Portsmouth's museums and schools band together to address 'neglect' of black history
Spurred on by Black Lives Matter protests, Portsmouth’s institutions charged with preserving and teaching history are ensuring black lives and stories are no longer ‘neglected’.
A range of organisations have come together to launch the ambitious Portsmouth Black History project.
Activists, historians, and teachers will be working together to address the lack of representation – bursting black history from the confines of a dedicated month to instead making it ‘central in the artistic and cultural life of the city’.
Backers include the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth City Museum, Portsmouth History Centre, the University of Portsmouth, and four schools run by the Thinking Schools Academy Trust.
To start taking these stories to the public, Portsmouth Museum has launched a monthly social media feature focusing on black history, using its collection.
To mark International Women's Day on Monday, the museum broadcast a Q&A with Marie Costa, a key member of the project and longstanding community organiser.
Nigerian-born nurse Marie hopes the new approach will mean black stories are no longer told only within Black History Month in October – and the city will become an example for others to follow suit.
The 82-year-old said: 'This is a community inspired project – it's not a top down project.
‘Before the pandemic, we were thinking about how to make Afro-Caribbean history relevant in Portsmouth, aside from Black History Month in October. I thought that was all wrong – Black History Month has become detrimental.
‘But you have to start somewhere.
‘Now, the history needs to be made central in the artistic and cultural life of the city.
‘I have been doing this for 30 years - things have moved on and people are more willing to support us. Before, no one wanted to do it.
‘Councillors didn’t want to meet us. It's brilliant we have moved on.'
An overhaul of the way Portsmouth learns about its history is long overdue, according to Alex Ruddock, a co-ordinator of Portsmouth Black Lives Matter.
Mum Alex, who is of Jamaican heritage and was born and brought up in the city, said: ‘At school, we heard a little about slavery – that’s as far as it would go. I don’t remember anything about black people to look up to.
‘But I'm just as much a part of the community as anyone else. We’re just fighting for equality.'
The project hopes to address this issue thanks to the city’s long – but often overlooked – history of Afro-Caribbean people and communities, which stretches back to the Tudor era.
In 2019, researchers found evidence to suggest that sailors on the doomed Mary Rose had been of African heritage, while recent research has uncovered sailors from Caribbean territories who fought at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Dr Melanie Bassett, a research fellow from the University of Portsmouth who is helping to co-ordinate the work, said: ‘It's not just about the historical records – it’s about how we use the historical records in different ways.
‘A lot of stories have been hidden in the archives and have not been seen before.
‘It's not that there's anything pernicious going on – they’ve just been overlooked. That’s to do with a whole lot of issues.’
The historian is hoping to gain better renown for people like Sydney Cornell, who was born in Portsmouth in 1914.
He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in recognition of his role in the D-Day campaign before he was killed in action in 1945.
The project aims to incorporate stories like his in history lessons, exhibitions, and memorials across the city.
For the city’s archives collection, it is an opportunity to correct its records’ lack of representation, says Dr John Stedman of the Portsmouth History Centre.
He said: ‘We know that there are few references to black people in our indexes, or black community organisations, and we are aware of the ethnicity of the depositors we meet.
‘In the last century numbers increased, but still few personal and family papers of people of African and Caribbean ancestry have been deposited with the archive.’
This leaves the project not only looking to re-tell past lives, but also preserve the experiences of people across the city today.
According to the 2011 census, more than 4,000 of Portsmouth’s 238,000 residents identify as black.
Each person has a unique story to tell, stalwart campaigner Marie says.
She said: ‘Please, please come to us and share your stories.
‘We don't want to be in this position in 30 years time looking back at 2020, with gaps in our understanding.’
And a single contributed story – one person’s trials and experiences – could be have a profound impact, according to Alex.
The mother-of-one said: ‘I have been racially abused in the city. Two years ago in a block that I was living in – I heard it very clearly. I was in shock. I called the police, but I don’t know who shouted it.
‘We have come along way but we have a long way to go.
‘For me, you never know how your story will change someone's opinion. It might be your story that a racist hears and causes them to rethink their attitude.’