Tag Archive: Black History Month

  1. Len Johnson: Black history Month

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    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.

  2. Cotton Connection: Black History Month

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    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).

  3. Legacies of Biafra

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

    Our plan was that from September this year we would be showing Legacies of Biafra, an exhibition of artists’ responses to the 1976-1970 Nigeria-Biafra War. This has had to be postponed due to the current pandemic. We will announce new dates once they are confirmed, but in the meantime, Gallery Oldham art curator Rebecca Hill talks to independent curator Louisa Egbunike and Nigerian Art Society UK president Hassan Aliyu about the exhibition…

    Independent curator Louisa Egbunike
    Independent curator Louisa Egbunike

    Rebecca Hill (RH): Hi Louisa and Hassan. Thank you for agreeing to talk to us for the blog. I’m sorry that we’re not chatting together in the gallery, but I look forward to the day when we can do that….

    • Firstly, please can you give our readers a brief introduction to the exhibition. How many artists are in the show? What sort of work can people expect to see?

    In 2014 in the UK, commemoration for the centenary of World War I was embedded in various aspects of our lives. From commemorative coins, to TV programmes, exhibitions and installations, there was a concerted effort to remember this important historical event. It made me think of the importance of creating site of remembering, both to reflect and learn from the past and to make plans for the future. This sparked a series of conversations between myself and members of NASUK, thinking about how we could work together to produce an exhibition that did exactly this. The Legacies of Biafra exhibition is wide ranging, including installations, paintings, documentary films, music, oral histories, photography, books and memorabilia from the war. The works from NASUK engage with the war itself, as well as the ongoing impact of the war.

    Louisa Egbunike
    • This exhibition has been arranged in collaboration with the Nigeria Art Society UK. Please can you tell us a little bit about the society.

    The idea of a collective of Nigeria artists working in the UK originated in 1992. Then named Society of Contemporary Nigerian Artists (SCNA), our objectives were ratified by the academic committee of the Federation of British Artists (FBA) who also approved our exhibition proposal at the Mall Gallery, London in 1993. We reconstituted as the Nigeria Art Society UK in 2013. The Society’s core objective is to continue to raise the profile of established Nigerian artists’ work as well as support the new generation of emerging Nigerian diaspora artists. 

    Hassan Aliyu
    • Louisa Egbunike is an independent researcher and curator, and has curated this exhibition. Have you all worked together on previous projects, and if not can you tell me how this partnership between NASUK and Louisa came about?

    Hassan and Chike Azuonye (vice president of NASUK) attended a memorial lecture I had organised for the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe who passed away in 2013. We began a discussion around collaborating on an exhibition, which would engage with Achebe’s body of works. As I am an academic whose research is in African literature, I was excited about this collaboration. As my research moved into Nigeria-Biafra war literature, I asked Hassan and Chike if NASUK would be interested in collaborating on an exhibition focussing on the Nigeria-Biafra war and they were. Some NASUK members, such as Chike, had lived through the war and so this exhibition was deeply personal for many.

    Louisa Egbunike
    • Some of our audiences will have been living in Nigeria/Biafra between 1967-1970. Others will remember seeing the horrifying images on television in the late 1960s. Some may not know much or anything about the war. Presumably it’s a bit much to ask to give even a basic outline of the war in one paragraph, but are you able to direct us to any good resources for learning about it?

    Several books have been written about the Nigeria / Biafra war – however it remains a taboo subject for discussion. It is therefore our aspiration that through the Legacies of Biafra touring exhibition, we can influence the mindset by creating a space where such a conversation can be had peacefully. A number of these titles are included in the Legacies of Biafra exhibition which also includes other resources for learning about the war.

    Hassan Aliyu
    Book cover of Half of a Yellow Sun

    In terms of literature, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, is probably one of the most celebrated recent works on the war. During the war, the celebrated poet Christopher Okigbo, put down his pen and picked up a gun, sadly losing his life. In his collection of poems Path of Thunder there are a series of poems written in the mid-1960s prophesising the war, as tensions were rising in in the country. Christopher Okigbo’s daughter Obi Okigbo is an artist and a member of NASUK, and her work in this exhibition engages with her father’s poetry to open a conversation about conflict and the need for healing.

    Louisa Egbunike
    • There’s a really wide range of artists in the exhibition, some of whom experienced the war directly, and some who were born long after it ended.  Your show has been praised for including artists from different ethnic groups who fought on opposite sides in the war. I assume this was a conscious decision – was it difficult to put together an exhibition which feels “balanced” about such an emotive subject?

    Emotions were at a fever pitch among some NASUK members, about doing the Legacies of Biafra exhibition. Several members chose to not participate in this exhibition that would showcase the most significant event in the history of our nation – yet they participated in the NASUK Nigeria@100 centenary exhibition in London.  As we deliberated over Legacies of Biafra, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) were at their most active – their uncompromising stance on the secession of Biafra was perhaps the reason that a number of our artists opted out of the show. There were also cases of people being persecuted in Nigeria for identifying with or engaging in discussions on Biafra. The diversity of artists in the exhibition is a reflection of the membership of our group as well as work by guest artists whose extensive engagement with the theme of the war is long acknowledged.

    Hassan Aliyu
    • Hassan – is this the first time that you have engaged with this subject via your art, or is it something which you have felt you wanted to explore previously?

    My art has delved on the themes of tribalism and racism for several decades and it is my ardent belief that the Nigeria Civil War was caused by both factors that lead all the way back to the European trade in African captives, imperialism and policy of divide and rule.

    Hassan Aliyu

    Thank you both very much for sharing your thoughts. We haven’t got much time/space to go into lots of detail here but we will be sharing more information via our social media channels during October and once the show opens next year. Thank you very much for giving us your time to talk about this exhibition, Louisa and Hassan.

     

  4. Black History Month: Fighting to end apartheid

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    We’re marking Black History Month throughout October by high-lighting collections and great stories held by Gallery Oldham and Oldham Local Studies and Archives. This week we’re taking a look at the fight to end apartheid.

    The Oldham Anti-apartheid Group was set up in 1986. It was just one branch of the international network which was established to inform people about the systemised segregation and oppression of black people in South Africa. It was affiliated nationally to the Anti-apartheid Movement and worked in conjunction with other local groups.

    Our collections hold the archives of this group along with a selection of objects such as badges, tee-shirts and a banner. They were donated to us in 1994 after free elections were held in South Africa and the group made the decision to disband. It was a successful end to a long campaign and by donating their archive to us they ensured that its story could be told to future generations.

    This photograph shows the banner in use on a march in Manchester.
    This photograph shows the banner in use on a march in Manchester

    The group had two main functions. Firstly it campaigned to raise awareness of the issues surrounding the apartheid system in Oldham. To do this the group held regular stalls in Oldham town centre. Secondly it raised money to support the anti-apartheid cause. These regular fund-raising activities included events such as sponsored walks, car boot sales, raffles, social evenings with live music and quizzes. 

    This photograph records an event held at the Glodwick West Indian Club.
    This photograph records an event held at the Glodwick West Indian Club.

    A large part of the campaign was the consumer boycott of South African produce. Often the group used their own local knowledge to tailor national campaigns to circumstances in Oldham. For instance the Oldham group held pickets at various local businesses in Oldham with links to South Africa. These included Argos (for selling South African gold jewellery) and Thomas Cook travel agent (for selling South African holidays).

    If you have memories of being involved in this campaign we are always interested in collecting further stories, images and objects from the local campaign against apartheid.