Kwaku provides a personal reflection of history advocate Oku Ekpenyon and human rights activist Epsy Campbell Barr and explains why conscious Africans, allies and Afriphiles urgently need to engage with them.
Oku Ekpenyon and Epsy Campbell Barr come from different generations and different continents. In addition to being born in their country’s capital to families of migrant stock, these high achievers share something else in common – their passion to highlight and commemorate global African history, and its connection to Britain and the world, respectively.
Ekpenyon, born in post-World War II London of indeterminate age who was “a very young child at the time of the late Queen’s coronation in 1953,” is a soft-spoken, elegant and determined lady. She’s a former history teacher, who in 2010 was awarded an MBE for ‘voluntary service to the history of Black British people. Her father, who migrated from Nigeria in 1928, has a well-documented history, which belies the centrality of British African history ascribed to Windrush.
E. Ita Ekpenyon was a headteacher in Nigeria who came to England to study law. Whilst financial challenges put paid to his legal aspirations, he managed to act in a number of British films in the 1930s-40s with the likes of Paul Robeson; contributed to editions of the BBC’s ‘Calling West Africa’, which is lesser known than its ‘Calling The West Indies’ counterpart; helped outdoor a British Army tank paid for by a Nigerian chieftaincy; and is thus far, the only African known to have served as an ARP (Air Raid Precaution) warden in the borough of Westminster, from 1940 until World War II ended in 1945.
She is the founder and chair of Memorial 2007 (M2007). It aims to erect Britain’s first permanent national memorial and garden to honour the millions of enslaved Africans and their descendants. The memorial, which is supported by UNESCO’s Slave Route Project, now officially renamed Routes of Enslaved Peoples, will form part of the World Heritage Project linking the key global sites associated with the trafficking and enslavement history.
It will give public recognition and acknowledgement to millions of Africans who were victims of the so-called Slave Trade, or the Trans-Atlantic Trafficking Of Enslaved Africans. The Enslaved Africans Memorial Garden will be located in the Rose Garden of Hyde Park.
“Our ancesters deserve a good site,” says Ekpenyon, reminding me of the fact that the planning permission for the M2007 memorial in the prime central London location lapsed in November 2019, because they could not raise enough funds to unveil the memorial
She and her M2007 trustees aim to re-apply for the planning application, but they need your support.
The M2007 idea came about after Ekpenyon, then a London secondary school history teacher who rose to be head of history, took a group of students on an educational visit to the Tower of London. Afterwards, a girl of African heritage asked her: “Where is our history?”
It was not until 2002 that she found the time to found a small voluntary group with a vision to have a monument in place in London that spoke to the African contribution to Britain during the 2007 bicentennial commemoration of the 1807 Act that abolished the Trans-Atlantic Trafficking Of Enslaved Africans.
Sadly, the five year window came and went, and although there were numerous Abolition and Enslavement activities in 2007, some derisively called Wilberfarce or Wilberfest, the M2007 memorial was not one of them. However, M2007 became a registered charity in that year.
Also a campaign she launched in 2005 resulted in Royal Mail issuing a set of stamps in 2007 to commemorate the bicentennial. “The set featured the African Abolitionists Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano, alongside some of the white Abolitionists, such as William Wilberforce and Grenville Sharp.”
She co-founded in 2007 the Ira Aldridge Bicentenary Project to mark the centenary of the birth of the eponymous African American Shakespearean actor. She produced the group’s educational pack, and they produced a play about Aldridge at the Old Vic, which the actor performed at in the 1820s when it was known as the Royal Coburg Theatre. Three years prior, in 2004, Ekpenyon managed to get the theatre to acknowledge Aldridge’s contribution by unveiling his portrait in the southeast London theatre.
The history advocate also unveiled in 2007 an English Heritage Aldridge blue plaque on the Shakespearean actor’s former south London home. Interestingly, the house is in Hamlet Road! Seeing the importance of the M2007 project as a marker recognising the historic contributions made by Africans in Britain, and which continue today with their descendants, I think it behoves every African in Britain to do their bit to make the M2007 memorial a reality.
To be blunt, it feels like it’s the last chance saloon for this project. The ambition must be to get it done before the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent ends in 2024.
It is a laudable but hard sell. Because even with the likes of Lord Boateng, Baroness Lawrence, and the late Kate Davson, the great-great-great-granddaughter of the abolitionist Wilberforce and great supporter of M2007, as patrons, and a host of politicians, academics, historians and celebrities expressing their support, progress has been slow.
There’s a Change.org petition aimed at asking for financial help from the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, which is now called the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The petition has garnered just over one hundred thousand signatures. It’s a simple thing to add one’s name, bearing in mind the higher the number of signatures, the better the demonstration of support for the project.
Whilst still trying to get funding from the government, which has funded memorials for World War I, the Holocaust, Windrush and even the Srebrenica genocide victims, Ekpenyon thinks this is a project that can be funded by the “do for self” attitude, like what underpinned Marcus Garvey’s UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) projects a century ago.
