Cotton Connection: Black History Month

This blog is one of a series looking at our collections and our shared histories as part of Black History Month.

This guest blog was written by Matthew Dean who has created The Cotton Connection a series of podcasts which will be released early next year.

Pair of Clogs.

I was born in Oldham in 1978 and I’m proud of my Oldham roots. I live in Dublin now, I migrated in 2011. My grandmother moved from Italy in 1947 to marry my grandad, they met in her hometown of Schio at the end of World War Two. Their story is a beautiful tale for another day, but I’ve always been fascinated by the romance of it.

From childhood I was inspired by the courage of my grandmother, the youngest of eight children, who left a large, loving family for a strange, wet and smoky industrial town like Oldham. She was a migrant.

Image showing Oldham market.

Like most people over lockdown, I spent a lot of time scrolling my social media feeds and following the news of Covid, BLM protests, Trump, Johnson and Brexit. I lost my job and I had a lot of time to reflect as I watched some of America and Britain’s deepest wounds begin to open. Toxic politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are stirring up racial tensions by perpetuating politically motivated, xenophobic lies, encouraging the rise of far right groups, who choose migrants and minorities as easy targets and distractions which often mask ulterior motives. There’s no doubt that this is a hugely important time in modern history, where democracy itself is in the balance and we are here because, rather than learning from our history, we’ve chosen to ignore it.

Picture of a miniature cotton bale.  Souvenir of the Sunny South / World's Exposition 1884-85 New Orleans.
Miniature Cotton Bale. Souvenir of the Sunny South / World’s Exposition 1884-85 New Orleans

The fact of the matter is, that Lancashire mill towns like Oldham were built on the profits of slavery. No slavery, no cheap cotton, no Oldham as we know it. I realised over lockdown that the legacy of colonial Britain, enslaved Africans and unchecked abuses of capitalism which play out on the streets of America today, are directly connected to the town I call home. The football team I support was founded in a mill, which was built on the profits of the slave trade. It’s all connected. We’re all connected.

I decided upon the idea to create a podcast, which will explore the backstory story that connects stolen Africans and the American South to the English North West, it’s time to face our history head on. I’m delighted that the people at Gallery Oldham have agreed to help me. I’m no historian, just someone who realises that every family has a backstory and that migration happens for all kinds of reasons to all kinds of people. Oldham is literally built on it. It is my hope that by exploring our history, honestly and with a better understanding of the story of our town, we can have a deeper empathy for each other and overcome the will of those whose aim is to divide us for their own gains.

The Cotton Connection will be available on all your usual podcast platforms early next year. Click on the link below to hear a short trailer.


You can read more blogs celebrating Black History Month by visiting our blog page (opens in a new window).