Varaidzo is a best-selling writer, editor, podcaster and artist from London. Her essay was featured in the award-winning anthology The Good Immigrant in 2016, and her words have appeared in the New Statesman, Complex, Dazed and Gal-Dem, for which she previously served as Arts and Culture Editor. Last year, her mum’s move to Liverpool sparked Varaidzo’s curiosity in our city’s history. Upon learning that Liverpool was likely home to the oldest black community in Europe, she became interested in researching the city’s historical black figures. As part of her Instagram project over the duration of this year’s Black History Month – where she illustrated and profiled the lives and attainments of black people from across the UK – she profiled five pre-Windrush black people who either lived or were born in Liverpool.
Black History Month has now ended, but our attempts as a city to educate ourselves about our past should never stop. Liverpool’s involvement in the slave trade is embedded into the architecture around us, built on the back of the prosperity of those times – the opulence of St. George’s Hall and Liverpool Town Hall obscures an unacknowledged human cost. Even today, many of our street names honouring slave traders and anti-abolitionists remain unchanged, with Penny Lane and Rodney Street being just two of the most prominent. This history of racism has meant that the lives and successes of Liverpool’s black people have often been overlooked and undervalued.
By drawing these figures out of obscurity in the format of the times, Varaidzo offers Bido Lito! readers an education of our city’s past that should be part of an essential history curriculum. She is now extending her research into the black people of Liverpool’s past and present for her podcast series Search History, with an episode dedicated to Liverpool scheduled for the early months of next year.
Lilian was born in Liverpool to an Irish mother in 1918. Her father Marcus was from Barbados and had served in the British Merchant Navy during WWI. By the age of eight, both of her parents had passed away and she was raised in a convent where she was the only mixed-race girl. When WWII broke out, she was adamant she’d join the British armed forces and joined an organisation at Catterick Camp in Yorkshire, but after finding out her father was black they asked her to leave, allegedly because officials were regarding anyone foreign looking as suspicious. On the radio, she’d heard an interview with some West Indian men who had wanted to do their bit for the armed forces but had been rejected by the army and so joined the air forces instead. Hearing this, Lilian joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in which was two years before black women in the Caribbean were permitted to join. She was the first black woman to do so. Eventually she was promoted to acting corporal and married a tank driver of English and Sierra Leone heritage. In 2018, The Voice newspaper listed her as an influential black woman who changed Britain. What I find interesting about Lilian’s life is it shows the wildly hypocritical U-turn that British forces did in both WWI and WWII when it came to accepting black/Caribbean men and women to serve, and seeing them as part of the British nation. Honestly, personally I would not have bothered getting involved if they ain’t want me like that, but shout outs you, Lilian.
Ira Aldridge was born in New York and educated at the African Free School, an institution established by abolitionists specifically for the children of free or enslaved black people. In 1821, six years before the abolition of slavery in NYC, the African Grove Theatre was founded by William Alexander Brown, a free black man from the Caribbean (who had come to New York after working in Liverpool on a ship for many years). The casts and audiences were mostly black, and the African Company – the theatre company that operated out of the African Grove – was where Ira got his start in acting. However, the theatre failed because of constant complaints about ‘boisterous’ behaviour, and making a living as a black actor in racist America was a struggle. So, Ira moved to Liverpool himself in 1824 with another actor, and married an English woman that same year. The couple moved to London and Ira began touring across the country performing on stage, and eventually became the first African-American to establish himself as an actor in another country. The role he is most famous for is playing Shakespeare’s Othello, and he is one just 33 actors to have a bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
John Archer was born in Liverpool in 1863 to a father from Barbados and a mother from Ireland. In his early adulthood he worked in the Merchant Navy, travelling the world, and ended up marrying a black Canadian woman named Bertha. Together, they settled in Battersea at the turn of the century, and John is said to have worked as a professional singer. He also studied as a medical student for a time, but abandoned the practice.
He was very involved in radical and early pan-Africanist politics of the time and, in 1906, John was elected as a councillor to Battersea borough council as a progressive candidate. Around this time, he also began to run a small photography studio. In 1913, John was then elected as the mayor of Battersea winning by one vote. Throughout the election, he was dogged by racist reports and people casting doubts about his place of birth, not believing he was really born in England (sound familiar?). Although not the first black mayor in England – that was Allan Glaisyer Minns, a doctor from the Bahamas who became mayor of Thetford in Norfolk in 1904 – John Archer was the first black mayor in London. In 1918 he became president of the African Progress Union to work for equality and was a British delegate for the second Pan-African Congress in Paris, a series of eight conferences held worldwide to discuss peacemaking and decolonisation in Africa and the Caribbean. John then gave up his council seat to act as a Labour Party election agent, winning candidate spots in 1922 and 1924 with Shapurji Saklatvala, a communist activist of Indian Parsi heritage who became one of the first Indians elected to British parliament. Then in 1929, John won again acting as an agent for the Labour candidate who beat Saklatvala after the Labour and Communist parties had split outright.
Emma Clarke was born in Liverpool and worked as a confectioner’s apprentice as a teenager. She grew up playing football on the streets with her sister Jane who also went on to become a professional footballer. Emma first debuted in club football with British Ladies in 1895. Their inaugural game was watched by 10,000 people at Crouch End and is considered to be the first women’s football match played under association rules. Emma was then selected for Mrs Graham’s XI, a women’s team formed by Scottish suffragette Helen Matthews based in Edinburgh. This team is considered to be the first British women’s football team.
Football wasn’t really seen as a safe sport for women to play, and Mrs Graham’s XI’s first match was abandoned because of violent pitch invasions. However, the team regularly attracted thousands of spectators for their matches and toured Scotland, for which Emma would have been paid about 12 pence a week.
Many West Indian shipmen that had been recruited by the Royal Navy during WWI settled in Liverpool after the war. One evening in summer 1919, a West Indian man named John Johnson was stabbed in the face by two Scandinavian sailors because he refused to give them a cigarette. The next night, a group of black men led a retaliation attack on the pub the Scandinavian men frequented, which ended in a policeman getting injured. The police then arrested several of the black seamen and carried out raids on many black homes and hostels in Toxteth, while none of the white sailors were arrested. Protests against these raids turned violent and a policeman was shot in the fallout. During subsequent raids this young guy, Charles Wootton, had been living in one of the raided houses on Upper Pitt Street, although he wasn’t known to have taken part in any of the brawling. When he saw the police had come to his yard he climbed out of a window and ran, but ended up getting chased by a lynch mob of around 300 white people led by the police. They chased him to the docks where the mob caught him and threw him into the water. He tried to swim away, but the mob threw rocks at him until he drowned. He was just 24. His death was then reported in local news as ‘suspect found in river’, and so nobody was arrested for his murder. In the days that followed, mobs of thousands of white people rampaged through Liverpool burning places where black people were known to stay, viciously beating any black people they stumbled across. The police literally ended up having to detain 700 (!!!) black residents in station cells because they had no other way of protecting them. Across the rest of the summer, racially-motivated riots erupted across the UK in port cities such as Cardiff, Glasgow, Newport and London.