Authors: Alex Douglas-Bailey and Josephine Small The UKAHN Bulletin
Volume 9 (1) 2021

 Whether it was the Middle Ages, the Tudor period, the Victorian era or in post-war Britain, the presence and contributions of African and Caribbean people in Britain have consistently been overlooked, unacknowledged or concealed.[1] Recently efforts have been made to challenge and provide context to this erasure. We have seen important progress in the development and maintenance of community archives, the uncovering or utilisation of lesser-used materials, and provision of teaching resources and learning spaces. These initiatives have paved the way forward in learning about the lengthy and layered experiences of African and Caribbean people in Britain. Important to this endeavour are scholars, such as Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall;[2] photographer, John Goto (Lovers Rock, 1977); and curator Renée Mussai (Black Chronicles). In conjunction with the aforementioned, are people like Len Garrison (co-founder of Black Cultural Archives, community activist and educationalist) and Olive Morris (co-founder the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent and a Black Women’s Movement activist). Without their individual and collective efforts, the sparse materials or documented records of African and Caribbean peoples’ contributions to Britain would be lost. Continuous efforts need to be made to ensure the rich history of African and Caribbean peoples’ contributions to the politics, culture, and language of European nations, including Britain, is documented, shared, and taught. Access to this knowledge is important particularly for how African and Caribbean history is taught, preserved and written. Equally significant is challenging how British history has been written, which has implications for young Black British people in the educational system.

Traditionally, history has been portrayed through top-down perspectives which have formed the dominant cultural narrative about any given topic. Historical narratives have oftentimes been shaped to serve the interests of the ruling classes and the State, so what is presented and how it is portrayed is subject to the interests of those who construct it.[3] By disseminating information that is internalised en masse to shape public perceptions, thus ‘concealing the processes that produce them’, this process becomes a tool of oppression,[4] which Toni Morrison refers to as ‘the violence of representation.’ She asserts that ‘[o]ppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge’.[5] Black history is British history, and it is integral to our collective and national memory. Yet all too often, the few histories that have been written about the Black community have been produced by non-Black people in positions of power with an agenda, and often with the aim of presenting a predetermined narrative and perspective. When and if Black people are included in historical narratives, it is only in relation to isolated historical events. In migration narratives, for example, Black people are written about in terms of raw materials and labour, not as neighbours, colleagues, or human beings with agency. Or they are included to appease a narrative – because they are Black. It has been an ongoing battle for Black activists, historians, artists and other people from Black communities in correcting or challenging perceptions and filling-in the narrative, but some progress has been made, reflected in, for example, the recognition now granted to Black British cultural commentators such as novelists Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy, film makers such as Michaela Coel and Steve McQueen and the historian, David Osuloga. Filling the absences and erasures, however, is still an ongoing process especially for Africans in Britain.

Popular historical narratives, i.e., those selectively promoted by the mass media and government as representative of the Black British experience tend to focus on Caribbean migrants in Britain and particularly on their contributions to the National Health Service. However, in their attempts to incorporate Caribbean migrants into British history, scholars and cultural figures have neglected the experiences of Africans in Britain. Yasmin Khan (2019) has written about the dominance of Windrush narratives in histories of immigration, arguing that it ‘excludes a much greater story of British imperial pasts and Commonwealth citizenship.’[6]

The dominance of the Caribbean experience in scholarship and popular British history is attributed to Britain’s colonial relationship with its colonies and the implementation of immigration legislation in the mid-twentieth-century that encouraged Caribbean people to migrate as a result of Britain’s labour shortage.  Thus, Caribbean migrants settled in Britain at a much higher rate than their African counterparts in the immediate post-World War II period; but this does not mean that there were no African migrants making the same journey. While the history of Caribbean migrants in Britain is obviously an important one, a more comprehensive history of Blacks in Britain must include the experiences and contributions of African migrants.[7]  This history must be viewed as integral to British history.

