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Northamptonshire black history goes back over 800 years. It is unusually well documented due to the commitment of local volunteer historians over the past 30 years. Settler communities from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean grew strongly in Northamptonshire during the second half of the twentieth century. Their organisations grew too, and with them came an interest in tracing and recording the past.


In 1977 young Black people took a historic step in occupying a derelict building in the centre of Northampton and turning it into a popular centre of education and entertainment. As early as 1980 Alan Howard wrote a first history of the Matta Fancanta Cultural Youth Movement in a magazine titled 'New Ethnic'. Hundreds attended Matta Fancanta’s music events and ‘informal public readings of excerpts from books on Black History’ also proved popular. The local West Indian Parents Association and later the Wellingborough African Caribbean Association (WACA) organised Saturday schools and holiday play-schemes with a Black History flavour.


In the 1980s Alan Howard and others formed the New Vision Film Company. Its work included a first collaboration with the (future) University of Northampton to create Black History teaching resources for local schools. In 1989 Moving On: Northamptonshire and the Wider World included a New Vision film of four family histories. Black History documents from the 17th century onwards were explored in a booklet by University historian Julia Bush, and local photographer Paul Bingham created a folder of photographs of local Black History events and individuals.


During the 1990s Paul Crofts of Wellingborough Racial Equality Council developed an ambitious vision of fully-recorded and fully-understood Northamptonshire Black British History. He invited leading historian Peter Fryer to speak at a public meeting in Wellingborough and supported the efforts of Jenny Labbon and other local activists to record the oral history of African and Caribbean elders.


Meanwhile, Olive Robinson, Steve Stephenson, Nicola Taylor and Northampton Caribbean Elders produced Cold Arrivals, a substantial collection of recorded histories. Neville Cornwell and a group of volunteers gathered Black History archive references at the Northamptonshire Record Office and elsewhere. Work in schools expanded through a project about the life and times of Charles Bacchus, a Black servant whose death in 1762 is recorded on a tombstone in Culworth churchyard. This early work prepared the way for a successful Heritage Lottery Fund bid in 2001 for £500,000 to fund a large-scale Northamptonshire Black History Project.


The Northamptonshire Black History Project was the first major attempt to put Black British History on the record outside big cities like London, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool. It successfully combined individual volunteers, local community organisations and local agencies including Northamptonshire’s Record Office and Library Services.

All this was achieved under the leadership of a staff team including Carolyn Abel (Project Director), Julia Drake (Oral History officer) and Nicola Taylor (Community Research officer). The project was unique in recruiting over 40 paid and trained sessional workers to record life history interviews and comb local archives. Its management committee included representatives of most of the Northamptonshire organisations founded by African, Asian and Caribbean communities. The original HLF grant was supplemented by grants from Northamptonshire County Council and the Home Office. Outcomes of this prize-winning project are summarised below:


Oral History Archive

Over 200 life history interviews were recorded. All have been transcribed and the original mini-disk recordings have recently been transferred to digital format. 110 of the interviews have so far been summarised and edited for deposit at the Northamptonshire Record Office, with accompanying family history documents.


Community Archives

15 Northamptonshire community organisations deposited their archives at the Record Office. This process of putting recent Black History on the record introduced many first-time visitors to the Record Office. A short film about the Record Office was also produced for use by volunteers and community groups.


Black History Database

More than 500 references to the African and Asian presence in Northamptonshire were assembled by NBHP volunteers and staff, with assistance from other local historians. These were carefully checked before being entered onto a searchable database on our website. 


Black History Exhibition and Newsletter

Black History knowledge gathered during the project was shared through visits to community groups and schools and a quarterly Newsletter was sent to all interviewees and other supporters. The project team produced a set of ten roll-up banners depicting highlights of Northamptonshire Black History which were displayed in schools and other public venues across the county.


