African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire Project

I experienced History in school as a narrow subject. I was told of a triumphant Britain celebrating its successes over the centuries with events focussed on the contributions of mainly white men both here and overseas.

A wedding whilst on tour in Belfast. Laureen is in the second row between the Bride and Groom

In recent years however, other histories have started to emerge, and it is pleasing to realise that our African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire project has been significant in encouraging this change ever since we gained funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2016.

 

Laureen Sylvestre – one of over 100 stories featured (image courtesy of Cleo Sylvestre)

Of course, the passion for British Black history is not a new phenomenon and I have been privileged to have known some of the experienced voices who have been trying to raise its profile for eons. For me, my journey started relatively recently when I was pointed in the direction of Peter Fryer’s Staying Power and Kathleen Chater’s Untold Histories. Here, the presence of Black people in Britain’s history wasn’t hidden. Several findings in such texts, for instance the revelations of a presence beyond the Windrush generation, spurred me on to wonder what I could find about my own area. I wanted to bring a more inclusive history to my doorstep.

By then, I had lived in East Yorkshire for over 20 years. I knew that it wasn’t the most diverse of regions relative to other counties, certainly not in the towns; even Hull, the biggest city, had only just started to become more diverse – mainly as a result of its university population. I also knew that Hull was best known for being the birthplace of William Wilberforce which to my mind made it even more relevant to appraise Black presence in this region given the City’s tendency to reference its African connection.

This shaped the idea of what became the African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire project – a desire to bring Black history into the region and demonstrate that if Black presence could be found in East Yorkshire, a Black history is likely to exist in other regions. It was also a means of giving this region a chance to hear the stories of the lives of people of the African diaspora, given its unique relationship to the story of the slave trade. With this in mind, the aim was to look for stories of people of African descent who had lived, stayed or visited the region from 1750s to 2007, following the Wilberforce timeline of birth to the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade.

The idea was innovative and untested, and given our region there were many sceptics questioning whether we would find sufficient material, but it was an exciting challenge to contradict perceived wisdom. Being a first-time applicant, I had no notion of the difficulties in applying for an HLF bid but the plan was strong, the timing right and I’d eventually gathered enough support for the application; after all, Hull was then on the cusp of becoming the UK’s City of Culture.

I was not immune to the initial fear of not finding enough material (especially when considering the current regional demographics) but this was soon dispelled as the project got underway. Our team was tiny and there were many volunteer hours and favours to call upon, but we have achieved a considerable bank of resources which is free to access. We have over 100 stories, 30 oral histories, and have completed two exhibitions to date with a third scheduled for February 2019 in Goole.

We have lent our expertise and advice in answering plenty of enquiries from the media, academics and the general public. The website has been used as a source for educational purposes as well as to inspire others to look within their own communities to find their hidden stories. Most pleasing of all however has been giving a platform for families to share their stories, have their presence acknowledged and foster many conversations within family members; a journey of self-discovery for many.

It is my hope that the success of this project reaffirms the strong belief that history should be told in its entirety without any selective amnesia, so that everybody’s contribution is acknowledged. The project has shown that, rather than being erased and brought out for novelty value, examples of Black presence can be seen in all histories in the everyday and should be part of the common narrative.

 

Gifty Burrows
Chair of Trustees (William Wilberforce Monument Fund)
Project Lead (African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire) 
http://www.africansinyorkshireproject.com
http://www.wilberforcefund.co.uk
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