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The Radical And Transnational Roots Of Black History Month In Britain

In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, historian and founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, announced the first “Negro History Week.” It was a public history event that sought to disabuse ‘the Negro mind of the idea of inferiority’ and create ‘an increasing conviction among the whites that racial bias undermines all truth.’1 Held during the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the annual celebration quickly became one of the nation’s most prominent public history events.

Student demands for greater historical representation and other efforts in Black organizing during the 1960s and early 1970s – part of what Vincent Harding describes as the post-war ‘Black history revival’ – fed calls for the celebration to be expanded.2 In February 1976 president Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month (BHM) calling upon the nation ‘to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.’

Today, BHM remains a widely celebrated, albeit often commercialized, yearly event; an opportunity to reflect on both the historical contributions made by Black people to the nation’s development, and to recommit, both individually and collectively, to the continued struggle for racial justice.

The post-war Black history revival was not limited to the United States. In Britain, the onset of mass migration from the Commonwealth following World War II was accompanied by growing demands for Black historical representation, which included a spectrum of ideological and philosophical positions. As Naomi Oppenheim has demonstrated, more commercially oriented outlets such as Black British magazines Flamingo and Tropic authored an upbeat account of Black historical achievement which challenged racist and anti-immigrant cultures driven by state policy.

Concurrently, as Black activism in Britain shifted to the left during the 1960s, organizations such as the British Black Panther Party and the Black Workers Action Committee stressed the need for greater Black historical representation. Many such organizations gravitated towards or helped to create a new wave of Black cultural and educational institutions, including New Beacon Books, a Black publishing house started in 1966 out of the London flat of activists John La Rose and Sarah White, which aimed to provide patrons with ‘an independent validation of one’s own culture, history, [and] politics.’ Into the 1970s, the Black supplementary school movement continued this mission and provided important community spaces where Black children and adults ‘could learn more about the histories and achievements of their ancestors and contemporaries.’3

Following the federal recognition of BHM in the United States, Black activists pushed to inaugurate the observance in Britain. These efforts fed into a continued push towards curricular reform, which attempted to contest the educational policy of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.

Following Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 general election, right-wing pressure groups, such as the Centre for Policy Studies, launched a scorched earth campaign against new historical methodologies they claimed were ‘obsessed with class conflict and multiculturalism’, and demanded a return to a nationalistic, militaristic, and politically reactionary school history curriculum. Bitter disagreements over educational policy and the role of Black history in schools demonstrated the racial tensions which enveloped British society during the 1980s, perhaps most viscerally evidenced through a series of ‘race riots’ which swept across the country in 1981.

Following the move ‘from protest to politics’ by Black activists in the United States, British campaigners sought to advance their demands through grassroots political representation, with the Greater London Council becoming a key ideological battleground between Thatcherism and the progressive ambitions of a leftist Labour cohort. Under the leadership of Labour politician Ken Livingstone, the GLC embraced ‘a new brand of left-wing politics with an emphasis on minority rights’, with the GLC’s central Ethnic Minorities Unit promoting new initiatives such as “London Against Racism”, a public awareness campaign which ran throughout 1984.

Ken Livingstone, "London Against Racism" GLC campaign

While the GLC was abolished in 1986, many campaigners connected to the EMU continued to push for the establishment of BHM in Britain. This included Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, the Unit’s Special Projects Coordinator, and Ansel Wong, its Principal Race Relations Advisor. Wong, who had been born in Trinidad and later moved to Britain to pursue a postgraduate education, was a stalwart of Black cultural and political organizing from the early 1970s and had consistently championed the need for Black historical representation through his role as the chair of the West Indian Students Union and as a teacher at a London-based supplementary school.