Nottingham’s Black Writers – Part One
On the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, we begin by remembering some of the Black soldiers that served in the British military. Around 10,000 men and women left the Caribbean to join up after an invitation went out in 1941. Many paid their own way to do so, making the 23-day journey at sea in cramped conditions. They served as pilots, navigators, engineers and more, across different branches of the forces. A third of those serving were lost and, in some cases, incarcerated as Black Prisoners of War in Nazi Germany. Most of the survivors are missing from the records of history, their contribution to the war effort largely ignored.
Hear childhood memories from ex-service personnel who served their ‘mother country’ in WW2, in this film, a Heritage Lottery funded project managed by Nottingham Black Archive in partnership with Nottingham Photographer’s Hub.
After the war some of those who had served settled in Nottingham. Eric Irons had been recruited in Jamaica in 1944 and, after visiting RAF Syerston in Notts, decided that Nottingham was for him. Living on Pennyfoot Street he promoted social justice and set up a community group. In 1962 he became the UK’s first black magistrate.
Another Jamaican man, Oswald George Powe (featured in the video above) had signed up during the war as a radar operator, witnessing the brutality and horror first-hand. In 1948 he sailed back over to Britain on the SS Orbita and headed for Nottingham. For the next 65 years he worked and remained politically active, campaigning and helping people to be treated as they should be.
When the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks in 1948 Britain’s recovery from the gruelling war had left it in need of labour. Having contributed to the victory, many Black members of the Commonwealth were now being invited over to work. A big employer was the Health Service and, as today, the hours were long, the conditions poor and the pay low. Louise Garvey’s booklet ‘Nursing lives of black nurses in Nottingham’ (2000) captures the experiences of Black women coming to England to join the NHS. Garvey was another community activist, promoting equality in the health sector. In 2012 she shared her experiences in ‘Aint Nuthin But A Heartache’ a Nottingham Black Archive and Troubadour production at Nottingham Playhouse. Another book capturing the early lives of Jamaicans living in Nottingham is Andrina Louis’s ‘Trailblazers’ (1997), told through reminisces.
Over the decades George Powe helped Nottingham residents with their immigration problems. Those migrating here before the implementation of the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act were automatically citizens of the UK, giving them the right to remain here, but that right that was scandalously challenged in 2018 when those that hadn’t regularised their position, or kept year-by-year records, could be detained and deported.
After arriving in the UK, Black people were being met with discrimination; forced to pay more for insurance, refused places to live and facing restricted work opportunities, with factories like Raleigh, Players and Boots all denying them employment, an inequality George Powe helped to address. His resistance, like others at that time, helped to recraft Britishness. This was a time of abuse and apartheid in Nottingham, with ‘Colour Bar’ restrictions. Many Nottingham pubs such as the Mechanics Arms had one room for ‘Whites’ and another for ‘Blacks’.
On top of many challenges, Black people were faced with open hostility and racism. This came to a head in the August of 1958 when a riot took place in St Ann’s, in which over a thousand white people acted in violence against the black community. The spark for this was an incident in The Chase Tavern, when a white man started a fight with a young black man who was having a drink with a white woman. The ensuing violence saw several men stabbed as attacks and counterattacks ensued. “The whole place was like a slaughterhouse,” was how the Nottingham Evening Post described it. Nottingham’s Assistant Chief Constable said at the time that attacks by local ‘Teddy Boys’ had flamed the violence, adding that the black community had been “very well behaved”. The local Labour party voiced local concerns that the police had acted in an unfair and prejudicial manner. The Chief Constable dismissed claims that the rioting was caused by prejudice and a police report some 20 years later blamed the violence on ‘generic hooliganism’.
In the late ‘50s, in the midst of this racial tension, and in response to the ‘Keep Britain White’ campaign, George Powe wrote ‘Don’t Blame the Blacks’, a pamphlet for British workers, printed by Pat Jordan at his International Book Shop at the end of Dane Street, St Ann’s. Powe’s writing aspired to unite the workers, all races together. With sections on ‘Why we came?’, about the extremely high cost of living in Jamaica with no unemployment pay, pension or family allowance, and ‘Do we cause unemployment?’, explaining how political decisions by the ruling class was the real cause of unemployment, Powe’s words were a rallying cry: “the working class has been divided, for if it were to become united it might fight back”. Powe highlighted the ruling class’s racial propaganda and a failing capitalist system of production and distribution in which the working class can’t afford to buy back the goods they produce. Scapegoats were being made of Black immigrants because they stood out, argued Powe. His pamphlet on fighting racism and industrial inequality received orders from as far as America and Africa.