NBHP ‘Extras’

The Northamptonshire Black History Project achieved all its major aims and also resulted in unexpected ‘extras’. Esmahan Abdullah, a young Somali volunteer, produced a video of her family history which was shown to local and national audiences. Letitia Narh, a Ghanaian volunteer, wrote a short book about the Ghanaian community in Northampton. The collections of the Central Library and Record Office began to reflect the growing diversity of the Northamptonshire community, and The University of Northampton delivered its first courses in Black British History to NBHA volunteers, trainee teachers and others. In 2005 the Northamptonshire Black History Project won a national award from CILIP:  Libraries Change Lives. The award was presented to proud staff and supporters by the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, and confirmed their belief that their work must go on once the project had finished.


2005-06 was a year of transition for Northamptonshire Black History as paid staff left when HLF funding ended. Nevertheless, Nicola Taylor and an enthusiastic group of volunteers set about launching Northamptonshire Black History Association as a membership organisation. The NBHA aimed to ‘empower Black communities and the wider community and challenge racist attitudes by demonstrating the contributions and achievements of Black individuals and communities throughout British history’. NBHA became the custodian of NBHP research and continued to strengthen relationships between communities, statutory heritage providers and educational institutions.

In October 2005 NBHA was legally registered as a company with the general goal ‘To promote education in relation to Black History’. A survey of NBHA’s social enterprise potential encouraged exploration of new funding opportunities. An HLF Young Roots grant was achieved to fund a lively youth project called 'Race2Score', in collaboration with Northampton Town Football Club. The University of Northampton made a formal partnership agreement with NBHA in October 2005, guaranteeing future funding for collaborative research and educational work. NBHA’s evening course Black British History: From Past to Present received academic accreditation.
During 2005-06 NBHA successfully secured £249,000 of Heritage Lottery Funding for a new project 'Shaping the Future: Northamptonshire Black History'. The University of Northampton funded a survey by John Siblon, supervised by Paul Bracey from the School of Education and Carolyn Abel, the Director of the NBHP. This research with local teachers and educationalists identified a need for local Black history teaching resources which led to the production of five curriculum packs as part of the Shaping The Future project. The project also enabled Victor Ukaegbu to develop a community drama project from local Black History stories.


NBHA’s second big HLF project aimed to educate school children and the general public about Northamptonshire Black History uncovered during our three-year research project. Like the first project, it relied heavily upon the support of volunteers and local community organisations. It also deepened NBHA’s links to local education providers. Led by Nicola Taylor, the staff team included Don Allen and Anne-Marie Sandos as Community Education officers, and Angela Ghavami as Project Administrator. During two busy years, the project achieved a wide range of outcomes. These achievements helped to strengthen NBHA as a community history organisation.


Educational resource packs

Shaping the Future created a total of five educational resource packs for use in local schools. These extended across the primary and secondary school age range and included teaching schemes related closely to the National Curriculum, as well as a wealth of visual resources in digital and printed form. Northamptonshire County Council funded the distribution of NBHA Walter Tull packs to every school in the county. Our pack titled 'From Slavery to Emancipation' was published online during 2007-08, the year of the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the British Slave Trade. Another online pack, 'Northamptonshire in Global Context', included mini-projects by local teachers. 'Representations of Empire' linked teaching schemes to the little-known ethnographic collection of African and Asian artefacts at Northampton Museum. 'Living Memories' included extracts from six of the many life stories recorded during the earlier project, and suggested ways of developing oral history work in schools.


NBHA members and supporters had opportunities to contribute to the development of the educational resource packs. For example, museum staff brought items from the museum collection for NBHA members to discuss and handle. Their ideas were reflected in the pack, and their interest also encouraged Northampton Museum to build the ethnographic collection and Black History more generally into its forward planning.


Some of the NBHA members whose stories went into the oral history pack were able to visit local schools to talk about their memories. Oral History was an important part of an after-school Black Heritage Club run by three NBHA members at one Wellingborough junior school. NBHA was invited to give many school assemblies as well as to talk to local history groups.


The packs were authored by a range of educational experts, and deserve a wider audience than they have so far received. Authors included Hillary Clare, Dan Lyndon, Alison Gove-Humphries, Julia Drake, Paul Bracey, Dean Smart, Angela Alloway and Julia Curtis. Consequently Shaping the Future material will be made available online during 2012 from NBHA.

