In 1944, at the age of seventeen, Oswald George Powe signed up as a radar operator in World War II. After the war, he spoke openly about the senseless brutality and the terrible scenes he he’d witnessed. While he wasn’t one of the many thousands who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, it was clear the war had had an impact upon him. George went on to be a Labour councillor, community activist and secondary school teacher. He became highly instrumental in campaigning against racial discrimination and advocating self-help. George is one of many narratives housed in the Archive; one of so many that have not been forgotten because they were never remembered by wider society in the first place.
I could say, because it’s a question I’m often asked, that I set up Nottingham Black Archive because the museum’s service within Nottingham was not documenting a comprehensive narrative of black people’s experiences. There seemed, at the time, to be a preoccupation with slavery. But really it’s got nothing, yet everything, to do with our local heritage sector. I set up the Archive because people like Oswald George Powe; Winston Murphy, a merchant seaman; Louise Garvey, founder of the Time Out Respite Care project; and hundreds more, needed to be remembered for their bravery, for their work towards building community, and for being positive role models. Something much needed to counteract the negative profiling we receive from a range of institutions.
When I decided to set up Nottingham Black Archive along with Laura Summers, who served two and half years before leaving, I knew it had to become a part of who I am. In order for it to succeed, it needed to be beside my bed at night, on my table at breakfast, and in the passenger seat of my car as I travelled to and from work.
There isn’t a typical day at the Archive; it varies from day to day. A few weeks ago, I attended an art show and met Bini Butuakwa who curates a black archive in Birmingham. We got chatting about nothing and everything; the next thing you know, he was inviting me to visit his archive and even promised to donate items to our collection. It was only through talking to him that I found out that the very first African Liberation Day (ALD) in the country happened right here in Nottingham in 1975.
I visited Bini at what is probably the oldest African Caribbean centre in the country, collected a range of political pamphlets and posters of ALD, and listened to him talk about the struggles he faced from the sixties onwards. To be able to sit and talk, on a one to one basis, with a man like Bini who’s been described as “history itself”... well, that’s just tremendously brilliant.
Often, time is spent transcribing or setting up the next project, which for us right now is looking at Raleigh, with it being one of the oldest employers of the black community in the city. We have a letter in the Archive written by Oswald George Powe to Norman Manley, imploring him to refuse consignments of bicycles from Raleigh because they did not, at the time, employ black people. It worked! It also proved that the pen is mightier than the sword. That was the starting point for Raleigh employing people that looked like me.
I never thought I’d have the responsibility of caring for an archive and yet here I am, along with my colleague Ioney Smallhorne who manages the marketing side of things. We have a great team of volunteers who assist with different projects and a fabulous council of elders who advise us as and when.
It’s worth it, totally worth it; every interview, every project, every object accessioned into the collection, every first we achieve, like our Black Writers Network anthology of poetry, When We Speak. Everything we do to ensure there is a legacy for the future generation is a massive buzz.
While we can bask in many successes, including our move to Nottingham Writers’ Studio, I am ever mindful that mainstream society seems to be at more of a distance and the gap is not closing; not meaningfully anyway. It’s still a tick-box culture; you just have to look at the statistics for diversity in terms of employment as a starting point and the lack thereof. What annoys me considerably is when mainstream organisations do venture into our terrain; they have this attitude that we should be grateful for their attention, it’s as if they’re saying “Without us, the work you do is not valid.”
What we will be working towards in the future is having an administrator. Then I can concentrate on the first draft of that novel I have under my bed; it’s historical crime fiction, based on the eighties when communities like ours were flooded with crack cocaine to disable us.
I’m really pleased about setting up the Archive and our partnership with NWS; it means we’ll be achieving much more in the future, but it’s disappointing that the heritage scene is still insular and still has a nepotistic attitude. While I’ll continue to advocate for change, and while we wait for that change to happen, we’ll continue to build our infrastructure.
What’s that saying? You can take the woman out of the Archive, but you can’t take the Archive out of the woman?
Nottingham Black Archives website