The Black Cultural Archives were founded in 1981 and a dedicated heritage centre in Brixton was opened in 2014. I visited in order to attend the latest exhibition, Black Georgians: The Shock of the Familiar.
This free exhibition looks at the lives of black people during the Georgian period (1714-1830). I have to admit that although I love history, and have a history degree, I don’t really have any knowledge or understanding of the lives of black people in Britain. The exhibition shows that people of African origin, who had lived in Britain for centuries, were growing in number and were starting to establish a distinct presence in society.
The exhibition looks at the lives of black people who lived in Britain under different circumstances: some were enslaved and worked as servants, others were free and were either born in Britain or chose to settle here. A few even had private incomes, and became the first black bourgeois. In many ways their circumstances mirrored those of white Britons, with members of all social classes carving out lives for themselves, although black people had to contend with racism and oppression in addition to any other problems they might face. The picture is much more complex than my limited knowledge had previously led me to understand.
Evidence for these lives comes from various documentation, including pictures, letters and other writings. Phillis Wheatley is one individual whose life is explored in the exhibition: sold as a servant in Boston aged seven, she was recognised as having particular intelligence and given an education; she subsequently became the first African-American woman to publish poetry, and was treated as a celebrity when she first visited London in 1773. Ignatius Sancho was a writer and composer, the first known black Briton to vote in an election, while Tom ‘The Moor’ Molineaux was a famous sportsman. Evidence for the existence of “ordinary” black people is found in census records, on gravestones, even in art: the inclusion of a black man in one of Hogarth’s pictures suggests that the presence of black people on London’s streets was a normal occurrence.
This is an important exhibition for anyone wanting to understand the lives of black people in Britain during the Georgian period, and anyone interested in social history as a whole.
Address: Windrush Square, Brixton, London, SW2 1EF
Opening Hours: Tues-Sat, 10am-6pm. Late opening until 7pm, every second Thursday of the month.