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Black Cultural Archives give a living history of racism—and resistance

This article is over 9 years, 9 months old
The Black Cultural Archives in Brixton is a collection without parallel—and organisers want activists to keep contributing to them, writes Rahul Patel
Issue 2418
The coin depicting the ?African-born Roman emperor Septimius Severus.
The coin depicting the African-born Roman emperor Septimius Severus. (Pic: Black Cultural Archive)

It’s been a long awaited move— but the wait is over. From 24 July the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) has had a new, prominent location in the heart of Brixton, south London.

It is now part of Britain’s first national Black Heritage Centre. Exhibitions can take place in this larger space and there will also be events in the courtyard. 

The records of the Brixton riots and uprisings of 1981 and 1985 are an important part of the archive.

Margaret Thatcher’s government and Metropolitan Police racism lay behind the police shooting of Cherry Groce in 1985. The backlash it sparked shook them both.

Black volunteers from Brixton and beyond have amassed the BCA collection since it began in 1981.

They aimed to promote and collect material that encompassed the experiences of people of African and Caribbean descent.

There represents an “unparalleled and growing archive collection”. 

This archive has over 2,000 records spanning five centuries.

One significant highlight is a coin depicting theAfrican-born Roman emperor Septimius Severus. 

He travelled to Britain in 208 AD with the intention of conquering what’s now modern Scotland. 


The new centre in Brixton where the archives are housed

The Black Cultural Archives are now housed in a new centre in Brixton (Pic: Black Cultural Archives )

There is a striking selection of photographs of a black Edwardian family. It includes the young Amy Barbour-James, born of Guyanese parents in London in 1906. 

Amy was the daughter of John Barbour-James, the founder of civil rights organisation the League of Coloured Peoples.

There are, of course, iconic photographs of black people’s struggles in Britain from the 1960s and 1970s.

The oral histories include life story interviews with individuals from the “Windrush generation” and the black women’s movement. 

They too form the core of the archive. 

The BCA says that, “Our oral histories collection not only preserves the memory of past generations, but also spotlight unsung heroes who have contributed to British society.”

The German Marxist Walter Benjamin said, “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it ‘the way it really was’. 

“It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at moment of danger …”

This archive achieves this feat—but to continue to be successful, it needs to be a living and organic archive. 

The BCA wants the collection to grow. It is encouraging people to provide rare books, personal papers and organisational records. 

It is also looking for collectable items such as meeting posters and leaflets, and pamphlets.

Activists from across Britain who are involved in anti-racist struggles from deaths in custody to anti-deportation fights can help with this.

Recording the political and trade union struggles of black workers is important too.

The centre encourages visits from schools, and I think teachers and students should take this opportunity.

There is also an online catalogue, which is handy for those who can’t visit the archive.

As part of its launch the BCA starts off with an Reimagine—Black Women in Britain exhibtition, finishing on 30 November.

It traces the lives of black women long before the Empire Windrush arrived in Britain in 1948.

Black Cultural Archives, 1 Windrush Sq, Brixton, south London SW2 1EF

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