For Black British youth there is a general silence regarding their histories in the national curriculum; Black history is categorised as a separate history – an “othering” which acts to divide and separate it from ‘mainstream’ history.[8] There are also the dangerous stereotypes of Black people in British (and European) literature and books. These negative portrayals, Franz Fanon argues, are detrimental to Black children.[9]

The way Black Britons, or people of African and Caribbean heritage, have been written about in British history is intentionally marginalising and dehumanising, and as a result, Black students are generally unaware of, or unable to celebrate our backgrounds, to feel proud of our resilience, or reinforce our sense of self. Knowledge of our past is important to   confidence-building, self-awareness and relating to others. Availability of, and access to this knowledge for all students will reduce the sense of isolation experienced by Black people in Britain, and at the same time go some way to redressing the overall ignorance of the general population regarding of the experiences of Black people in Britain.

This article discusses the formation of the Young Historians Project (YHP), a group dedicated to researching and promoting the study of Black British history, and the process through which we have utilised alternative methods of sourcing materials to reveal otherwise hidden histories of Black people in Britain. We address the gaps in the record regarding the presence (or absence) of Black Britons in existing archives, and the obstacles which have generated them, such as unconscious bias of archivists.  We focus on our most recent project, including a rationale for choosing oral history as our methodology as a way to overcome archival deficiencies and construct the narratives of African women in the NHS, and their (up to now) untold life experiences. By articulating the methods and processes to recover and uncover ‘hidden histories’, we are providing the tools for future students to challenge and engage in critical analysis of knowledge production.[10]  Finally, we demonstrate how, by working on our projects and accessing historical materials we have been able to collect, catalogue and share material and perspectives with the wider community, material that can otherwise be difficult to access.

The Young Historians Project

The Young Historians Project is a UK-based group of young, spirited people of African and Caribbean descent who are passionate about history. We came together in the aftermath of the History Matters conference, which was convened in April 2015 and presented damning evidence related to the low enrolment of students of African and Caribbean heritage in undergraduate history courses or in history teaching.[11] Official statistics presented at the conference indicated that history was the third most unpopular subject among Black undergraduates. A year later in 2016 it was estimated that only three Black students were admitted to train as history teachers, and that there were fewer than ten Black PhD history students in the UK. [12]

Young Historian Project in attendance at the British Library in November 2019, ‘Sociology in the Archives: Black and Asian activism by and for young people’. Reproduced with kind permission of the Young Historians Project.

Young Historian Project in attendance at the British Library in November 2019, ‘Sociology in the Archives: Black and Asian activism by and for young people’. Reproduced with kind permission of the Young Historians Project.

From this conference emerged several actions to challenge these unfortunate statistics, one of which was the founding of YHP. While as an organisation, the YHP has several objectives, the most important one to date is to encourage young African and Caribbean people to engage with history. It is vital that we continue the work of our predecessors who have fought for us so that we can speak for ourselves.

At this juncture, we are architects of knowledge production, creating our own community history. Our objectives are to create a space to develop our skills, to engage with a variety of local communities and lift each other up; to uncover and disseminate to the wider world important information about our history, struggles and triumphs. As we collect and construct an archive of untold stories, we are revealing the parts of history absent in school curriculum or obscured from the “official record.” The first project we undertook focussed on the Black Liberation Front. It culminated in the launch of a documentary titled ‘“We Are Our Own Liberators”: The Black Liberation Front 1971-1993’, which highlighted first-hand accounts of Black activism in Britain.[13] It was around this time that stories became more mainstream regarding citizenship and deportation for (primarily) West Indian subjects; and as a result, in acts of support and activism, people began to bring focus to these issues by highlighting the contributions of those of Caribbean descent to Britain, and challenged prevailing ideas about nationality. Acknowledging the severity of the issues facing Caribbean immigrants to Britain, the YHP decided our next project would focus on the journeys of people of African heritage to this country, a group which have been overlooked to date. With celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS imminent, it seemed a good time to develop our next project, ‘A Hidden History: African Women and the British Health Service in the 20th Century’.

