eve-I Kadeena.

After securing funding from Islington Council in 1982, the gallery held its first exhibition a year later. Heart in Exile featured drawings, paintings, sculptures and photography by British-based black artists.

In its ten-year existence, about 30 exhibitions took place, including the first solo shows of notable black names in British art such as Keith Piper, Sonia Boyce and Eddie Chambers.

This year Boyce was chosen by the British Council to be the first black woman to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2021.

The gallery held 30 exhibitions during the ten years that it operated, showcasing work by black artists

The gallery held 30 exhibitions during the ten years that it operated, showcasing work by black artists

Describing the historic need for the gallery, the author A-dZiko Simba Gegele, who worked at the gallery pre-inception and until 1985, said: “From a black person’s perspective, nothing was going on, nothing was going on that included us. There was no nursery for us, there was inadequate education for us. There was no space for us. There was no theatre for us. There was no recognition for us.”

She added: “Those of us who were aspiring middle class, middle class or managed to come up from the so-called working class, knew that we didn’t want to rise up in that way [referring to the race riots of the 1980s], but we wanted to rise up. And so some of us started doing stuff at community level before the GLC [Greater London Council] announced that it was going to give out grants.”

Ken McCalla, an artist who exhibited at the gallery, said: “Meeting black artists and producing artworks for the themed exhibitions was a great influence on my artistic development and social perceptions right up to today.

“I had just finished a fine art degree and had no idea what to do next. OBAALA brought a structure in the Black-Art Gallery where conversations were being had on social issues pertaining to the black communities’ voice, which at the time was marginalised and not heard.”

The gallery held the first solo shows of many notable black names in British art

The gallery held the first solo shows of many notable black names in British art

He added: “The Black-Art Gallery’s curating style was fresh and holistic, incorporating music, poetry, talks and discussions, workshops, films and theatre into the exhibitions. The themed shows were designed especially to engage, removing the elitist attitudes of a conventional gallery.

OBAALA’s first chairwoman believes that the gallery site should be marked to draw attention to its historic significance. June Reid told The Times: “The Black-Art Gallery is overdue for a commemoration. It was and is unique! There has never been another black art gallery. It inspired young up-and-coming artists and was an inspiration to the community. The organisation also hosted a regular summer school for children.”

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