Community Education Projects

Shaping the Future produced three community education projects alongside its work to spread Black History into schools, with the aim of offering Black British History to the general public.Don Allen led a project to develop an NBHA Cookbook, collecting recipes from a wide range of community groups. Anne-Marie Sandos developed a Black History story-telling project, delivered mainly through county libraries. She went on to lead a community drama project, in partnership with Oundle literature festival. Performances were given in Oundle and Corby, taking NBHA’s positive Black History message into areas where relatively few Black people live.


Don Allen led a project to develop an NBHA Cookbook, collecting recipes from a wide range of community groups. Anne-Marie Sandos developed a Black History story-telling project, delivered mainly through county libraries. She went on to lead a community drama project, in partnership with Oundle literature festival. Performances were given in Oundle and Corby, taking NBHA’s positive Black History message into areas where relatively few Black people live.


Alongside the Shaping the Future project, NBHA developed several smaller projects and a varied programme of membership activities. More details of some of these are given below.

NBHA was proud to receive funding from Northamptonshire Primary Healthcare Trust for workshops relating to mental health care in Black communities. A video was produced documenting the regrettable closure of the Sankofa Mental Health Centre in Northampton.


During 2006-07 NBHA won a Creative Partnerships grant which funded workshops at Magdalen College School in Brackley. These workshops were delivered in collaboration with Inspiration FM Radio.


NBHA was also funded to contribute to the Hands On History museum loan box project at Northampton Museum, and to the Northamptonshire Record Office Sticks and Stones project linked to the Slave Trade Bicentenary. Ferrers Voices gave Higham Ferrers schoolchildren a chance to develop their own oral history project with NBHA assistance. Nicola Taylor led this project work, and also directed a Race2Score drama performance at the Castle Theatre in Wellingborough.
Northamptonshire’s biggest Bicentenary project was 'Freedom From the Past: Long Time Coming', led by Mary Clarke, Director of the Doddridge  Centre where the NBHA office is based. This project resulted from collaboration between NBHA members, local schools, local churches and English Heritage. The NBHA committee issued a statement in 2007 explaining that our commitment was not to a one-off commemoration of slavery, but to the long-term history of Black achievements in Britain and across the world. However, we were pleased to be part of Freedom From the Past activities which included a memorial procession, concert and speeches by local elders. English Heritage funded a professional DVD recording which was afterwards made freely available to NBHA members and others.


NBHA has completed many successful projects, but we also had one major disappointment in 2008. HLF funding was achieved for a project about the history of the Matta Fancanta Movement in Northampton but NBHA failed to develop a close enough partnership with former MFM members to guarantee a successful outcome. The difficult decision was taken to return this funding rather than attempt to proceed without full mutual confidence. Preliminary research produced a useful timeline and a folder of press cuttings and photographs about MFM’s history, and this was replicated so that both NBHA and MFM have copies to support any future projects.


NBHA provides a stimulating programme of events and activities through the initiative of its volunteer members. There is never any shortage of ideas for speakers, exhibitions and excursions and we have been able to run these events at cost price, with the support of small grants or support-in-kind. NBHA day trips have been particularly enjoyable, and are an important way of drawing in new members.

In 2005 we took a coach-load of adults and young people to Bristol, to visit the Empire and Commonwealth Museum and to explore the city with the help of a local Black History Trail.

In 2006 we were at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, after a splendid lunch hosted by the Deptford-based Black Heritage Group.

In 2007 we went to the hugely impressive Equiano exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and enjoyed the Christmas Market.

In 2008 we travelled as far as Liverpool, to see the new International Museum of Slavery and explore the waterfront of Britain’s biggest slave port.

In 2009 we visited a special art installation relating to slavery history at the Herbert Museum and Art Gallery, titled La Bouche du Roi. Afterwards NBHA members painted a banner reflecting their responses.

