When it comes to political hot potatoes, the subject of immigration is usually one of the most contentious.
As decade after decade rolls by, the debate over the presence of one community or another in the green and pleasant land of Britain continues to rage. And meanwhile, as all of this goes on, the country itself quietly evolves its multicultural identity.
One county group which commits itself to researching and educating others about the history of immigration is the Northamptonshire Black History Association.
Now struggling for funding, the association is holding a charity ball in Northampton tomorrow in the hope of raising much-needed cash to help continue the organisation’s work.
Chairman Pat Sinclair said: “Some of the work which has been done in schools has been very well received but needs to be reprinted and republished in a different format, we haven’t got the money for this. We can’t do outings or anything, so I’m thrilled we are doing this ball and hope we can get 500 people to come along.”
Officially established in 2005 as a membership organisation, the NBHA’s early beginnings date back to the 1990s.
Founder member Paul Crofts explained: “On June 14, 1990, Wellingborough District Racial Equality Council contacted Peter Fryer, the author of a book called Staying Power, a history of black people in Britain. Julia Bush was a lecturer in history and she had also produced a teaching pack for schools called Moving On: Northamptonshire and the Wider World; that pack documented the history of movement in and out of Northamptonshire.
“We invited Julia and Peter to a meeting at the Victoria Centre to talk about their work and the book. About 100 people came to that meeting. The room at the Victoria Centre was packed. Black history was really starting to spark a huge amount of interest. Following that meeting, a number of people indicated they were interested in forming a group to continue the debate and undertake further research into black people in Northamptonshire and to produce communication materials for use in schools. The group which was founded was called the Wellingborough Oral History Group. That developed into the Northamptonshire Black History Project.”
The initial project’s achievements (between 2002 and 2005) included putting together an oral history archive (of 200 life history interviews), depositing archives from community organisations at the Northamptonshire Record Office and assembling the Black History Database for Northamptonshire. The NBHA evolved out of the project and has gone on to carry on the aims, linking up with the University of Northampton in a Black British History course.
But what is the importance in educating about black history? George Watley, who now teaches the Black British History course at the University of Northampton, said: “When people come in to the black British history course, I always ask them what they know about it. Whatever they say it will usually be about slavery and the slave trade.”
He added: “They often know more about African American history but don’t know about history in their own country. Now the work of the NBHA is addressing that.”
Mr Crofts said: “I can’t remember when we haven’t been debating immigration, there were debates about Jews in the 1930s, Indians in the 1950s and ‘60s... each debate is followed by another. We haven’t stopped debating it, we can’t come to terms with it. It is all about a fight for equality if you break it down.
“This organisation is important as the over-arching aspect of what we do is about finding out the contributions of black people to British history. By understanding black history, we understand British history even better.”
Black people of county’s past:
The history of black people in Northamptonshire goes back many hundreds of years, say members of the NBHA.
One interesting personality was James Chappel, who was once landlord of the Hatton Arms in Gretton and believed to have been the first black publican in Northamptonshire. His gravestone can be found at Blatherwycke Church.
According to the NBHA book Sharing The Past: “James Chappel went into the service of the Hattons of Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire. “In 1670 he travelled to Guernsey when Sir Christopher Hatton was made governor of the island. While in Guernsey, Chappel resided with Hatton and his family at Cornet Castle. It was here that a horrific event took place on the night of December 29, 1672.
“During a storm, lightning struck the castle and igniting stores of gunpowder, caused a huge explosion.
“The black servant James Chappel bravely rescued Sir Christopher Hatton and his children from the rubble, although Hatton’s wife and mother sadly perished.”
Hatton died in September 1706 and left James £20 a year in his will.
Also featured in this book is Walter Tull, born to a Barbadian father and Kentish mother.
He played football for Northampton Town and went on to become a British Army officer serving in the First World War.
He lost his life when he was shot while leading an attack in the second battle of the Somme. A memorial stands at Sixfields, Northampton.
Event on Saturday:
The Northamptonshire Black History Association is in need of more funding to continue its work in researching and educating people about this county’s past.
For this reason they are hoping hundreds of people will book tickets to a special ball they have planned for this weekend.
All are welcome to the dinner dance being held for the NBHA on Saturday at Park Inn, Silver Street, Northampton.
Dinner will be served at 8pm, but guests can arrive from 7pm. Tickets cost £40 and dress is formal. The fundraising ball will end at 2am.
For bookings, log on to www.northants-black-history.org.uk or call the organisers on 01604 590967.