East London’s difficult Black History and its impact on a positive Black future

Written by Busayo Abidakun, Equate Project Manager at ELBA

East London’s Black history unfortunately is not a complete story of tolerance and joy. It has often been shaped by racism, oppression, intolerance and economic disparity. Writing this as someone who is from East London and proud of some of its history it feels quite sad that this is a reality. However, whilst I have been reading about the history of Black people in East London in preparation to write this article for Black history month, it has reiterated how important it is for us all to take the opportunity to celebrate Black History month and use it to improve our collective future.

The first time that I became aware of East London’s long Black history was when I saw a short explanation of the 1919 race riots that took place in East London and other parts of the country. It was written on a temporary wall built in Canning Town that shared other interesting facts about the area. I lived in Canning Town and it was mind blowing to realise there were people of African heritage like me living in a multi ethnic community in the same Canning town, in 1919!

What I found interesting about the story on this wall was that the riots had taken place because of poor wages and competition for jobs amongst seamen and dockers who had been drawn to the Port of London from West Africa and the Caribbean as well as other parts of the world. It was interesting to see that many of the people involved in the riots were economic migrants. These dockers had a similar experience to some of my family who migrated here and found difficulty in the labour market. 

Thankfully none of my family had been involved in any riots – living conditions and the nature of work that migrants are often involved in have significantly improved since then – however, many of the issues that led to tensions still exist today. 

The ethnicity pay gap has recently been brought into public consciousness. However, ethnicity pay gaps existed back in 1919 too. Tensions grew partly because Black and other migrant workers were often exploited and underpaid for their work by their employers. 

Whilst doing further research into Black history in east London I came across stories of Black men like David Duffy who is said to have lived in east London in the mid 19th century, described as being “without shirt, shoe or stocking”. Many experienced poverty in East London then and unfortunately there are still disproportionalities in employment and wealth for the Black community today. 

Fortunately it’s not a completely gloomy story; many of the missions that housed Black people in East London appear to have been more than just tolerant but also embracing of difference.  There are also more popular stories of Black Londoners, such as Ignatious Sancho, who went on to have very successful lives. I particularly enjoyed hearing stories of Black migrants who had been trained in medicine in Royal London Hospital, such as  Celestine Edwards who arrived in the UK as a seaman and later studied medicine. 

What Black history month does is allow us to think about where we are placed in the ongoing writing of Black history and world history. 

It allows us to imagine a future that improves on that and learns from the experience that we have in our collective memory. 

I feel quite proud to be working at East London Business Alliance, that has been prioritising issues related to racial equity across its work. We’ve had the ability to bring together partners across the public and private sector to move toward greater equity. 

I imagine that Black workers living in East London during 1919 would look positively at the work that we are doing today, and likewise that historians reviewing Black history in the future will also interpret what we are doing to be good.

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