Together with his wife Jill, George Powe formed the ‘Anti Colour Bar Campaign’, producing leaflets to encourage a sit-in protest. The plan was for mixed groups to sit for hours in the racially partitioned Mechanics Arms, nursing half a pint. Their efforts led to racial abuse, not least from the landlady (allegedly), and a fight broke out. The police were called and a court case followed. The landlady was given a Breach of Peace order, which she later appealed, successfully. The campaign did however lead to publicity that quickened the cessation of segregation in Nottingham pubs. Black history is everyone’s history.
In 1963 George Powe joined the Labour Party and was elected as a District Councillor in Long Eaton, later becoming a Nottinghamshire County Councillor. In the 1970s he helped to set up the Afro-Caribbean National Artistic (ACNA) Centre to improve the quality of life for Nottingham’s African-Caribbean people. Eleven groups affiliated with the ACNA and it soon outgrew its original premises, moving into the former Sycamore Primary School at 31 Hungerhill Road, St Ann’s in 1978. It became a vital community facility, a place for creative art and social activity, where many people would volunteer in recognition that they had somewhere of relevance to visit. Among the many groups based there has been a creative and professional writing group. George Powe, who died in 2013, served at ACNA as Company Secretary for over 30 years.
When Nottingham Black Archive (NBA) was established in 2009 it ran one of its first projects at the ACNA Centre. NBA was founded by heritage professionals Panya Banjoko and Laura Summers, to address the lack of African Caribbean history and culture in Nottingham’s museums. NBA’s remit is the “researching, collecting and preserving of Black history, heritage and culture in Nottingham, from the earliest time to the present day.” NBA’s collection dates back to the 1940s and contains a feast of documents, political pamphlets and letters donated by George Powe. NBA houses early documents from the Windrush Generation and the formation of Nottingham’s Black community organisations, with oral histories, photographs, articles and newsletters. There’s also a collection of books by local authors. For nearly ten years the local writer, Mouthy Poet Associate Artist and filmmaker, Ioney Smallhorne, has been creating videos for NBA and overseeing their marketing.
The video (above) accompanied the NBA’s exhibition ‘Journeys to Nottingham’, featuring members of the Windrush Generation that arrived between ‘48 and ‘72. In an extension to this project, Panya Banjoko edited a book of 30 narratives from those moving to Nottingham, about why they came here and their lives in the city. Banjoko also edited the 2018 anthology ‘When We Speak: An Anthology of Black Writing in Nottingham’, a Real Creative Futures Project in partnership with David Mathers, a collection that raised awareness of our African-Caribbean community’s continuing literary tradition. In addition to her work in the recording of Black history, Banjoko is a writer, storyteller and performance poet. Her books include ‘Some Things’ (2018), a poetry collection that reflects her position as one of the first generation of Caribbean people born in Britain.
‘Journeys to Nottingham’ was published in partnership with Nottingham’s New Art Exchange (NAE), a big supporter of Nottingham’s Black culture. I recall attending a lively book launch at Hyson Green’s NAE back in 2011 for Rosemary (Rosey) Thomas Palmer’s ‘Hues of Blackness: A Jamaican Saga’. Palmer had been published in Jamaica before returning to the UK in 2004, settling in Nottingham.
New Art Exchange was formed, in part, from East Midlands African-Caribbean Arts (EMACA), an organisation that promoted positive cultural practice in the arts (particularly the Black visual arts). Panya Banjoko used to work for EMACA’s founder Len Garrison, another important Nottingham writer and poet, and an academic described as “arguably the most important figure in the Black British community’s exploration and understanding of its history.” And it’s with him that ‘Nottingham’s Black Writers – Part Two’ will begin. Also, next week, a new literary location and a focus on some of our finest contemporary writers.
Visit Nottingham Black Archive.
Read George Powe’s ‘Don’t Blame The Blacks’, from Sparrows’ Nest Archive.
Read Dawn of the Unread Powe Meets Africanus