Later in 2009 we were at the British Museum for a bespoke tour of the African and Egyptian galleries led by popular Black British historian Robin Walker.
In 2010 NBHA and Northampton’s Heritage Lives organisation joined the Mary Seacole Memorial Association for their annual commemoration of the life and achievements of ‘the Greatest Black Briton’. After a church service and visit to Mary Seacole’s grave we enjoyed lunch and a performance by Caroline Muraldo’s Jamaican Quadrille Dancers.

In June 2010 we collaborated with the Brighton Black History group to organise a day visit to Brighton by two coach-loads of Northamptonshire visitors. Activities included a Black History Walk, a bespoke talk at Brighton Museum and tours of the Royal Pavilion.

In 2011 we returned to the Mary Seacole memorial event. We also travelled again to the Herbert Museum, where we enjoyed a bespoke lecture and tour of a special Secret Egypt exhibition. Children and adults from the Wellingborough African Caribbean Association’s Saturday School joined NBHA trips in 2010 and 2011.


NBHA has invited many guest speakers over the years, often linking their talks into the NBHA-University partnership courses in Black British History. Notable lectures have been given by leading members of the national Black and Asian Studies Association, including Hakim Adi, Cliff Pereira and Marika Sherwood. George Watley, Julia Bush, Donna Palmer-Smith and June White-Smith-Gulley have been active members of the national BASA committee, and George Watley is the current BASA Chair.

Closer to home, NBHA members had the pleasure of hosting two BASA educational conferences at the University of Northampton in 2005 and 2008. These events were an opportunity for us to contribute our own experience and knowledge as well as to learn from Black History experts from around the country.


As well as visits, talks and conferences, NBHA has organised many enjoyable social events. Most years we have been in attendance at Northampton Carnival, walking in the procession in 2007 and organising a full-scale float and Carnival troupe in 2011 in collaboration with our friends from the Wellingborough African Caribbean Association. Footsteps Through Life was the Carnival theme, and NBHA volunteers translated this into Footsteps through History, with a banner carrying the names, dates and achievements of local, national and international Black History heroes and heroines. 


NBHA aims to spread its knowledge and appreciation of Black History to the widest possible audiences. Exhibitions have always been an important part of our message.
Northamptonshire Black History Project produced our first set of roll-up banners in 2005. This was followed by a Walter Tull exhibition and smaller exhibitions related to particular projects. More recently, we have been proud to present two much larger exhibitions to the general public.

In March 2010 NBHA hosted the national Army exhibition celebrating Black contributions to the British Armed Forces. Titled We Were There, this major exhibition was displayed at Northampton Guildhall, opened by the Lord Lieutenant of Northamptonshire, and accompanied by an evening of talks and performances. June
White-Smith-Gulley and Hugh Smith led the development of this event, which was funded by sponsorship from the Army, Northampton Borough Council, and a number of local business people. Over 500 people visited during the four days of the exhibition, including local dignitaries and groups of schoolchildren.


In March 2011 NBHA launched its own Oral History Roadshow. Titled Creating a Community, Making an Impact, it illustrated the history of the local Caribbean community. Roll-up banners were linked to audio-guides with recorded extracts from the life stories of first-generation settlers. George Watley led the development of this exhibition, which connected with his funded doctoral research project. An attractive feature of the exhibition is its potential linkage to a variety of ‘add-on’ activities. During the launch week NBHA offered a dance performance, a play and poetry readings alongside the exhibition. The Oral History Roadshow has already been shown at ten local venues in Northampton, Corby and Wellingborough, including schools and community centres as well as Northampton Guildhall and Central Library.


The partnership agreement between NBHA and the University of Northampton has been highly successful. University funding helped NBHA to maintain its strong infrastructure from 2006-2011, and to employ Angela Ghavami as Association Manager since 2008. In return, NBHA has helped the University to develop four Black History evening courses which have become popular with undergraduate students as well as with the external students for whom they were originally designed.
The first course, Black British History: From Past to Present, was based around training commissioned for staff and volunteers by the Northamptonshire Black History Project. It provided an introduction to the subject, linking local evidence to wider national and international history.

