Wednesday evening I visited the Black Cultural Archives for the first time, though I’ve been meaning to stop by since I missed their grand opening on July 24th. Windrush Square is much better without those big huge sidings that have been up for all the years I’ve lived here, but more so because now we can finally enjoy the gem they hid inside.
In the turbulent spring of 1981, as the streets of Brixton seethed with rioters and the shops burned, a small group of black artists, activists and teachers met in the midst of the conflict. Their common goal was to create an archive that commemorated and educated people on the forgotten history of black people in Britain and offset the violence with understanding and education.
At the beginning there were just eight of them gathered in a small shopfront on Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane. But last week, after a 33-year long battle, the permanent home of the Black Cultural Archives finally opened its doors to the public to a gathered crowd of thousands.
33 years. Damn. Thanks to their efforts there is now this truly extraordinary thing standing proud in the centre of Brixton, more important now than ever as rents keep going up and the heart of the community is at risk.
I met up with Sean and Helen, Kevin and Niall in the cafe, which has affordable coffee and cake and is such a good space! The building is beautiful, and a display on the wall describes its long and fascinating history from a large home of wealth and privilege to a school for boys to a dancing school to the Liberals Club to London’s first coach station! With some other things I have forgotten in between. A huge touch screen in the corner allows you to explore some of the many documents they have in the collections and we looked briefly through a series of leaflets from the 1970s and 80s with campaigns that ranged from how cuts affected black women the most to stories of deaths in custody and denunciations of police brutality. Inspiring, but also sad to think that we could just photocopy and hand out those same documents today with as much relevance as they had then. You can also see a range of their collection online here.
Adewunmi describes the purpose of the BCA through the eyes of the director:
It is the only institution of its kind in Britain, a place to bring together objects, documents, publications and oral histories of the black people of Britain over centuries, and, as the BCA director Paul Reid says, enable the black community to tell its own stories and its own history in its own voice for the first time.
What a beautiful place this is. And their first exhibit shows how they are going about it, the Re-Imagine: Black Women in Britain exhibit was amazing. Here is the blurb for it:
Long before the Empire Windrush arrived on British shores in 1948 there were women of African descent in Britain. Black women were here to witness the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain and everyday life over the centuries, in the markets and music halls, homes and factories.
Re-imagine gives us a glimpse of some of these women, the traces of their lives lying in vaults of archives, libraries and museums across the United Kingdom and brought together for the first time.
Side by side. Face to face. Courageous women who, throughout generations have been brave. We invite you to ‘re-imagine’ their lives, to create a tapestry of stories that paint a picture of the many and eclectic roles of Black women over time.
I love that you stand there face to face with them, honour and know them in this way. The exhibition room is a small place really, but they make brilliant use of the space, and it was with some awe that I read how much historians have been able to uncover. The inspiration maybe goes without saying, but I need to say it anyway. You walk out of there happier than when you walked in. So many women graced those walls who have transformed our world for the better, from Mary Seacole to Marian Anderson to Olive Morris and Claudia Jones. The folks working there loved those exhibits, too. Not like most museums where there’s someone standing there to keep an eye on things, tell you not to get too close. Here they were excited to share this history with you, make sure you took away with you as much as you possibly could.
The exhibit is open until 30th November, go if you can.