The exact date is hazy, but it must have been some time in 2007 that I stood with Paul Reid, looking at a derelict building directly behind Windrush Square in central Brixton. Raleigh Hall was boarded up and covered in graffiti. This, Paul told me, was to be the new home for the Black Cultural Archives.
I’d known Paul for many years as a youth and community worker who had given me one of my first jobs when I left Art College. Our careers had taken us along very different paths since then, but we had still kept in touch. He was now the BCA Director, so when Paul suggested we meet in Brixton, I knew he was planning to ask me to get involved in his latest and greatest challenge. But I’d already made up my mind. I was too busy to take on any additional responsibilities unless I was getting paid. By that point in my career “Cash Rules Everything Around Me” was the motto I was living by – or so I thought.
Paul explained that Lambeth council had gifted Raleigh Hall to the BCA on a 99-year lease. There was just the small matter of needing an estimated £6 million to completely renovate the space and create the country’s first Black National Heritage Centre. He held a set of architect’s plans in his hands. These contained beautiful computer aided designs illustrating how the building would look once it was complete. The contrast between the images on paper and the sight before my eyes could not have been starker. Paul said, “I need your help to turn these drawings into reality.” At that point I knew that my resistance was futile.
A few years later I was sitting in front of the Heritage Lottery funding panel. When they asked why I had decided to join the BCA Board of Trustees, I explained that my motives were partly selfish. I told them about standing outside Raleigh Hall with Paul and deciding that I wanted to walk my children into the completed National Heritage Centre, with them knowing that their Dad had helped make it happen.
“That’s a good answer.” I was told. Shortly afterwards the HLF awarded the Black Cultural Archives £5.4 million. The dream was to become a reality.
Half the story has never been told
The story of the BCA extends back a long time before my involvement. In the early 1980’s during an era of widespread civil unrest, a group of educationalists and activists led by Len Garrison founded The African Peoples’ Historical Monument Foundation and launched the Black Cultural Archives to document Black presence in the UK. The logic was simple. Black people had largely been airbrushed out of the British historical narrative. Our appearance was normally associated with the period of the transatlantic slave trade and the arrival of The Empire Windrush in 1948, which carried 492 passengers from Jamaica wishing to start a new life in the United Kingdom.
But what of the African born Roman Emperor, Septimius Severus, who is buried in York; or John Blanke, the Black trumpeter who performed in the court of King Henry VIII? These stories have rarely been told. The same can be said for the tales of the ordinary Black British people who have helped to form the society we live in today.
As Paul Reid writes in the Guardian: “If my teacher had told my class that the black presence in Britain could be measured in millennia, and that we were not just passing through or tagged on to the end of the colonial story, we might have had a different sense of belonging; I might have had a different idea of what was possible; I might have seen something to aspire to.”
The BCA was created to address this issue. Its mission is to preserve and promote an understanding of black cultural heritage: of British history, not just black British history.
It’s been a long time coming, but change has come
On 24 July 2014, I finally got to walk my children into the completely renovated Raleigh Hall for the official launch of the BCA National Heritage centre. This came after years of struggling to bring the vision held by so many people into fruition.
Brixton came out to celebrate, with well over a thousand people descending on Windrush Square to enjoy the various performances and speeches delivered in the bright sunshine.
It was clear that the new centre means a great deal to many people, but the work is not complete. BCA’s long-term success will not be judged on its ability to renovate a building, but by creating a living breathing space where people of all backgrounds can come to explore, learn and be inspired.
There are financial challenges to be faced too. The building is paid for, but the year-on-year running costs are considerable. As the official celebration demonstrated, BCA is not short of supporters, but this needs to be converted into visits, sponsorships and yes – sales. This small community led initiative is now responsible for running a National Heritage Centre – a daunting responsibility. What lies within its walls is not just the collective history of Black people in Britain, but our hopes and dreams too.
We all have a part to play in keeping these aspirations alive.