Blog: Madeline Heneghan

The Writing on the Wall co-director reflects on the Great War to Race Riots Archive project and looks ahead to WoW’s first Black History Month mini-festival

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Liverpool has the longest continuous and distinct black community in Europe. Its development was shaped by its relationship to the sea and seafaring. Its original settlement was the area from the South Docks, up along Stanhope Street, to Parliament Street and present-day Chinatown, where black seafarers lodged in boarding house and private homes.

The Great War to Race Riots archive is a rediscovered collection of letters and documents dating from 12 May 1919 to 9 November 1920, which form part of the Lord Mayor of Liverpool’s correspondence. It was rediscovered by Joe Farrag, a great friend of ours and a local history enthusiast who, recognising the significance of his find, shared it with Writing on the Wall (WoW) after observing the groundbreaking work of our George Garrett Archive Project.

When we looked at the papers Joe brought us, we were amazed to find that they included a list of 82 names and addresses of black workers and servicemen compiled by the African Christian Association. They include letters and testimony from men from Africa, the Caribbean and India who fought for England on land and at sea during the Great War of 1914, or had worked in factories to support the war effort.

Seeing their names and addresses, all around the area – Norfolk Street, Stanhope, Pitt Street, etc – felt like history coming off the page and coming to life before our eyes. In eloquent hand-written appeals to the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, black colonial subjects, some with local wives, partners and children, describe the competition for jobs in post-war Liverpool, which renders them unemployed and unemployable when a colour bar is imposed following the demobilisation of white soldiers. They express incredulity that foreign white workers are being employed in preference to black British citizens who have served in the war or supported the war effort. They describe themselves as “patriots” who are still willing to serve “God, King and Country”; their sense of injustice and desperation is palpable.

We felt we had to give them the voice they were so clearly denied at the time. But in our desire to achieve that aim, we also wanted to engage as many of the local community as possible, and try to publicise the archive and see if any people in the area were related to the people in it. So we formed the Great War to Race Riots Archive Project, and recruited a brilliant bunch of people with an array of talents who worked tirelessly, giving their time willingly and volunteering for three years to collect, collate and preserve the documents, which are now available for the public to view at Central Library’s Record Office, and on display at Toxteth Library. Discovering there are families in Liverpool 8 who are directly descended from the men named in the archive was an incredible highlight. Another highlight was the group being asked by David Olusoga to take part in the unveiling of a plaque to the murdered black seafarer Charles Wotten, which was filmed as part of his Black & Britain TV series.

Wotten was chased by police as he ran toward the docks pursued by an angry crowd of 200-300 of people who hurled stones and other missiles

Black History Month is a time for us to celebrate the achievements of the living and commemorate and pay respect to both the achievements and suffering of our dead. I’m very pleased that Writing on the Wall is continuing the Liverpool tradition of marking Black History Month, and after all the gnashing of teeth, moans, groans and sleepless nights, that mine and Emy’s book will be published!

Beginning on 20 Oct Writing on the Wall launches Great War to Race Riots, a book based on the archive. On 21 October the Lives and Legacies group will lead the first ever guided walking tour of the 1919 race riots. It will assemble at the Chinese Arch on Nelson Street, near to the site of the public house where fighting broke out between Scandinavian and West Indian seafarers, then move on to Pitt Street, and the site of the boarding house where Wotten resided.

Following a raid on the house, Wotten was chased by police as he ran toward the docks pursued by an angry crowd of 200-300 of people who hurled stones and other missiles. The tour will follow his last movements on to Queens’ Dock, where he was caught by the police but torn from their grasp, thrown into the dock and pelted with rocks as he swam. The Liverpool Echo of the time reported that a detective tried to pull Wotten from the water, when a “stone thrown from the middle of the crowd struck Wootton on the head and he sank”.

A BBC commemorative plaque was dedicated to Wooten at the site of his death in May 2016. The plaque restores his correct name, which was misspelt in police, coroner’s and newspaper reports. The tour will then move up into the Stanhope Street area where seamen’s boarding houses here located, including the one established by the Elder Dempster shipping line to house its West African crew. These houses were ransacked and their contents burned during the June disturbances in the orgy of violence that was unleased against the black community, many of whom had to be housed in police stations for their own protection.

The events of 1919 had a far-reaching impact on British rule across the empire and official responses towards the black community developed then continue to be employed today. The events of 1919 are more than just the concern of Black history. Olusoga states: “The black history of Britain is by its nature a global history. Yet too often it is seen as being only the history of migration, settlement and community formation in Britain itself. Black British history is as global as the empire. Like Britain’s triangular slave trade it is a triangular history, firmly planted in Britain, Africa and the Americas. On all three continents stand its ruins and relics.

Olusoga, who visited all three continents in the research for his latest book, Black & British: A Forgotten History will be joining us at Toxteth Library at 4pm on 21 October.

On that evening, we will be moving from the past to present and into the venue District with Benjamin Zephaniah and his band, The Revolutionary Minds.

The pioneering dub poet, writer, social commentator and music maker has teamed up with producer and engineer The Sea to create the timely album (and band) Revolutionary Minds . WoW has worked with Rory Taylor and Positive Vibrations, Liverpool’s very own reggae festival, to make this all happen. Revolutionary Minds is the soundtrack for the modern revolutionist. It should make you feel empowered, hopeful, galvanised to make a difference and make you dance: it’s a dub thing.

I’m looking forward to this night. I’ve known Benjamin for a long time, and always enjoy his performance. Last time he was with us he did a Rebel Rant and packed out the concert room in St George’s Hall. This time it’s a different vibe. Supported by Amina Atiq and Blue Saint – local talent – it should be a great end to the festival.

Read about the history of Liverpool’s black seamen here

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