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Telling the true story of Black Britain

Three giant brass heads sit in a dark corner of the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, London. Two are representations of a king, one is a queen mother. The people of the Benin Empire, in modern day Nigeria, made busts like these to glorify Oba – the divine king – and to celebrate the history and power of their empire, which thrived for hundreds of years, was a major trading partner with Europe, and had an ambassador in Portugal from the 16th century.

Most of the brass artworks that survived Benin’s fall are now in the British Museum. They were shipped back to London in 1897, when Britain decided to flex its military muscles and strengthen its imperial grip on the south of Nigeria.

So how did these three royals make their journey to Brixton, and find their way into the archives? Nobody knows. They are probably 20th Century copies, explains collections manager, Victoria Northridge. But could they be prime examples of authentic third-century African art? “It would be very nice if they were,” Victoria says with a smile.

But it’s the forgotten history behind these heads that makes them beguiling, not their possible monetary value. “I’d like to know why they were made and by whom – how did they come to be?” she says. You could ask the same question about a lot of the tissue-wrapped cooking ladles, wooden spears and other curious objects that hang from the walls or sit on shelves in the archives’ temperature- and humidity-controlled store.

To collect, preserve and celebrate such objects and the stories behind them was one reason why historian and educationalist Len Garrison (above) founded the Black Cultural Archives in 1981. The long history of Black people in Britain – which dates from Roman times – wasn’t being taught in schools or told in the media. The stories of those who had come to Britain more recently – the Windrush generation – was at risk of being forgotten.

“To understand that complex historical narrative is really important,” says marketing and development relationship manager, Monique Baptiste-Brown (pictured above). “It gives you a better sense of your home. But it’s not just important for black people. This is for everyone. It’s our collective history.”

Thirty years after its creation, the archives have grown to include a wider and richer mix of cultural material – rare books, personal letters, photographs, newspapers, pamphlets, teaching materials, oral histories. Much of this content might seem trivial or ephemeral, says Monique, “But it can give you important information about what was happening at the time, and an alternative way of telling history, of uncovering hidden narratives.”

Len Garrison was right when he predicted that collecting and sorting the evidence of the Black past in Britain would be a “monumental task”. Much of the archives’ content has arrived in plastic bin bags and old boxes, dropped at the front door by people having a bit of clear out and wondering “if this stuff might be interesting”. And it’s a task that’s not been helped by the archives’ lack of a permanent home. For decades it moved from one unsuitable shared office space to another.

But all that changed in July 2014, when the archives moved into their new, purpose-built home on Windrush Square, in the heart of Brixton.

The new building includes a reference library, exhibition area and café – and the dedicated space that houses the actual archives. These now run to 31 cubic metres of material, 7000 books and 250 objects.

“The move has really expanded what we can do,” says Victoria. The temperature is kept at a constant 13-20 degrees with 35% to 60% humidity – the industry standard – which means the archives can collaborate and share material with museums and other archives. It’s easier to help people to access the archives too – from academics and students to people who want to research their own family history.

The new building was part-funded by a capital grant from The London Community Foundation in partnership with the London Borough of Lambeth. “That contribution was instrumental in getting us to this point,” says Monique. “Their support in getting us from being a small archive in a temporary space and professionalising it and opening it up has been invaluable.”

The first exhibition in the new building explored the history of black women in Britain. On the day I visit, a party of excited secondary-school children cram the exhibition space full. They study the displays and have a laugh about some of the giant afros in the photos of 1970s activists. A couple of America tourists wander among them.

Isha Dibua, who works locally, has dropped in during her lunch break. Her family left Guyana when she was 11. Her grandmother was an active campaigner against police arrest powers in the 1980s. “These are issues close to my heart,” she says.

She’s not alone. On opening day, thousands of well-wishers thronged the square in front of the archives. “There was an incredible feeling of warmth, connection and ownership,” says Monique. “We want people to feel part of what we are doing, so to start with that level of support was excellent.”

Since opening day, over 35 local people have volunteered to help in the archives. Some of them will be sorting through the vast amounts of material that is yet to be categorised. Perhaps they will get to look at the battered suitcase delivered recently from Ghana. It contains a treasure trove of documents and letters, sent between family members in England and those in Keta, an important coastal trading post for hundreds of years.

The material was handed in when the grandmother looking after it passed away. “It just turned up, like on the Antiques Roadshow,” says Monique. “She could have thrown it in a skip.” It’s in the archives now, safely watched over by the two Kings of Benin, and their queen mother.

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