Part of the work YHP does involves engaging with organisations and educators undertaking similar work to ours to elevate and support one another. One of many of the workshops our members have taken part in was held at the George Padmore Institute (GPI) in London. George Padmore (1903-1959) was an important community figure and leading Pan-Africanist, based in London during the 1930s-40s, who memorialised the power of organising and resistance throughout his life. According to the GPI website:

The George Padmore Institute (GPI) promotes understanding of Black communities of Caribbean, African and Asian descent in Britain and Europe. It is a London-based archive, library, educational resource and research centre. The archival and library collections capture some of the most important, successful and creative campaigns of resistance organised by Black communities in Britain and Europe from the 1960s to the present. Dealing with anti-racist, anti-imperialist, social, political, cultural and economic struggles, the material is rare or unique, which makes the GPI a vital resource in Britain and globally.[14]

The GPI’s collections fall into two main parts: the archives, which are the historical records of organisations, campaigns, events and individuals (mostly unpublished); and library materials, such as previously published journals and magazines.[15] Resources, such as those found at GPI, which source, preserve and produce material on Black history, are few and far between.

The George Padmore Institute Archives team and Young Historians at the end of the introduction to the GPI. Reproduced with kind permission of Young Historians Project.

Our visit to the GPI included a stimulating presentation on the history of the institute and introduced us to its collections, which includes the records of individuals and organisations that may have otherwise been lost or forgotten, had the archive not intervened. Within the GPI’s rich collection are the names of individuals and organisations who are not sufficiently acknowledged in mainstream historical narratives, even though their influence reached across and far beyond the UK, fully revealing the power of everyday people. Through engagement with the GPI, we were able to benefit from their experience in the building and preserving of archives, and apply that new knowledge to our own work. Additionally, the GPI archivists provided us with numerous materials for both projects we have undertaken to date. Workshops like this allow us as young historians to engage with the materials and work of those who came before us, and with community-led, on-the-ground history. We left the GPI fired with enthusiasm, and immediately ran into what appeared to be an insurmountable barrier. We were to discover that the GPI was a rare resource indeed.

The Problem with Archives

As we began our new project on African women in the NHS we encountered several issues concerning archives and primary sources that hindered our research, and were demonstrative of both the exclusivity and inaccessibility of certain archives. These exclusions and restrictions have in part been fostered and encouraged by governmental practices. The intentional destruction of material produced or held by the UK government has been a tool used to distort and subvert history; to hide or avoid disclosure of controversial contemporary actions. A recent example, which came to light in 2018, is the controversy surrounding the ‘lost’ Windrush landing cards.[16] An earlier example, from the mid-twentieth century, can be found in Operation Legacy, which involved the mass destruction of classified documents in the handover of power from British government in the colonies.[17] The process included the destruction, doctoring and avoidance of any insinuation of racism.[18]  Specifically, under Legacy, documents deemed as sensitive, or which reflected negatively on the government, were altered beyond recognition before the handover was complete. This erasure is a form of repression, as it allows for the writing of a history which misrepresents the institutions themselves. Institutions influence which records are preserved, and which are hidden. Narratives that reflect the dominant group or are seen as more valuable are preserved, while there is a temptation or danger that the opposite can be true for narratives which challenge the establishment. In addition to the deliberate privileging of archival materials of the elite, other issues have an impact on the availability of and public accessibility to comprehensive resources, including the accidental or deliberate miscataloguing of archival material (whether paper-based or online).

Archives are invaluable in what they offer, as Angelika Menne-Haritz describes: ‘Archives do not store memory. But they offer the possibility to create memory. Their function is that of amnesia prevention. They allow us to construct memory, refine it, correct it or reassure it whenever it is needed.’ Due to the abundance of archival material available and in storage, paired with limited funding and personnel to deal with it in the archive sector, there is a time-based risk with any material that has not been preserved or catalogued or digitised.[19] With what has been lost, destroyed or made unavailable, we will always be challenged by significant gaps.

