Exploring...the City's Black history

Our City Together

In recognition and celebration of October 2020 being Black History Month, we explore the City of London and Britain's long multicultural history.

Roman Emperor Septimius Severus

Around AD 200, Roman Emperor Septimius Severus built the section of London Wall that can still be seen today by Tower Hill underground station. Severus was born in Leptis Magna, a city in modern-day Libya, into an aristocratic family. He served as a senator before claiming power in AD 192. Severus travelled to Roman Britain with the intention to conquer Caledonia (Scotland) and he built this section of wall as a reminder to the people of Londinium of who was boss following a revolt led by the Governor of Britannia Clodius Albinus.

Via: History Hit

Francis Barber

Assistant to Dr. Samuel Johnson, writer of the first dictionary

Francis Barber was born in Jamaica about the year 1735, and was brought to England by a plantation owner who was the father of one of Samuel Johnson's closest friends. For a year, he attended school in Barton, a small Yorkshire village, and then he entered the service of his owner's son, who sent him as a valet to Johnson in April 1752, two weeks after the death of Johnson's wife. Two years later the plantation owner died, leaving Barber 12 pounds and his freedom.

Francis was only 19 at this time, and ran away to serve an apothecary in Cheapside, paying Johnson the occasional visit. In 1758, he ran away to sea and served two years on HMS Stag, protecting English fishermen from the North Sea. Johnson, who was quite fond of Barber, arranged for him to be discharged. He also paid for Barber to be educated at Bishop's Stortford Grammar School.

When Barber left school, Johnson came to rely on him more and more, not only as valet, but also as secretary. Barber arranged trips, received documents, and kept Johnson's diary. They were also great friends. When Barber married, Johnson allowed his wife and children to move into his house. Johnson died in 1784, leaving him an annuity of £70 and a gold watch. Barber and his family settled in Lichfield, Staffordshire. Barber did not handle money wisely, and later had to sell Johnson's gold watch and other keepsakes.

Francis Barber died in Stafford Infirmary in 1801. His descendants still live in Staffordshire today.

Via: 100 Great Black Britons

Paul Robeson and St Paul's Cathedral

Paul Robeson was a man of many talents. Born in 1898 in Princeton, N.J, he was a celebrated American singer, actor, and Black activist. He obtained a law degree from Columbia University but because of the lack of opportunity for Black people in the legal profession, he turned to the stage, making a London debut in 1922. He gained extraordinary popularity as Joe in the musical play Show Boat  at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, with his version of “Ol’ Man River.” His characterisation of the title role in Othello in London (1930) won high praise and he was the first black actor to play the part on the West End stage since 1860. In 1943 the show moved to Broadway, where it became the longest running Shakespearean production of all time.

Robeson was highly engaged politically and he joined the US Communist Party in 1934 and enjoyed huge popularity in Soviet Russia. In the 1950s, because of his political beliefs, he came under sharper scrutiny from the American authorities. His passport was confiscated in 1950 and it was impossible for him to perform abroad. Due to his popularity in Britain, there was a considerable campaign to get Paul’s passport returned. When his rights were restored in 1958 Robeson travelled to Britain for a series of concerts. During this tour he made several television and radio appearances and also returned to the role of Othello at Stratford in 1959.
On 12th October 1958 Paul was invited to sing at Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral, becoming the first Black performer to sing there. The service was attended by around 4,000 people, with many standing at the back, and there were huge crowds outside the Cathedral.

He died in Philadelphia in 1976 after a life of political battles, artistic success and health struggles, loyal to the principle which accompanied his whole life:

‘As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this’.
- Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson Pictured in the 1930s
©Wikipedia Commons

Slavery and the City of London

Freedom has been central to the identity of the City of London for centuries. But from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth centuries, the African Slave Trade and Plantation Slavery in the Americas were key to London’s banking, insurance, shipping, manufacturing, commodity trades with Europe, gold and silver supply in London, and later merchant banks like Barings, Schroeder and Kleinwort.

The City also benefited from the end of Slavery, as compensated emancipation liberated a flood of liquid capital and provided a £500,000 per annum income stream to its funders. Uncover the history in this 2019 lecture by Professor Richard Drayton.

Via Gresham College.

Basquiat Exhibition in 2017/18

3 years ago, from 21 September 2017 to 28 January 2018, Barbican Art Gallery hosted what turned out to be their most popular exhibition ever. Basquiat: Boom for drew more than 7,000 visitors over its closing weekend and overall figures reached more than 215,000. The show featured around 100 paintings and drawings loaned from predominantly private collections. Visitors could engage in the “explosive creativity” of Basquiat, who worked with Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Blondie, among others. The tragedy is that in 1988, at the young age of 27, he died of a heroin overdose in his art studio in New York.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. He first achieved fame as part of SAMO, an informal graffiti duo in Manhattan during the late 1970s. By the 1980s, his neo-expressionist artworks were being exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide. Basquiat used his paintings as a tool for introspection and for identifying with his experiences in the black community of his time, as well as attacks on power structures and systems of racism.
Ahead of the exhibition at the Barbican, Banksy painted two Basquiat-inspired artworks on the walls of Golden Lane. The larger piece appears to be Banksy's own take on Basquiat's Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, created in 1982. It depicts a figure being frisked by two police officers. A small part had been sprayed on a signpost showing the way to Barbican Exhibition Halls. It soon miraculously disappeared. The second artwork on the opposite wall shows people queuing for a Ferris wheel adorned with crowns – a common motif in Basquiat's artwork – instead of passenger carts. The caption seems to mock the Barbican's motives for holding a retrospective of works by Basquiat, who started out as a graffiti artist. It reads:

"Major new Basquiat show opens at the Barbican – a place that is normally very keen to clean any graffiti from its walls." - Banksy
Banksy piece outside of the Barbican in response to the Basquiat exhibition
©Creative Commons by SA

Martin Luther King Jr at The Old Bailey

   One of the most unforgettable moments in the long history of St Paul’s Cathedral was when in 1964 Martin Luther King stood up the Cathedral’s pulpit and, to the 4,000 people present, he delivered his inspirational message of racial equality to be reached through non-violence. On his way to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr King had stopped in London on the invitation of St Paul's Canon John Collins. At the age of 35 Martin Luther King was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize.  