“Realistically speaking, the government is not interested,” says Ekpenyon matter of factly. Indeed, M2007 had the support of Boris Johnson when he was London Mayor – he and Ekpenyon unveiled a maquette of the statue, which was displayed in City Hall for several months in 2008.
At the time, Johnson was fulsome in his support for the M2007 project, saying: “It is important that this era in our history is never forgotten. Hyde Park is a fitting site for a permanent memorial to the millions who lost their lives and the courageous people who fought to end the brutal trans-Atlantic slave trade.”
It seems it was just talk, because no cash or any meaningful support came when he joined the government in 2016. Not even when he became Prime Minister in 2019.
But Ekpenyon is sanguine, as she has set her sights on Britain’s African communities, whether from the continent, the Caribbean or born in Britain. The £4m or so needed for creating the statue and maintaining the park site for years to come can be achieved, if “we’re self-realiant – we need to work as a community to raise the money ourselves,” she says.
Ekpenyon is exploring a variety of potential donors, including the Church of England, with whom she’s engaged in “ongoing talks.”
If you wish to see Ekpenyon’s twenty year dream become a reality, please support financially by going to the Donate page at Memorial2007.org.uk. It has a downloadable Gift Aid form. As a registered charity, donations by UK tax payers attract a top-up from the government’s Gift Aid scheme, which Ekpenyon wants eligible donors to use. “It all adds up, as it maximises one’s donation by 25%,” enthuses Ekpenyon, Also, sending a cheque or bank transfer means the charity receives the full donation without deductions.
If you need a reminder as to why you should urgently help, then check out Ekpenyon’s key message: “The wealth created by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean contributed to putting the ‘Great’ into Great Britain, and yet there is no recognition in this country of their input. That is why they are deserving of a memorial.”
Epsy Campbell Barr, born in the early 1960s in San José, is a stylish economist, environmentalist, womanist, human rights activist, and a politician who served as the First Vice-President of Costa Rica from May 2018 to May 8 2022. She was the second African woman Vice President in the Americas, following Viola Burnham’s 1985-1991 term in Guyana. The third is Francia Márquez, a human rights, environmental activist and lawyer, who in August of this year became the Vice President of Colombia.
Barr, who speaks Spanish, English and French, has a long experience as a researcher, writer and a national and international activist for the rights of women and Africans in Costa Rica, the Caribbean and South America.
Her grandparents were immigrants – her maternal grandmother relocated from Jamaica as a child. A co-founder in 2000 of the Citizens’ Action Party (PAC), she ran for president in 2010 and 2014, and was a deputy in the Legislative Assembly from 2002 to 2006 and 2014 to 2018. She’s a graduate of universities in Costa Rica, Spain and the US.
Most of this was unknown to me until the last year, when I discovered she was part of the Costa Rican government that was responsible to getting the United Nation’s General Assembly, with the support of fifty-two countries, to pass the motion that adopted August 31 as the International Day for People Of African Descent (IDayPAD) in December 2020.
I then found her euphoric tweets, which I retweeted to let her and her political colleagues know that the African advocacy project I lead, TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question), has been marking August 31 as African History Reflection Day (AHRD) since we commemorated in London in 2014 the centenary of the founding of the Marcus Garvey-led UNIA-ACL (Univeral Negro Improvement Association-African Communities League).
I was impressed to find out that IDayPAD, like AHRD, was inspired by the same thing – the Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World, which was unanimously adopted at the First International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World convention held in New York in 1920.
So it was a no brainer to invite Barr as a special guest at this year’s AHRD event. The first thing she said in her introduction was that she was “an activist.” This was what she chooses to characterise her, more than the Vice Presidency, which brought her much fame.
“We proclaim the 31st day of August of each year to be an international holiday to be observed by all Negroes,” says Barr, explaining the long tradition in Costa Rica, which has a strong and enduring UNIA movement, with over five chapters still active and two Liberty Halls.
The importance of commemorating August 31, she says “helps to make visible the reality of people of African descent around the world … our culture, contributions, and the vindication of our rights as people, to contribute to those who came before us.”
August 31 is a national holiday in Costa Rica, and in 2018, August was declared the Historical Month of Afro-descendants in Costa Rica. Also, Costa Rica changed its constitution in 2015 to define itself as a multi-ethnic and multicultural nation.
In 2016, the Black Star Line buiding in Limon, also known as Liberty Hall, was destroyed by fire. Although the government has put up some funds, it’s not enough to cover the rebuilding of what is a listed national heritage property.
I asked Barr if it was OK for us to galvanise Garveyites, pan-Africanists, global-Africanists and all interested persons to explore setting up a crowd fund to contribute towards the cost of the re-building. Watch the BHM Magazine website for an update on an online meeting with Barr to discuss this issue.
Finally, Barr, who’s a member of the UN Permanent Forum of People of African Descent, says its members are open to networking with African communities.
Interested persons should look to engage with the Permanent Forum in person or online at the following confirmed formal sessions, firstly on December 5-8 in Geneva. The second session will be 30 May 30-June 2 2023 in New York City.