The History of Black History Month

This year in October we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Black History Month in the UK. And in doing so we recognise that it was first celebrated in 1987, eighteen months after the abolition of the Greater London Council, the GLC.

I say this because I have heard some recent claims that Black History Month was initiated by Ken Livingstone whilst he was Leader of the GLC. I know it was not because I was one of the Leaders on the 15 Local Authorities which formed the body that took over the radical bits of the GLC after Margaret Thatcher’s Government after its abolition. The London Strategic Policy Unit (LSPU) recruited and employed hundreds of the staff that worked in the Ethnic Minority Unit, the Women’s Committee Support Unit and others of the progress GLC that Thatcher hated.

It was a difficult and demanding job to find ways of carrying on the progressive equalities work of the GLC but in the months leading up to abolition (31.3.1986) I and my fellow progressive Council Leaders across London did manage it just in time. I recall one of the most pressing issues was finding a building to house the LSPU but we did manage it.  There was a particular irony for me because I was both a Councillor in Lambeth and an Officer working in the GLC and in the May of 1986 I was elected Leader of Lambeth Council and was soon sacked by Sir Tag Taylor whilst I worked for the successor body the London Residual Body(LRB) which took over the rundown of the GLC ‘s business after abolition.
I cannot recall exactly when Ansell Wong, the Head of the Ethnic Minority Unit (EMU) came to me with the idea of initiating Black History Month in the UK but I jumped at the idea. I had long argued for the inclusion of our struggles and triumphs in Britain having been a critic of the constant erasure of our people from British history. By then I was aware of people like  Mary Seacole, from my days at Spare Rib where we did include story of her struggles uncovered by Elizabeth Onuwamu. I was very aware of how little Black children knew about the positive achievements of Black peoples, especially as my role as a Councillor in Lambeth made be very aware of how little positive support Black children were receiving whilst in so-called ‘Council Care’ . It was at this point that as Leader I insisted that the informal policy of Same Race Placement was made official.

So, having agreed the initiation of Black History Month I agreed that we would try to get Sally Mugabe to be a Guest of Honour and that we would use a large (and somewhat expensive) venue of the Commonwealth Institute. The nearest dates that fitted our Guest and the venue availability was October 1987. Hence Black History Month was held in October each year in contrast to being in February in the USA.  Ironically when later Sue Sanders was considering running a similar initiative for the LGBT community she sought my advice (and approval) and I suggested that she ensure more control over what was done in the name of LGBT history Month than we had for Black History Month, I think it was me the suggested holding the event in February so that the UK and USA reversed the events.
By October 1988 we knew that we could no longer afford to keep the LSPU going Margaret Thatcher had won her third Election Victory in 1987. Sixteen of the  Labour run Councils in London had been each contributing £1million  so we agreed that we would close the LSPU but would absorb the staff across our various Councils. It was complicated but we did manage to do so for everyone who wanted to stay in Local Government. This was not however the end of Black History Month, because the duty under Section 71 of the Race Relations Act 1976 allowed us to promote good race relations etc. and those progressive Councils which had supported the LSPU tended to take that duty seriously, hence a series of Black History Month events across parts of London.    Over the years they have been many and varied and some frankly have been awful. If I were in the same position again to start Black History Month I would call it African History Month not black or at the very least I would insist that Black had a capital letter and I think a steering group should   propose an annual theme rather than letting anarchy and racism occur inadvertently due to lack of knowledge or just plain ignorance.  I have been heard about what has happened in some schools across the UK that pick on the one or two African Heritage children and make them ‘perform’. Black History Month has been largely successful but it could be more so.

Linda Bellos is a former leader of Lambeth Council and a gay rights activist. She now runs a diversity consultancy. Linda was awarded an OBE in 2006 for services to diversity