The National Archives records specialist Vicky Iglikowski and education officer Rowena Hillel, describe their innovative event that marked the start of an initiative to reclaim the largely forgotten histories of the black British civil rights movement.
‘Have you heard of the Mangrove Nine before? Have you heard of Martin Luther King?’ These questions opened the spoken word ‘Black British civil rights: the story of the Mangrove 9’ workshop run by Trinidadian writer and musician Roger Robinson at The National Archives on 21 November. It was the second of two collaborative events held with the Black Cultural Archives as part of the Being Human festival, and designed to make our records accessible and discoverable to young people via spoken word and an emphasis on current issues. While those who visit us at the Archives are often older or academic, our records have a real relevance to young people’s lives today.
Our starting point was the realisation that black British history is vastly understudied in schools in comparison to American civil rights, and yet there is a rich history of black British civil rights struggles in the UK. We wanted to reclaim this largely forgotten history through the undeniable power of the archive material that survives in both collections, and introduce this material to new generations.
This combining of collections united the government and the community archive material for the first time in examining the full story of the Mangrove Nine, which arguably represents a high point of the Black Panther movement in the UK, showing the power of black activism and the institutionalised police prejudice.
The material ranged from the original complaints made by Frank Crichlow in 1969 to the Race Relations Board on the racially motivated raids on his restaurant the Mangrove, to the compelling political statement of why the protests happened in response. This statement reads: ‘We, the black people of London have called this demonstration in protest against constant police harassment which is being carried out against us, and which is condoned by the legal system.’ (HO 325/143)
The National Archives’ material provided the opportunity to look at previously secret Metropolitan Police reports on ‘black activism’, posters of the Black Panthers and the actual eyewitness accounts of people who were there, alongside unique community ephemera held by the Black Cultural Archives. Vivid photographs were used by the police to suggest that key allies of the Black Power movement were implicated in planning and inciting a riot.
The Black Cultural Archives images include pictures of pickets outside the courts that were taken by Neil Kenlock, the official photographer for the UK Black Panther Movement, alongside grassroots publications, periodicals and pamphlets reacting to the protests and court process from the Ansel Wong collection.
These protests and the trial of the nine individuals that followed represented a pivotal movement in UK race relations history. This rich material of this living history inspired discussion and debate throughout the events reflecting on the Mangrove Nine’s resonance to current race relations. Participants immersed themselves in the archival material to explore themes of protest, civil rights and racism [listen to Almitra’s poem below, which was composed at one of the events].
This historical research inspired the final two hours of the workshop. Discussion was channelled through the powerful force of spoken word poetry to great effect. Ultimately the events succeeded in the key aim of making seemingly old archive material relevant and accessible to young audiences by using the creative vehicle of spoken word to open up this rich area of history in black British civil rights [listen to Ijeoma Peter’s lyrical interpretation of the archive materials below].
For us, this is only the beginning, and we look forward to doing more to raise the profile of black British civil rights struggles. The final lines of this blog post are the words of Jemilea Wisdom, one of the participants in the spoken word workshop.
A version of this post features on the Being Human festival website.
Featured image: Flyer calling for justice for the Mangrove Nine, 1970. In the tenth week of the trial these were distributed to black people around the court and Notting Hill to raise awareness of the case (The National Archives catalogue reference: HO 325/143)