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“All races and colors from every part of the world” - Black people in Britain, 1905

Jeffrey Green

In 1905 the British parliament passed the Aliens Act. It was the first modern legislation against immigrants. Any ship reaching Britain with more than 20 foreigners could be refused entry. Like many aspects of British life, the Act was class-centred, for it applied to passengers travelling steerage. First class travellers were at complete liberty to enter the country. The legislators were concerned about Eastern European Jews and ‘German gypsies’ – not people of African descent for they were somehow invisible.

Black people had lived in Britain for centuries, but their story did not get published in book form until 1948, with Kenneth Little’s Negroes in Britain. Edward Scobie, a West Indian who had served in the Royal Air Force in the 1939-45 war, had his Black Britannia published in Chicago in 1972. Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britainwas published in 1984.

My biography of South Carolina-born composer Edmund Thornton Jenkins (a graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Music) had been published in the U.S.A. in 1982. I then researched other aspects of the black presence in Britain. This part of Britain’s history had been revealed to me by documents I had located in Charleston. My understanding expanded through the contacts I had made with veterans. The history I uncovered was not in Little, Scobie, or Fryer. Nor did the Aliens Act have much relevance. My Black Edwardians: Black People in Britain 1901-1914, was published in 1998.

My research revealed a black middle class. I uncovered evidence of people of African descent in almost every part of Britain. I met men and women who were not part of a present-day "black community" yet were visually African.

Historians had searched for black participants in anti-Empire movements; in socialist political parties; protesters and agitators. They had found them. Other historians noted the years spent in Britain or the U.S.A. by African and Caribbean leaders including Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Eric Williams, and Hastings Banda. This focus reinforced the idea that black people have been temporary residents in Britain, somehow not belonging to the country. Pan-African connections, ably detailed by Bremen professor Imanuel Geiss in 1968 (translated into English in 1974), also innocently suggested that even when established in Britain, concern with Mother Africa was a dominating aspect of the lives of British blacks.

Celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the arrival, in Britain, of the Empire Windrush from Jamaica in 1948, also distorted history. It was and is widely believed that West Indian migration to Britain started in 1948. I wrote Before the Windrush for History Today in 2000. The editor’s wrote:

Jeffrey Green argues that to ignore the
diverse black presence in Britain prior
to the 1940s is to perpetuate a distorted
view of British history.

The distortion of black history and of British history remains my concern five years later. The title of my paper is a quotation from Booker T. Washington. He wrote to black papers in the U.S.A. when in London in 1899:

"Nowhere can one get such a good idea of
what is transpiring in all parts of the
world as in London’ because ‘the English
colonial system brings every year hundreds
of representatives of all races and colors
from every part of the world to London".

My paper will take a look at blacks in Britain around 1905, the year of the Aliens Act, to reveal men and women in many places and occupations, and at all levels of society. The evidence to be presented places black men, women, and children into the fabric of British society a century ago. As well as ‘the young men [and women] at a most receptive age [who] come in all their enthusiasm to the Motherland of their dreams’ there were older settlers, and descendants of black people whose history dates back to the Romans. For, as my friend Peter Fryer’s Staying Power begins "There were Africans in Britain before the English came here".

East Grinstead 24 April 2005

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