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  • Tom Marshall

Black Britain in Colour

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

As a White Englishman, I have power and privilege simply due to the colour of my skin, and I won't pretend to know what it must be like growing up in a world of institutional racism. I equally don't know how I should best respond to the current situation. There have been major protests across the world following the killing of George Floyd, a Black American man at the hands of the police.

The UK isn't innocent, and Black people in Britain continue to suffer inequality and unfair treatment at the hands of state authorities. I want to show solidarity and speak out, but I equally understand that this is a time for Black voices to be heard, and for everybody else to listen for a change.

As a photo colouriser I thought a contribution I could make would be to try and highlight moments of Black British history in a way that might open a few eyes to the contributions of Black people in this country over the past century. I also believe it is possible to love your country whilst admitting there are periods of history that we should not be proud of. I have chosen photos taken in Britain since 1889 of British and Commonwealth heroes, fighters, workers and ordinary men and women, along with examples of the hardship endured, much of which is still felt today.

My aim in colourising these photos was to highlight and celebrate the rich diversity of the country I love. Anti racism is a process which includes self-education and educating others. I hope the colourised photos in this blog bring these stories and people to life.

Taken in 1891, this photo is of Frances Gqoba, a member of The African Choir, a group of singers from South Africa. The choir toured Britain between 1891 and 1893, when this photo was taken, raising funds for a technical college in South Africa. They performed to large audiences in the Crystal Palace, and in a private performance for Queen Victoria.

Their stage repertoire was divided into two halves: one comprised Christian hymns sung in English together with popular operatic arias and choruses; the other traditional African hymns. The choir appeared in traditional African dress, and in contemporary Victorian dress in response.

Gqoba came from Lovedale, a mission station and educational institute in the Victoria East division of the Cape Province, South Africa.

Peter Jackson was an Australian heavyweight boxer, known as 'The Black Prince'. He was a world class fighter, becoming the World Colored Heavyweight champion in 1888 and in 1889 he famously defeated Jem Smith at the Pelican Club in Soho, London becoming the inaugural Commonwealth Heavyweight champion, where this photo was taken.

Jackson died at the age of 40 in 1901 from tuberculosis, following his retirement from boxing due to ill health. His tomb is emblazoned with the words "This was a man".

Paul Stephenson OBE was born in Essex in 1937. He was the only Black child at his school and was one of the few Black children in his area growing up. This photo was taken during Paul's national service with the RAF from 1953-1960.

Stephenson moved to Bristol in 1962 and became the first Black social worker in the city, working with the city's growing West Indian community. It was in Bristol that he became a civil rights campaigner.

The Bristol Omnibus Company refused to employ Black people in the 1950s and early 1960s. Some individuals worked in 'behind the scenes' jobs, such as mechanics and cleaners, but were not allowed to be presented as the face of the company.

Stephenson led a boycott of the company, known as the 'Bristol Bus Boycott' for 60 days, supported by thousands of Bristolians, forcing the Bristol Omnibus Company to revoke their colour bar in August 1963. The following year he gained national fame when he refused to leave a pub until he was served. He was charged with failing to leave a licensed premises and was tried in a magistrate's court. The case was dismissed and the barman was dismissed by his employers.

Paul Stephenson's campaigns were instrumental in paving the way for the first Race Relations Act, in 1965. He is a Freeman of the City of Bristol and was awarded an OBE in 2009.

National interest in Stephenson has resurfaced this week, following the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in central Bristol, with calls for the statue to be replaced with one of Paul Stephenson himself. I think this would be fitting tribute to the man.

Following the Second World War, Britain's economy was in tatters, and the country was short on labour. Officials came to the conclusion that they would have to find workers to fill the gaps in the market and introduced The British Nationality Act of 1948, which in turn created the status of "Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies" (CUKC).

On The 22nd June 1948 the ex-troopship 'Empire Windrush' arrived in England carrying 482 people from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands, who had each paid £28 and 10 shillings for their passage, all prepared to start a new life in Britain.

Three smartly dressed Jamaican men aboard the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks, Essex in June 1948. They are from left to right John Hazel, a 21-year-old boxer, Harold Wilmot, 32, and John Richards, a 22-year-old carpenter.

Despite living and working in the UK for decades, many of the Windrush generation have recently been told they are here illegally because of a lack of official paperwork.

Many campaigners including Shadow Secretary of State for Justice and Shadow Lord Chancellor David Lammy (whose parents arrived in the UK from Guyana) are calling for the government to establish a humane way of establishing the status of those facing deportation, and those who have already been deported 'in error'.

In the coming years, large numbers of citizens responded to Britain's need for workers and made the move over. This photo taken on 27th May 1956 shows newly arrived West Indians in the Customs Hall after their arrival at Southampton.

Black people suffered significant amounts of racism, from employers, institutions and the local population. For many Caribbeans, their first experience of discrimination came when trying to find private accommodation as there was no anti-discrimination legislation to prevent landlords from refusing to accept Black tenants.

A survey undertaken in Birmingham in 1956 found that only 15 of a total of 1,000 White people surveyed would let a room to a Black tenant. As a result, many Black people were forced to live in slum areas of cities. Black tenants typically paid twice the rent of White tenants, and lived in conditions of extreme overcrowding.

The word 'wogs' is scrawled on the door of a house in the East End of London, which had been firebombed in the night by the National Front, a far-right group of white supremacists. Original photo by Steve Lewis.

1st May 1968: A Black man walks past graffiti stating 'Powell For PM' referring to British Conservative politician Enoch Powell who caused controversy with his outspoken attitude to Black immigration and racial integration culminating in his infamous 'Rivers of Blood' speech.

He slated the policies of successive governments and, in particular, the Race Relations Act which he was convinced was putting the country on course towards racial violence in a Britain where "the Black man has the whip hand".

West Indians arrive at Victoria Station, London, after their journey from Southampton Docks, 1956.

The history of Black people in Britain goes back thousands of years before these photos were taken, and their contribution to British culture, sport, music, art, cuisine, literature and all aspects of life should not be undervalued, it should be celebrated.

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All colourised images © Tom Marshall (PhotograFix) 2020.

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