For information on our other Black History Month events, see here.
Tuesday, October 19, 2021
For information on our other Black History Month events, see here.
Thursday, September 30, 2021
Désirée Reynolds has been the Writer in Residence at Sheffield City Archives for five months now and in that short time, she has uncovered some fascinating and hitherto unsung histories of Black Sheffield residents in the archives. Although her work has focused on hidden lives and marginalised voices, she has also revisited more widely known stories from living memory. One such account took her back to the 1960s, a time of rapidly changing culture, values and behaviours - particularly among young people. The University of Sheffield’s Students’ Union was, by this time, becoming more political, with protests against the Vietnam War and high-profile speakers such as Malcolm X drawing large audiences.
Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little, 1925 -1965) was an African American leader in the civil rights movement and a vocal advocate for Black empowerment during the 1950s and 1960s. Formerly a member of The Nation Of Islam, he left this organisation to forge his own path; the fight for civil rights would not have been the same without him. He was invited to speak at the Students’ Union in Sheffield on 4th December 1964 - one of only three places outside of London where he spoke. In his speech Malcolm X declared: “We are not fighting for civil rights; we are fighting for human rights. Freedom is a valuable thing. To get it I would use any means necessary, any time.” Afterwards, the Students’ Union gazette, Darts, wrote enthusiastically about his visit, describing in detail the hour-long speech, given to one of the largest audiences ever seen in the Union.An original copy of Darts from 1964 - somewhat yellowing and brittle - still survives in the annals of Sheffield Local Studies Library - one of the few surviving accounts that recalls Malcolm X’s visit to Sheffield. This would have been the end of the story if Désirée hadn’t dug a little deeper: ‘there must be more.’ A trawl through the newspapers revealed a number of unsettling articles in the local press. ‘Row feared over Malcolm X visit’ warned The Star, ‘visit likely to cause racial troubles.’ In the Sheffield Telegraph the following day an inflammatory article claimed: ‘over 700 angry students hissed Malcolm X at Sheffield University last night’. The student body took exception to this, arguing the report grossly misrepresented what took place.
In Désirée’s words:
‘Malcolm X visits Sheffield Dec 1964. A headline predicts trouble, there wasn’t any. The Sheffield Telegraph make up a story that he was hissed at by 700 students. They didn’t. A petition is made against the paper’s misinformation. Even then.The story is in the story…
They tried to draw him into a comment about, by this time, a dead Kennedy. Malcolm refused to be baited.
“I believe in the brotherhood of the human race and don’t care to know anybody who is not prepared to be my brother.”’
A mass protest in the form of a petition was hand delivered to the Star and Telegraph offices and a separate protest was made by the Secretary of the Union who wrote to the Telegraph expressing his dismay at the ‘violent distortion in the report, which he felt was especially ironic in view of Malcolm X’s opening remarks, in which he had stressed the danger of an irresponsible press’.
The Telegraph news editor, ‘though obviously disturbed’, declined to comment further.
Malcolm X visited Britain once more - in February 1965 - to speak in London and Smethwick. A few short weeks later, following his return to the U.S., he was assassinated. This story is thought-provoking on many levels. It points to a prevailing racist culture in Britain; Malcolm X’s visits were met with hostility and lies from the press, underlining the national race row which challenged what it meant to be British in the post-war years. It reminds us, too, that when we look at historical records, we must ask: whose truth are we reading?
Désirée Reynolds and archivist Cheryl Bailey will be talking more about the hidden histories, silent voices and important discoveries they have found in Sheffield Archives at their Off The Shelf event:
Millennium Gallery, Thursday 21st October 2021, 12:30pm - 1:30pm
Darts, No.247, 10 Dec 1964 (Sheffield Local Studies Library)
The Star, 1 Dec 1964 (Sheffield Local Studies Library)
Sheffield Telegraph, 5 Dec 1964 (Sheffield Local Studies Library)
Thursday, August 19, 2021
This is not the first time she has looked to the archives for narratives. In 2019, she wrote Born on Sunday, Silent, a powerful short story (published in ‘The Book Of Sheffield’ by Comma Press) about the unmarked grave of an African child dating from the early 1900s. The story is told by a child spirit called Kai Akosua Mansah who wanders through Sheffield’s libraries and archives uncovering her own past, searching for lost truths. As she found, Sheffield’s own archives don’t always reveal the full tale - “looking for Sheffield’s past is not easy” says Désirée, “the things that get left out tell a story all of their own.” Moreover, as one reviewer noted, one of the uncomfortable truths the story highlights is “the city’s shameful collusion in a racist and imperial past”.
