Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Recollecting African British History: My Role In The Launch Of Black History Month

Recollecting African British History: My Role In The Launch Of Black History Month
By Bernard Wiltshire
Then ILEA deputy leader 

From 1986 to 1988, I was the deputy leader of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), the institution that was responsible for education in the Inner London Boroughs. Those who were around at the time will remember the determination of the Thatcher Administration to abolish the Greater London Council (GLC) of which the ILEA was its Education Committee.
It soon became clear however that it was impractical to abolish the GLC in its entirety all at once. The provision of education services to the Inner London Boroughs was too complex to be dealt with that way, so it was decided to set up the ILEA as a free standing, independent authority in its own right while a scheme for devolving education to the individual boroughs was worked out.

Elections to the new Authority took place on constituency basis in 1986 and I was selected by the Hackney and stoke Newington constituency to represent the Labour Party, along with my running mate Stephen Benn.

I came to the ILEA with an agenda which had a lineage of almost two decades in the making, and that was to put a stop to the systemic underestimation of and expectation for black children in the school system. The problem had been identified as far back as the closing years of the decade of the 60s in a small research paper written by Bernard Coard at the behest of Caribbean activists, mainly consisting of artists, writers and poets, who had gathered themselves under an organization called the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association (CECWA).

The group first met at the West Indian Student Centre and later at the bookstore of John La Rose in North London to consider Coard's report, entitled ‘How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Subnormal in the English School System’. The disclosed findings made a tremendous impact on me, having just graduated at the time from the University of York with all the brashness and impatience that youth can usually muster.

One of the solutions considered by CECWA was the establishment of Supplementary Schools, run by the black community to counter the harmful effects of racism on our children, concentrating on black history and conscientisation, aimed at raising self-esteem as well as knowledge of black heritage, stemming from Africa, and to supplement the teaching of the "3Rs" to our kids.

Armed with this resolve, I immediately proceeded to set up the Kwame Nkrumah Supplementary School in Hackney in 1971, one of the first of its kind in the country. Of-course, progress in tackling the problem was extremely slow. We could only tinker at the edges as this was a new idea at the time. We had to depend entirely on volunteers in the black community and resources were very scarce. Nevertheless, the seeds of a new idea had been planted and I would like to pause to pay tribute to the dedicated black men and women, the Jessica Huntleys, Reds, Elva Didiers, Gwens (cannot now recall full names) and the others who gave much without ever counting the cost.

A further development at tackling the same problem was made in the 1980s with the establishment of the Black School Governors' Collective with black activists such as Steve Delsol and others,  which aimed at giving black parents a stronger voice in the government of schools in order to better protect the black child in the throes of the system. It was to further those aims that I subsequently ran for a seat on the newly set up ILEA in 1986 and was elected its Deputy Leader under the leadership of the talented and astute late Frances Morrell.

It was in my capacity as Deputy Leader of ILEA that two young black activists, Addai Sebo and Ansel Wong, based I believe in Lambeth Council, asked to see me to solicit my support for the establishment of a Black History Month in the UK, similar to a comparable initiative in the United States. It was an initiative with which I was well familiar having participated in the establishment of the Black Studies Programmes the US in the early 70s.

I knew that what Addai and Ansel wanted to do could not be done without the backing of a powerful institution such as the ILEA. No doubt, they realized this also, and as Deputy Leader of the largest and most powerful education institution in the country, I was in a position to make it happen, as happen it did. The problem was that while the Labour ILEA was undoubtedly a progressive educational institution, there were different views within it of how to deal with black cultural self-awareness. The old dichotomy between integration and the promotion of separate cultural expression threatened to pose itself as an obstacle. The idea was even considered "dangerous and divisive" in some quarters of the Authority. Nevertheless, I was resolved to persevere, believing as I did that the two concepts coexisted in a dialectical necessity and that their separation could only amount to a false dichotomy.

Perseverance and a strong argument paid off. Following a number of planning meetings with Addai and Ansel, I was able to obtain the almost unanimous support of the members of the ILEA, especially of its leader, the late Frances Morrell. The day of the inauguration was certainly a memorable occasion. It was held in ILEA’s old oak paneled Council Chamber at County Hall. Our guest speaker was a professor of history from the United States, whom Addai and Ansel had invited, but I gave the opening introductory address, which apparently had such an impact on one participant that he later confessed to me that he had to hold on to the edge of his chair during my address to overcome the sensation of falling!

I confess that it was a disappointment to me when subsequently a report of that seminal occasion appeared without my address. Later I left the UK and returned to continue our struggle for the upliftment of our people in Dominica and the Caribbean; and I suppose in my case, it was a question of out of sight out of mind. But I would like my role  to be recognised since without my input at the time, Black History Month would almost certainly not have been established at the time that it was.

Bernard Wiltshire
October 2012

First published on Nov. 7 2012 by TAOBQ on

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