One our frequent practices throughout the project has been to hold sessions at the National Archives at Kew (TNA), in southwest London, the central repository for central government collections. An important barrier to accessing TNA’s physical archives presents itself: physical access involves travel to TNA, which for researchers not based in its immediate proximity can be prohibitively expensive. The requirement to provide an address (and proof of address) to gain a National Archives reader card is a further barrier, which can be intimidating. The ability to search the online catalogue is another barrier, its complexity illustrated by the need for the National Archives community engagement team to run short inductions for all new users in its use.  For any person accessing the archive via the catalogue, it remains a challenge to decipher and take a chance on which catalogue references might be of use when visiting or asking for copies – copies which incur a cost.

One answer to the problems posed by physical access to records is to digitise them, but digitising comes with its own inherent problems. The process of digitising any material in an archive can be surmised by the reflexivity between the archivist and the item itself: the beliefs, vocabulary and practices of the archivist will have a direct impact on the outcome of the data produced in the process of digitisation. There will be a limitation on accessibility to any online archive which is dictated by the details that are relevant to the archivist when cataloguing the material, and how they choose to convey to us as the end-user what that item “is”, pertains to be, looks like, or “offers”, etc. Therefore, we have the limitation (or even danger) of an item in the catalogue not being represented with integrity to a wider audience, which holds different perceptions as to its purpose, nature and value compared to that held by the item’s original cataloguer.[20]

Digitisation is a lengthy and costly process, and it is not an option for all archives. The National Archives has yet to digitise its entire collection, and that which it has digitised is not entirely available through its online catalogue. TNA has been conducting progressive work since the launch of its online catalogue, Discovery, in 2000 and with Project Omega, but even it faces difficulties with what is a positive tool for preserving materials. Archivist Matthew Lyons explains why online access to archival material is a necessity, ‘For people with internet access, it is far easier to click on a web site than to visit a repository and go through the procedures, waiting to examine the records. Digital access also reduces wear and tear on the original documents.’[21] Substantial digitisation of archives such as those held by The National Archives would have a hugely positive impact on organisations like YHP, where members are spread across the country and visiting archives in-person is not always possible.

Although not a direct issue with the archives themselves, issues can arise when attempting to use quantitative sources such as official statistics and qualitative-based reports (hospital records, staff enrolment, training programmes, border cards, etc) to gain an understanding of the presence (or absence) of certain groups within a larger population. Such statistical analysis can be influenced by the methodology chosen by the originator of the study, and how they chose to characterise their subjects: a study of employment practices by a local general practitioner, for example, could be broken down by gender, age and ‘race’, where options for ‘race’ are restricted to ‘White’, ‘White Other’, ‘Black’, ‘Black Other’ etc, but may not truly reflect the identities of the subjects. This problem was regularly encountered when we were reviewing the records of the Bristol Racial Equality Council (BREC) for the African women and the National Health Service project. Records reflected the language and ideologies of the time to define ‘race’ resulting in the grouping together of various ethnic minorities. This particular classification created barriers for our research teams interested in identifying migration patterns from a particular African nation. In another example, researchers attempting to identify African women studying and training in medicine in Britain discovered that while ‘race’ was recorded, country of origin was not.[22]

Problems regarding the subjective preservation of historical material, limited accessibility, and restrictive categorisation pose significant challenges for researchers of ‘hidden’ histories, but alternative approaches can provide some solutions. Whilst these challenges persist for some historians, for others (especially those researching post-second world war social history) the use of oral history methodology can be a lifeline. At YHP, we have found oral history complements our project themes, and sometimes unearths new source material as a result of community and face to face engagements, a subject discussed in more depth later in this article.