 Dr King was a man of incredible intellect, he was awarded a bachelor degree at the age of 19 and a Ph.D in Theology at the age of 26. In 1957 he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organisation formed to provide new leadership for the civil rights movement. The ideals for this organisation he took from Christianity and its operational techniques from Gandhi. In the eleven-year period between 1957 and 1968, King travelled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action.

 His exceptional motivation in what he believed translated into actions and manifestation of bravery during many marches and protests. 57 years after his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, challenges and difficulties are still present under various forms, across countries and across time. For that, Martin Luther King’s dream is still our dream today and his message of using the power of non-violence to make a difference is waiting to be embraced.

black and white image of Martin Luther King Jr
Martin Luther King Jr © Wikipedia Commons

Mangrove 9 Trial at The Old Bailey

   Back in 1970s The Old Bailey was witness to one of the most influential Black Power Trials. The Mangrove Nine trial focused on the police harassment of the Mangrove restaurant in west London’s Notting Hill area, which was owned by Frank Crichlow, a Trinidadian-born community activist. The restaurant was the heart of the Caribbean community and was also popular with white and Black celebrities. Because Crickhlow was a Black Power activist, police raided his restaurant 12 times between January 1969 and July 1970, calling the Mangrove a den of drugs without finding a shred of evidence. In response to this intense police scrutiny, Crickhlow organised a demonstration against police harassment of the Mangrove. On August 9, 1970, 150 protesters marched to local police stations and were met by 200 police who initiated the violence that ensued Nine protest leaders were arrested and charged with incitement to riot and were tried before Judge Edward Clarke at the Old Bailey.

The Mangrove Nine used the trial to bring the struggles of black activists against police racism into the highest court of the country. The strategic way the nine organised their defence is one of the reasons why the trial is considered so significant. Their legal strategy consisted of mainly two aspects: to invoke the Magna Carta as a precedent invoking the right to an all-black jury under the Magna Carta’s  ‘jury o peers clause’ which established the principle of the right to justice and a fair trial for all. This argument was not accepted. In the final selection of potential jurors and after sixty-three were rejected, two of the 12 jurors were black people. The second aspect of their defence strategy was for two of the Nine represent themselves: Marcus Howe and Althea Jones-Lecointe. The rest would be represented by lawyer Ian McDonald. Black self-representation was an important tactic to generate publicity and media attention because ‘the idea of black people actually defending themselves was quite extraordinary and had not happened before’.

After 55 days and over eight hours of deliberation at the Old Bailey, The Mangrove Nine were acquitted of the main charges of incitement to riot. However, it wasn’t so much the verdict, as the closing remarks of the judge, that placed the Mangrove Nine in the history books. Judge Edward Clarke’s closing comments left indeed a lasting mark:  ‘What this trial has shown is that there is clearly evidence of racial hatred on both sides’. This was the first judicial acknowledgement of racial prejudice in the Metropolitan police. Steve McQueen’s Mangrove (15*) will screen at the 64th BFI London Film Festival on 7th October and then on BBC in November.

Thomas J Price

   Thomas J Price is a British sculptor who lives and works in London. He studied at the Chelsea College of Art (2001–04) and received an MA at the Royal College of Art, Sculpture School (2004–06).

 Since 2005, Price has been making figurative sculptures, whose subjects are mainly Black figures. The realism of his works in their details, but then portrayed on an abnormal scale, makes Price’s sculptures striking and hypnotising, drawing the audience’s attention into them. Although the majority of his sculptures have male subjects, one of his latest and most remarkable works is of a female, whose title is ‘Reaching out’ and which was unveiled in August 2020.  The statue is 9 feet (2.7 m) tall and weighs 420 kilograms.

 She is not based on a particular woman and she is depicted on her mobile phone. An ordinary situation but, yet, strikingly represented and in spite of the fact that she is not looking at the audience, she is able to create a magnetic connection with them. It has been installed on Three Mills Green near Stratford, East London, and is part of The Line, the City’s only dedicated public art walk, which follows the Greenwich meridian.

 This is only the third statue in the United Kingdom of a Black woman and the first by a Black sculptor. The other two are one of Mary Seacole outside St Thomas’s Hospital and a representation of Black motherhood in Stockwell. Isolation and connectedness are also present in his pieces ‘Numen (Shifting Votive Three)’, three large cast aluminium heads raised to eye-level on marble columns, which form part of ‘Sculpture in the City’, a fascinating and diverse collection of sculptures using the urban realm of the Square Mile as a rotating gallery space.  In the ‘Numen’ series (two of which are located under the Leadenhall Building and  one at 1 Great St Helen’s), Price expresses contemporary social subjects in a intricate net of Greek, Roman and Egyptian influences.

Numen (Shifting Votive 1 & 2) Thomas J Price © Sculpture in the City

Did You Know?

  • Michaela Coel, creator and star of Channel 4's Chewing Gum and BBC's I May Destroy You studied at Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
  • Hollywood legend Morgan Freeman was given the Freedom of the City in 2014.