In Praise of the Black Cultural Archives

The Black Cultural Archives and Transport for London have developed a Black History Tube Map, reimagining tube station names as notable figures from black history. It’s a fascinating and inventive resource. As a former Londerner, I can see that I used to live near Bernie Grant Centre, named after the Tottenham Labour MP and anti-racism campaigner, and later I lived next to the abolitionist and Mary Prince, ‘the first Black woman to present an anti-slavery petition to Parliament’. The Black Cultural Archives are a crucial resource, and this initiative is just one of many effective strategies they have developed to project black history into wider prominence. 

This unique collection has been based at Windrush Square in Brixton since 2014, and was founded in 1981 by black activists and educators such as Len Garrison. Several of my dissertation students have been helped significantly by the staff at the archive, who have given much time to helping students make the most of the collection for research projects. As well as having a great London base, another of its strengths is its online presence. Indeed, as a showcase for how other archives can present themselves digitally, the Black Cultural Archives’ website, blackculturalarchives.org, offers a model and exemplar to others.

Its online resources include a lot of practical features one might expect, such as detailed subject guides. These contain much information on how to find out more about the Black Cultural Archives’ own collections, as well as related resources held elsewhere. Personally, as a historian who finds grassroots print culture fascinating, seeing that the study guide on Periodicals includes details of rare publications such as Link from 1958 was fascinating. This example of community building through magazines billed itself as ‘The First British Negro Magazine’, and the Black Cultural Archives’ study guide appeals for more copies of such magazines, should people have them, to help build its collection and preserve such artifacts. Other study guides, meanwhile, include Black GeorgiansUprisings and Arts.

While study guides are excellent starter resources for things like dissertation projects, the Black Cultural Archives’ digital showcase pages offer a series of excellent online exhibitions that are well worth exploring for their own sake. As a way to develop a deeper appreciation of black history in Britain these do an excellent job of making the materials in the archive accessible. Many feature digitised documents and photographs from the collection. Some offer oral histories as well. For example, Sounds of the ‘rush includes several oral history interviews (audio and transcripts) with important community activists such as Connie Mark and Windrush passengers such as Clifford Fullerton. 

During lockdown, the Black Cultural Archives developed a podcast series, Windrush: What’s Next, examining the 2018 Windrush scandal and its wider contexts. Seven episodes consider issues such as the nature of the hostile environment policy, oral histories and Black Lives Matter. These thoughful episodes feature a range of interviewees, such as Patrick Vernon talking about, among other things, his book 100 Great Black Britons, and Kelly Foster, reflecting in issues such as the devastating impact of the Home Office’s destruction of Windrush-era landing cards. 

The Black Cultural Archives run a range of events at their home in London and online, so their events section is well worth checking out, as is their Twitter account @bcaheritage. They also have an online shop, and a JustGiving page, so if you want to support their work there are ways to help. 

The wide range of resources developed by the Black Cultural Archives offers a standout example for other archives seeking to highlight the relevance and importance of their collections. For anyone wanting to develop a deeper understanding of black history in Britain, in Black History Month or in any other month, the Black Cultural Archive website and its home in London are both well worth visiting. You just have to work out which tube stop they are near.

Paul Jackson, Professor of History 

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