From the outset, the course drew upon the knowledge and enthusiasm of NBHA members, and in recent years several members have led teaching sessions.
Special Study in Black British History was an extension of the first course, developed in response to some students’ wish to undertake in-depth studies of history which particularly interested them. Over 80 Special Studies have now been completed on subjects varying from eighteenth-century Black servants to the history of Rastafarianism.

Demand for a third course led to Aspects of African History, a selective overview of key achievements in the history of the continent from the time of the Pharoahs to 20th century independence movements.

In 2011 a new evening class on Caribbean History was enjoyed by a strong class of NBHA members and their friends.
All these courses have been very positively reviewed by students and have enriched the University History curriculum. The University library now holds a good stock of Black History books which can be consulted by the wider public.

Alongside the Black History courses in the History department, Paul Bracey has developed teacher training courses which make use of NBHA research and publications. Many of the University’s trained teachers go on to employment in local schools and some have become enthusiastic supporters of NBHA’s drive to expand children’s knowledge of Black British History.

University research has also benefited from the NBHA partnership, for example through the award of an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant to support George Watley’s doctorate on Caribbean Consumer Behaviour in Northamptonshire.


The Heritage Lottery Fund and Northamptonshire County Council funded publication of the NBHA teaching resources produced during the Shaping the Future project. The most popular of these publications has been Hillary Clare’s storybook about the life of Walter Tull, local footballer and the first Black British Army officer.

NBHA has always wanted to put Black History firmly on the map through a composite history of the Black presence in Northamptonshire. This ambition was realised by the publication of a finely illustrated, multi-authored volume in 2008. Sharing the Past was written and edited by a large group of NBHA members and drew together many strands of the previous thirty years’ local research. Together its thirteen chapters presented an overview of Northamptonshire’s many links to the wider world through the lives of travellers, visitors and settlers over the centuries.

The University’s Special Studies evening course paved the way for a second major NBHA book in 2010, titled Black British History: Selected Studies. This volume included fourteen of the best Special Studies, reflecting students’ personal experiences as well as their enthusiasm for their research. The book contained original analysis as well as valuable information on a fascinating variety of subjects.

NBHA is pleased to acknowledge the financial support of the University of Northampton which helped to make publication of these two books possible.
One of NBHA’s most important publications has been its quarterly Newsletter, written and edited by members and supporters since 2002. Another more unusual publication is the Black History ruler which NBHA was commissioned to produce for English Heritage in 2008. The ruler carried portraits and brief life histories of Sake Dean Mahomed, Ira Aldridge, Mary Seacole, Dadabhai Naoroji, Walter Tull and Claudia Jones. Over 1,000 rulers were distributed through local schools, ensuring that children and teachers have a basic knowledge of six leading Black Britons.


Northamptonshire Black History Association evolved from a group of interested individuals and from funded projects which drew together local community organisations as well as local education and heritage providers. This short history has referred to NBHA’s main funding partners. The Wellingborough Racial Equality Council was the ‘parent’ body behind our first successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, but since 2005 NBHA has been a fully independent voluntary association.
In October 2005 NBHA registered as a company limited by guarantee (no.  5597412). In February 2009 NBHA also successfully registered as an educational charity (no.1128320). This established legal status has given our organisation credibility with the public and with potential funders. It has also helped NBHA to develop high standards of administration and financial management.

In 2011 the funding outlook for many voluntary organisations took a turn for the worse due to factors beyond their control, and NBHA was no exception. We have used our experience of forward-planning to develop a new strategy for weathering a period of reduced funding. NBHA’s established priorities are to maintain our office, continue our membership programme and our University-based courses, and sustain publication of a twice-yearly journal which keeps supporters and potential funders informed about our work.

Though it is disappointing to lose funding from the County Council and the University, NBHA will take advantage of this opportunity to regroup as a voluntary organisation which has always relied upon its strong roots in the local community. We are proud of our past achievements in promoting Northamptonshire Black History and confident that our work will continue into the future.

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