Oral history as a tool to reveal hidden histories

Oral history is an excellent tool which can be used to fill gaps in the official record. Sociologist and oral historian Paul Thompson has written extensively about the importance of oral history. Thompson points out that, ‘[Oral history] can be a means for transforming both the content and the purpose of history’; it can ‘change the focus of history itself … open up new areas of inquiry’, and ‘can be used to break down barriers … between generations, between educational institutions and the world outside.’[23] Oral history allows for the highlighting of individual stories and enables personal control over how the history is told. Moreover, as a methodology, oral history encourages conversations and collaboration between historians and their subjects, and between the older and younger generations. It helps to create a shared sense of experience and community, especially in processes of migration and relocation; and can help affirm identity and assert marginalised histories as legitimate. Indeed, as Thompson argues, oral history democratises history by ‘provid[ing] a more realistic and fair reconstruction of the past, [and] a challenge to the established account.’[24] Stuart Davies, a former policy adviser to the Heritage Lottery Fund, an important supporter of community oral history projects, states, ‘Oral history is generally a collaborative, socially interactive tool, particularly pertinent and accessible to village, community or neighbourhood history or heritage groups.’[25] Hence, oral history is a particularly useful tool in creating Black history and for Black communities, as they have traditionally been excluded from participation in mainstream narratives.

Oral history works as a tool to engage local communities in their history, but questions have been raised about the reliability of the resources it produces. Some critics point to the subjective nature of the accounts produced, and to the danger of counterfactual stories, either deliberately constructed to mislead or produced through failure in memory.[26] Its proponents counter that disparity in accounts or oral tales in opposition to written accounts or histories do not obscure the ‘facts’ but provide depth and breadth to our understanding of the times; oral histories offer insight into individuals and how they conceptualised and perceived their experiences.

For all these reasons, oral history was chosen as the key methodology in undertaking our research on African Women in the NHS.  As a YHP member, Perry Blankson, explains: ‘Oral history is a vital tool for any historian. It decentres traditional tools such as the archive, which can often be places of erasure for marginalised people. As well as this, oral history can be much more engaging than ‘standard’ historical production, making history more accessible to non-historians.’[27]  Blankson’s insights are reflected in our project on African women in the NHS.

Origins of the African Women in the Health Service Project

As we mentioned earlier, YHP’s first oral history project focused on the Black Liberation Front (BLF), a Black Power organisation based in London during the late 20th century. We produced a documentary and accompanying exhibition on the BLF’s history. In so doing we highlighted important individuals who were instrumental in Britain’s Black Power movement, and who influenced liberation movements across the world. In the aftermath of conducting this project, we recognised that it had focused heavily on Caribbean voices and experiences, and this excluded the continental African experience of activism and resistance in the UK.

In 2018, the NHS celebrated its 70th anniversary, and against the backdrop of Windrush, this anniversary provided an opportunity to look back on NHS history through a different lens. Many historians and commentators (including the Trades Union Congress and the Royal College of Nursing) used this opportunity to discuss Caribbean workers in the NHS, to counter the damage caused by the Home Office.[28] These conversations about Caribbean migrants, taking place against a backdrop of egregious behaviour by the Home Office, served as the impetus behind YHP’s new project which would focus on African women migrants and their work in the NHS. The new project would be relevant to national memory, attractive to funders and simultaneously provide a platform for the unheard voices of continental African women in the NHS.

During the process of setting up the project, and especially during the application process to the Heritage Lottery fund, YHP received important support from some key organisations such as the Ghana Nurses Association, Nigerian Nurses Charitable Association, Black Cultural Archives and individuals such as Dame Elizabeth Anionwu who all provided momentum to the project.[29] The Heritage Lottery Fund was an obvious target for funding: it values local organisations that ‘engage in recording intangible heritage and … provide volunteers with a means of learning new skills’ and acts ‘as a means of facilitating cross-cultural understanding as well as intergenerational communication’.[30] Recognising that our methodology fulfilled the values of the HLF, YHP submitted a successful application and received funding from the organisation in 2018.  Important to this project was the support of the community, which propelled us forward. Moreover, the HLF and community support legitimised the project, giving prospective interviewees trust in us as historians.

