Third year student Amelia Boddice describes her first experience of visiting and using an archive, with other students of the Racism and Anti-Racism in Post-War Britain special subject, taught by Dr Jodi Burkett.
As part of my special subject, ‘Racism and Anti-Racism in Post-War Britain’ run by Dr Jodi Burkett, we had to come up with our own essay questions. At first this seemed quite a daunting prospect. As I looked through the topics and read more widely I decided to write about something I was truly interested in: the British government’s attempts at improving the everyday experiences of ethnic minorities in the 1970/80s. I wanted to touch on the themes of housing, education and policing. A trip was arranged for us to visit the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton to help us find our primary sources, as this was a documentary essay, or to find primary sources to use in our individual presentations.
For many of us, this was our first visit to an archive and so none of us really knew what to expect. We were asked in advance to look through the archive’s subject guides online and select some items which we might want to look at on the day. The archive’s staff were helpful and very accommodating in advising us further on what material they had available on each of our requests; this was done in the cases where we needed to narrow our selection: I had accidentally requested nine boxes of material on housing alone and would not have time to look at all of the material!
Upon arrival we were split into two groups and would alternately have time in the reading room and a tour of the archive. My group were taken to the reading room first. We were asked to leave our possessions in a locker room and take writing materials up to the reading room, which is common practice when visiting archives. We were each presented with the material we had requested and given a couple of hours to go through the boxes or folders of information. This was a very surreal experience as it really brought the history of the ethnic minorities I was studying to life! To look at and touch the official documentation or photographs confronts you with a new dimension of history which cannot be gathered from looking at sources online and so I really made the most of the time I spent in the reading room, taking notes and trying to understand the material in front of me. This meant that when it came time to write my essay I had done quite a lot of my source analysis. I also tried to enjoy myself, understanding this was an opportunity I would not get for a while, unless I went on to study at Higher Education or planned to write a history about another area of black history.
We paused for a lunch break and then began our tour of the building. We learnt the history of the building and why its location is important to preserving the history of the local area and its community. The project for preserving the history of the black community in Britain began in 1981 and found a home in 2014 in Windrush Square, Brixton, named after the SS Windrush.
Brixton itself has been known as a cultural epicentre for the black community since the post-war period and so this heritage site has been appropriately situated here. We were also introduced to some books in the gift shop which might be of interest depending on what we were looking at in our essay or what we were interested in general, for example, Black and British by David Oluoga and Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch. It was a very worthwhile trip for both widening my interest in the topic and also helping me to understand what careers are out there for those of us who are interested in archival work. I made sure to visit the exhibition on the Neil Kenlock Archive called ‘Expectations.’ I was presenting on the history of the British Black Panthers for this class and Neil Kenlock was their professional photographer. It was interesting to see his work displayed in person, rather than on an online database, and it brought the reality of what he was trying to portray to life. The photographs included many influential black leaders from the post-war period, showing them as leaders in their own right. This introduced me to many black leaders who I had not seen before, only read about, and it was interesting for me to consider what I had read about a person and place a face to their name.
I am very grateful to Jodi and the staff at the museum for making the process accessible to those of us who were new to the experience and for making the day so fun.