NORFOLK BLACK HISTORY MONTH HIGHLIGHTS THE COUNTY’S FORGOTTEN BLACK HISTORY

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By Sean Meleady

Content warning: racism, xenophobia, homophobia, examples of racist abuse

Children in Norfolk schools are usually taught about Black history within the context of the American Civil Rights movement — predominantly through figures such as Martin Luther King Jnr. or Rosa Parks. However, despite there only being a relatively small community in the county, Norfolk has a rich Black history going back centuries, much of which has largely been forgotten.

Black History Month was first celebrated in the UK in London in 1987, and a programme of events has been run in Norwich since 2003. Under the heading ‘Black History: a modernising force’, the 2020 Norfolk Black History Month (BHM) programme included a Norwich Black History walking tour, a wide variety of online events about Black history in Thetford, and a photo exhibition about Norfolk’s Muslim community.

I spoke to Norfolk BHM Chair Danny Keen, who explained why a sizeable black community didn’t develop in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century in Norwich, unlike other British port cities:

“Liverpool, Bristol and Manchester were cities that developed due to the slave trade. Norwich was facing the wrong way [East] for the slave trade and, although it was the second city in England at one time, it didn’t industrialise to the same extent. We didn’t come here because we weren’t needed.” 

Whilst many wealthy Norfolk landowners and industrialists directly benefitted from the slave trade, Keen points to Norfolk’s compelling history of  “abolitionist activity, which distinguishes it from cities like Bath and Bristol from a Black History point of view.” Figures such as the Norwich MP William Smith, and the Norwich-born writer and journalist Harriet Martineau, were pivotal to the abolitionist movements in Britain and America, respectively.

Keen outlined his belief that events such as the murder of George Floyd and the Windrush scandal brought about a completely different political context for events like Norfolk BHM:

“The death of George Floyd was a historical moment; it opened up people’s eyes — while the Windrush scandal proved the level of institutional racism throughout all tiers of government. We started with the theme of ‘Black History: a modernising force’, but the George Floyd situation changed everything. For me the gloves are off and the Black History Month committee need to stand on the front line.”

Sporting history was another key aspect of Norfolk BHM, where the legacy of footballer Justin Fashanu looms large. Born to Nigerian and Guyanese parents, Justin and his brother John (who himself won two England caps)  were brought up in the Norfolk village of Shropham. Justin made 103 appearances for the Canaries from 1978 to1981, scoring 40 goals – including a BBC Goal of the Season winning effort against Liverpool. When he came out publicly in 1990, Justin became the first ever openly gay professional footballer in Britain. In February, Fashanu was inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame, whilst a petition launched in June, calling for a statue of Fashanu to be erected in Norwich, has been signed by over a thousand people.

Norwich City legend Justin Fashanu. Credit: Kiwicanary

Keen highlighted the significance of Fashanu, as “the first million pound black footballer at the time when black players were having bananas thrown at them,” whilst also emphasising the lesser-known role Norfolk has to play in British boxing history, having produced heavyweight champions Jem Mace and Herbie Hide. Mace, renowned for working with Black boxers, was born in Beeston, in 1831, and is recognised by most boxing historians as the sport’s first world heavyweight champion. The Nigerian-born Hide, meanwhile, grew up near Norwich and became the WBO Heavyweight champion in 1994.

Culture-wise, Norfolk has also played an important part in the development of music of black origin in Britain, because of the presence of African American serviceman from the United States Airforce, who were based in the region during the Cold War. Keen explains how the likes of Soul pioneer Bruce Lucas, and other “servicemen bussed into Norwich at the weekends,” helped “introduce R&B and Rock to Britain.”

Norwich is also home to many survivors of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, including Illuminée Nganemariya, who recounted her experience in the book Miracle in Kigali. Her son, Roger, is now a BAFTA award-winning actor.

Norfolk has been beset by its own issues around racism in 2020, including damning accounts of racism at Norwich School, xenophobic graffiti at Norwich’s Winchester Tower, and claims of racist abuse towards Anglican clergy. Clearly, at a local as well as national level, there is much work to do in combating racism, but Norfolk’s black history remains a source of pride and inspiration for the county’s black community.

Featured image credit: Pixabay


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