Untold stories of slave trade era African East Enders to feature in new project

Tower Division from Middlesex map c. 1750,  Pic Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives 

A project to commemorate the untold histories and stories of African East Enders has been launched.

Communities of Liberation is a historical research and public art initiative, which aims to increase awareness of the long history of African presence in London’s East End.  

This project in partnership with Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, aims to bring public recognition to the history and struggles African people had to go through in the East End and elsewhere during the 16th and 19th centuries.  It aims to identify the places, spaces and networks in which African people lived, worked or socialised during the slave trade era.

Tamsin Bookey, the heritage manager, told the launch at the Archives in Mile End: ”During the period of racialised chattel slavery and the transatlantic slavery, we may often think of those… whose faces you might recognise from paintings, but you don’t necessarily think about the ordinary working people.

“The Communities of Liberation is aiming to expand the narrative of the people of the East End. We may be familiar with some of the communities in the East End and how it reflects the world of the British Empire, we’re aiming to add another matter to that story.” 

During the launch, Maium Talukdar, councilor and Deputy Mayor, announced that the council would be allocating £126,000 to fund a new public memorial commemorating African East Enders as part of the Liberation project. However Tower Hamlets Council press office refused to provide any further details, beyond saying that it was in conjunction with Historic England, the Government’s heritage body which looks after blue plaques and other memorials. Historic England said they had no information about the project. Talukdar did not respond later to requests for further information.

Talukdar said: “There is no public recognition that people from Africa and Caribbean lived in what was a brutal state and who freed themselves. This is the beginning of acknowledging this. African people were here due to brutal British inquiry that told them from their homeland. 

“So, on behalf of the Mayor and the administration and this Council, I’d like to announce that we have committed £126,000 in capital funding for this new public memorial.” 

Tony T, a creative producer of Sweet Patootee, a non-profit that makes documentaries and heritage interpretations, said that black people stories must be heard. 

“I have a very, very big fondness for ordinary hidden stories, essentially the work that I do addresses multicultural audiences and connects with Britain’s colonial heritage and the legacies of colonial heritage.” 

Tony T wants black history to be celebrated. Pic: Mia Soares 

T said telling stories allows the “realities” people faced to be exposed and wants to celebrate black history.  

“I think that black history is palpable but hidden. So, I wouldn’t say that we spread black history, rather, I think that we expose realities.” 

Genova Messiah, the Learning and Participation Officer, explained launch events like Communities of Liberation allow people to come together.  

Messiah said: “Having events like this, connecting with community partners and community organisations that work with young black people and trying to get them involved, that’s very important to work with the local community to spread the message.” 

“There’s support for people, especially young black people, to know that their history is not just within enslavement, but also, people had jobs, had families, and lived in communities and that’s really important [to tell].” 

Genova Messiah. Pic: Mia Soares 

“I was glad that it was finally happening, because it’s just been something in the pipeline for a while. I’m just glad that we can spread the word and we can announce that we’ve got funding.” 

She acknowledged that there is still a lot of racism that must be addressed, but society has progressed tremendously since then: “There’s a lot still to be done. We’re making ways more than we have in the past, but that doesn’t mean that we’re done or we’re finished.” 

Watch this video created by East London Lines to find out more.

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