The goal of our project was to collect first-hand accounts of the lives and experiences of African women who worked in the healthcare profession. Like Karen Flynn, who explored the migratory journey of Caribbean nurses from the Caribbean to Canada via the UK, we are also interested in elucidating ‘a more embodied portrait of [African healthcare workers’]  subjectivity beyond that of mere workers and embattled victims of capitalism and White racism.’[31]   Our hope is that our project will both build on, and extend the work of Flynn and other scholars to demonstrate the significance  of African women’s history in Britain and encourage more people to engage in such research.

To ensure that our project was representative of the wide range of African women’s experiences in Britain and the NHS, we included women from a variety of regions, countries, time periods, age groups; and different healthcare professions, such as doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. The breadth of our research was designed to address the imbalance in the telling of Black history in Britain, by drawing attention to the experiences of African migrants in Britain across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Our project asserts the present and historical contributions of women who have been overlooked in history, using oral history and individual experiences to create a new, more representative picture of a multi-racial Britain.

As discussed earlier, oral history can be an important source of new physical material and we were also fortunate to find many women with primary sources of their own, such as their original medical uniforms, certificates, photographs and pamphlets, which we were able to view and, in some cases, share as part of the project. Materials like these are integral to community and local histories, and we hope that more people will contribute, especially digitally, to our growing ‘archive’.

Before starting on our oral history project though, we wanted to discover what we could about earlier African migrants who had arrived in the UK in the early- to mid-twentieth century. As alluded to earlier, when it comes to the archives or primary sources there will always be challenges in finding and interpreting the material, but there are a few ways that we have found to work around this with various data sources. One of our research groups, the Early Women research team, was tasked specifically in uncovering the identities of women who arrived in Britain to study, train and work in health-related areas before, and immediately after, the formation of the NHS, who we would not be able to interview because they are deceased. It was through persistent interrogation of online sources, such as forums and Ancestry, that the team were able to compile a list of African women who made the journey to Britain to work in nursing or other medical fields in the early twentieth century.

We initially began by combing through the General Nursing Register of England & Wales, The Midwives Roll UK and the Medical Register. We then looked at Incoming and Outgoing Passenger Lists as they normally recorded the occupation of the traveller. Since carrying out the project, we have seen how useful community group pages have been in recording their own history. In particular, the Nigerian Nostalgia Project Facebook group has been fruitful in providing us information on African women in the British Health Sector. We saw a post captioned ‘Student nurses Modupe Marke from Freetown, Sierra Leone and Rebecca Solanke of Lagos, Nigeria hold a newborn baby during a midwifery course at the National Training School for Midwives in Woolwich, London. 5th February 1948.’ It was an extremely clear photo of the two nurses, and we decided to search for them on First, we found Rebecca Solanke, in an Incoming Passenger List, which told us she was born in 1915 and she arrived in Southampton from Lagos in 1947 as a qualified midwife. Despite being a qualified midwife in Nigeria, Solanke was required to retrain to the British standard which explains why she took a midwifery course. She ended up completing her nurse training on the 30 July 1953. Her last recorded Outgoing travel was to Nigeria in 1959, when she stated her intended permanent residence for the future was Nigeria. It was quite common for African women to come to the UK to study with the intention of returning home to work.[32]

Even less could be found about Modupe Marke. She is listed in the General Nursing Register as having trained at the Whittington Hospital and St Leonards Hospital in London and as entering the Register in 1957. Her entry illustrates the difficulty of tracing people using sources such as this: in the Register she is referred to as Florence Euginia Modupeh Marke (nee Coker). Whether she arrived as single woman and married once in the UK, or if she was already married when she arrived, is unknown; there is no mention of her in Ancestry’s passenger lists.[33]

These were just two examples which demonstrate some of the methods our members have used as an alternative to the traditional archive method and shows positively how online access and a community of people can piece together hidden histories.

 The Process: before, during and after the interviews

With written material on African women in Britain being limited, as we began to plan our oral history project it was important to decide what questions needed to be asked to fill the gaps in the historical record. As a collective we constructed a list of questions and topics that we intended to research, and in the first few months of the project, we worked together through calls and instant messages to carry out initial research into our themes and topics regarding African Women and the NHS. These would provide us with a baseline of knowledge and some facts to further investigate. Between our project organisers and sponsors, we developed baseline themes which were: migration, health, career, racism, and to identify patterns of behaviour.

