Len Johnson: Black history Month

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

Today curator Bill Longshaw takes a look at Len Johnson and the Pan African Congress which took place in Manchester, 1945.

‘Doing things gradually will bring more tragedy’

Nina Simone

As somebody whose main job is to look after a museum collection, I spend a lot of time trying to uncover the story behind objects. Since I have been working from home and separated from the collection, this has become increasingly difficult and now, with Black History Month upon us, I find myself with a story, but no object. The story I want to tell is that of Len Johnson (1902-1974) who spent the last years of his life in Oldham. He worked as a lorry and bus driver, lived on Waterloo Street and died in Oldham Royal Infirmary in 1974. In recent years his struggles as a boxer, denied the success he deserved because of the colour of his skin, have been well documented.

You can see photographs of Len Johnson on this Working Class Movement Library webpage.

A street in Oldham in 1974, the year Len Johnson died. You can clearly see racist graffiti on one of the houses.
A street in Oldham in 1974, the year Len Johnson died. You can clearly see racist graffiti on one of the houses.

He attended the fifth Pan African Congress that took place at All Saints in Manchester in 1945 and campaigned tirelessly for Black rights, but there is little information on his later life and recent biographies do not shed much light on his time in Oldham, although they do hint at a man plagued by ill-health and reliant on the support from the Manchester Ex-boxer’s Association.   

I first became aware of the Pan African Congress when I went to Art College in the 1980s. The old Chorlton on Medlock Town Hall, where the Congress took place, became part of Manchester Polytechnic and has long carried a commemorative plaque. But I was recently reminded of the event when I was invited to act as a mentor by the Manchester BME Network. Quite by chance I was paired up with Tunde Adekoya who, is working on a project to create a festival celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Congress. Here a look at this event on MMU webpage.

The Fifth Pan African Congress took place in Manchester in November 1945 and brought together supporters of the Pan African cause from around the world. During the Second World War, Britain and America became safe havens for radical thinkers escaping war and tyranny and as allied victory became increasingly likely, more and more time was spent debating how a post-war world might look. It was perhaps no surprise that Britain was chosen to host the Fifth Pan African Congress. Many influential African political thinkers were sheltering and studying in Britain and Manchester, where the Pan African Federation was founded in 1944, was already seen as a racially diverse and progressive city.

Photograph of Waterloo street, where Len Johnson lived, in the late 1960s.
Waterloo street, where Len Johnson lived, in the late 1960s.

The Great European powers began to carve up Africa into colonial ‘spheres of influence’ in the late 1800s. The scramble for Africa and the exploitation of black populations it entailed fuelled a counter debate on to how the continent could free itself from the tyrannies of colonialism, seize back control and shape its own destiny. The Pan African movement was started by black activists on both sides of the Atlantic who began a series of meetings, or congresses, to discuss African growth and self-determination, lay down principals of government and lobby for an end to colonial rule.

Congresses took place periodically between 1902 and 1945, but while earlier events were dominated by Black American thinkers, the Manchester event brought together many more emerging African political figures who were, effectively, waiting in the wings for Britain’s long-awaited retreat from Empire. Men like Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah, who both attended the Manchester event, would shape the post-colonial fortunes of Kenya and Ghana respectively and ride the ‘wind of change’ that swept through Africa from the late 1950s.          

Back in June, at the height of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests, the fate of statues like the one of Edward Colston, torn down in Bristol, became the subject of intense and often bad-tempered argument. In July, artist Marc Quinn rushed to place his own replacement statue of activist Jen Reid on the empty plinth because he shared local people’s frustration at the sheer length of time it had taken to make a decision on the future of the Colston statue. 

This led me to think about change, the nature of change and men like Johnson; who surely deserves more recognition. His life as a black Britain, boxer and activist spanned the first 75 years of the twentieth century. He was born into a world of Empire and fought for change with the same determination he needed in the boxing ring. He lived through times of great upheaval: the civil rights movement in America, the retreat from Empire as Britain ‘gave’ independence to its African colonies and one can only imagine his reaction to Enoch Powel’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. An outburst which fuelled racial tensions in Britain for decades to come. He died two years before Britain passed the landmark Race relations act in 1976 and thus did not see the faltering progress as Britain evolved into an ever more diverse, multi-racial nation.

Sometimes change comes fast, as we are discovering now, but sometimes it comes too slowly. For the sake of Len Johnson, we need to embrace change and push for more. I would like to know more about his time in Oldham. If anybody has any information on Len’s time here, please do let me know.