This is an important area that has come under scrutiny in recent months culminating in the Race Equality Commission which is examining the nature, extent, causes and impacts of racism and race inequality within the city. Among the many recommendations, academics have pinpointed the need for greater archival research into Sheffield’s involvement in the slave trade - the extent to which the city prospered from the trade in African slaves, an understanding of who was involved and the means by which they benefited directly or indirectly, and the amount of capital that was generated by slavery which fed into the close social networks in Sheffield. Answers to these questions are harder to come by than in port-cities such as Liverpool or Bristol where the accrued economic benefits of slavery are well-known.
Only a few weeks ago, Désirée came across one of the most arresting documents we have found to date. Following our last project blog, local researcher Terry Howard got in touch mentioning that he’d come across a reference that might be of interest in the little-known ‘Ronksley Collection’ - an assembly of original archives and transcripts compiled by Mr J.G. Ronksley (1851-1916) of Sheffield. Crucially, Mr Ronksley had meticulously transcribed thousands of pages of documents that were later auctioned off in the 19th century and have long-since disappeared. The transcripts survive in the archives. Among these - a reference of great significance:
An inventory of goods of Reginald Wilson (deceased) of Broomhead Hall, Sheffield, 1694, giving the value of black slaves. Alongside French pistols and pearl necklaces, the following names are given:
1 negro boy named Mingo £24
2 negro women £45
1 negro named Hector £25
1 negro woman £28
1 negro named Debby £25
“Sometimes when looking at this, as a Black creative we often have to ask ourselves, is this something that is useful?
Why do we always look at Black pain porn and not at the other stories?
Our history is not only slavery, but also the centuries before, why root it in this?
Why is it that these are the stories that get funded? Delivered? Written about? I get that. I get that it often feels that this is all anyone wants to engage with. I get that we are more than this. I agree.
I think about the silences. The structured absences.
I think about what it means for a writer like me to look at this. I know I may never find their real names but since these are the ones that I’ve found then this is what I have.
I need to say to these people, with names that aren’t theirs,
‘I see you’.
Speak the unspeakable.
We must see archives as a source of reparative justice.
We were always here.”
The Wilson family were a prominent family who lived at Broomhead Hall in Bradfield - they had extensive business interests in plantations and slaves in Jamaica. Although Reginald Wilson died in 1692 (killed during an earthquake in Jamaica), the wealth accumulated from the slave trade passed down the generations. The will of John Wilson (dated 22 Jan 1762) in Sheffield Archives mentions ‘lands, tenements, plantations and hereditaments in the island of Jamaica in America’ formerly belonging to his great uncle, Reginald Wilson. And the executors of the will? Wilson’s relatives - John Trevers Younge of Sheffield, mercer and Thomas Staniforth of Liverpool, merchant (and slave trader).
Sheffield is often lauded as a centre for radical anti-slavery protest; while this is undoubtedly true, it is only part of the story. The less palatable truths are just below the surface, they’re buried in the archives, we just need to find them.
The Archives and Reparative Justice (Off The Shelf event)
Millennium Galleries, 12:30-13:30, Thursday 21 October 2021 (tickets available soon)
Wednesday, August 11, 2021
As the first national lockdown began, we all experienced a range of emotions as many of us were forced to slow down and consider a situation unlike anything we’d ever known. Amid the fear, boredom, and loneliness experienced by many, there was also relief, wonder, and hope to be found in people and places, perhaps familiar and yet somehow previously unseen.
As we look back to springtime 2020, there is no ignoring the tragedy of what unfolded, the extent of suffering was too awful for that, but we can remember the positives too. The explosion of creativity observed amongst ordinary people across the country was one such example.
Here in Sheffield, Claire Walker, the creative dynamo behind the Central Library poetry and writing groups was quick to encourage people to explore and express their creativity. Every day from March to July 2020, Claire posted on the Library Facebook page, a daily writing prompt to inspire others to write, feel or think imaginatively. Claire was overwhelmed by the response and the impact this appeared to have on those taking part.
The Creativity During Covid Exhibition showcases a selection of the written work sent in by those who read the prompts, alongside a number of physical items created during those months. It offers a snapshot of a moment in time, capturing a glimpse of our shared experience.
A folder of further writing submitted can also be viewed, as well the daily prompts created by Claire.
Wednesday, August 4, 2021
Tuesday, July 27, 2021
Thursday, July 15, 2021
Whittling down to one winner in each category was exceptionally difficult - there were just so many amazing stories and poems celebrating, based in, or inspired by our city.
The winners are...
CHILDREN - Lockdown is Breaking Me Up Inside by Eva Simms
TEENS - Hive New Writers' Prize - Wizened by Sharmin
ADULT CATEGORY - The Low Wall Beat of Love and Loss by Ellen Uttley
I stood outside the university building at Arundel, the creative swirling of the writing class I’d just left already settling in my mind. The ideas, so clear just minutes before, now fragmented and brushed to the dust of faint memories and half formed ideas of thoughts unwritten.
The beat of their voices reached me before their words did; the rhythmic tick of the t’s and the hisses of s’s reaching above their words to find me in my procrastination. Rain misted my face as I walked through the grey air towards them, two men, rapping at the edge of my hearing.
They stood beside a speaker that was rested on the short wall that made the entrance of the university building into a squat kind of courtyard. Leaning in over it, they seemed to be aware only of each other, as if they thought the sound of their voices and the beat of the speaker wouldn’t move past the bubble of space and concentration that they had created. They rapped for each other, at each other, and no one else.
I reached them at the same moment that their words reached clarity. The one to the left, a squat man of strong build and sharp shirt, moving with shoulders and knee to the flow of his counterpart. His eyes rapt; competitive and entertained, he took in the words of the longer man. The right man, in his baggy stained shirt and his tight jeans, chin wagging to the beat of his story.
“..she was maybe eighteen, yeah
her collar pristine.
Her daddy was furious that she wasn’t Miss Thing.
She spoke with her gumption, yeah
and she spoke from her heart.
Her mummy would have train her
but there was nowhere to start.
She was her own to the core, yeah
her dreams made her soar, yeah
Her sisters screamed and cried and scratched
and yeah they called her a whore, whore...”
Rapt, I took in the words as he threw them. About a girl thrown out into the world with nothing but her wits and her dreams. How he had scooped her up and placed her down in a place of security and serenity. He tapered off as she reached him through the computer screens that had connected them to the real world of the life that they had pledged to build together. Two beats later, the squat man pulled down first one starched cuff and then the other and took up the beat.
“...yeah, I hear what you’re saying, man
my own love was tight.
I kept her warm and loved her and she
treated me right.
But she died from the train tracks, man
she died in her sleep.
She died from her mind
calling her weak, weak.
I know what you’re saying, man
how love can change everything.
But she died and worse
she died on the day that I bought a ring...”
He wove his grief in the air between them like silk, thread of his own recovery and the redemption and hope and the cleansing fire that he found in a loss so certain and so destroying that he had nothing left of himself but a handful of dust.
Lost in the words of his counterpart, the tall man swayed, and as the sharp shirted rapper lifted a hand to wipe his eye, he grabbed the beat from the air and continued his story.
“...It was perfect for a time, man
the woman was sweet.
She hoped and cooked
and wrote and sang
and we just went click.
But things start to slip, yeah
then it just went quick, yeah.
She has been gone and month now
and my minds like a crypt, yeah...”
The arms of both of them, swaying in time, reached over to form a bridge. Hand to shoulder they rocked with the music that swirled around them. Suit jacket stretched taught and rocking softly to the beat of his soft sobs. His counterpart looked down at him into the safe space created by the loop of their arms.
“...Yeah man, this life will throw stuff at you
and grief will go hard.
But your life is your own, man
and you hold the cards.
We have to pick up the tatters, man
we have to tie up the shreds.
We have to pick up our feet
we have to pick up our heads.
We have to pick up our hope
we have to find what we can
we have to stitch this together
as we clutch at the sand.
We might lose some moments, man
we might lose some years.
we might lose some parts of us and
we might lose some tears.
But after it all
when we come out of the dust
we will still be there waiting
we’ll be whole
we’ll be us...”
Their heads raised up to face each other, and they lowered their hands. The shorter one reached out and clicked off the speaker with a numbing silence. I turned before they could notice me standing there, and moved off down the hill, towards the train station.