We were able to reach out to our first cohort of women through Hakim Adi, consultant historian to, and co-founder of, YHP, and two of our sponsors Dame Elizabeth Anionwu and the Ghanaian Nursing Association. Our first interview, which was with Esther Adi (a former nurse and current social worker), was used as a case study to produce a list of questions to take into future interviews. Subsequently, between this first engagement with Esther Adi and subsequent interviews and workshops on oral history techniques, we were able to identify shortcomings in our approach. The methodology required flexibility and an acknowledgement – even emphasis on – the intersubjectivity created between each woman and her interviewer. Having a standard set of questions is good practice to initiate conversations on a set theme and to produce standard outputs; but, in not building a nuanced understanding and appreciation for each interviewee, we were not engaging in our due diligence to each woman. To that end, in subsequent interviews we adjusted our approach, utilising similar language to our interviewees, shared cultural references, and even cross-generational references, to produce more meaningful interactions. How we as subject and interviewee came together with a shared understanding and purpose of elevating the voices of Black African women, was important to us, and as such we created a space for participatory dialogue. Put simply, participatory dialogue from the bottom-up and a growing rapport of shared experiences, intentions and understanding of the world around us has a direct impact on the quality of interview.

Thus, the initial interview with Ester had a direct impact on the process we finally adopted and highlighted the need for reflexivity and intentional engagement with the women we were interviewing, to develop our research scope.

We have carried out interviews with 35 women since the project began in 2018, beginning with their arrivals in the UK ranging from the 1950s to the 2000s, if they were not born in the UK. The interviewees are predominantly of West African origin, such as Ghanaian and Nigerian; and although we made a concerted effort to increase the diversity and managed to find interviewees from South Africa, Ethiopia, Egypt and more, we would still have liked a higher percentage from these countries, and from countries that did not make the list. But what we are building is a working framework for a growing online archive where women can contribute material and stories; our online exhibition will act as a store for our interviews, images, research on historic women, and more.

In the interviews, the women discuss the experiences of migrating, training and work, relationships with their home nations, experiences of racism, among other topics. Putting a face and a voice to their journeys, there is authority in these perspectives which also allowed for self-representation. The women we interviewed have lived through the experiences they recount, and by presenting them via oral testimony, it brings to life what is an important aspect of Black British history.

The use of a single lens camera with a handful of young historians behind it and an elder in front affords viewers of the recordings the privilege of being in a trusted space alongside us as we listen carefully and extract history. It provides the audience with a brief window into each woman’s lived experiences, which challenges them to consider the nuances and uniqueness of each journey taken. It bridges the gap between the private and public and relates the individual experience to a community of shared experiences and cultural patterns. The process of interviewing also enabled us to break down generational gaps between interviewer and narrator: our interviewers are all between the ages of 16 to 25, and the interviews have opened a dialogue between multiple generations and members of the Black British community, allowing collaboration across age and cultural boundaries. Through interviewing women from a wide variety of backgrounds, we have been able to uncover histories that would otherwise have remained untold outside of their families and community.

Margaret Iyatunde Williams and her daughter Joanna Brown. Reproduced with kind permission of Joanna Brown.

One interview that particularly displays the benefits of inter-generational potential of oral history in both a familial and academic context is that of Joanna Brown. Joanna is the daughter of Margaret Iyatunde Williams, a nurse from Sierra Leone who travelled to Britain in 1960. After Margaret passed away, Joanna studied English at university and is now a primary school teacher. Through a combination of her mother’s stories and her own research, Joanna has been able to share Margaret’s stories with the Young Historians Project. In the following quote from her interview, Joanna recounts what her mother had told her about her experiences of coming to the UK from Sierra Leone:

I’m sure this is a very common experience really. I mean there’s a level on which you’re working as a nurse and you have that sort of pride in your own work, the uniform and the kudos that carries with it, but that’s one side of it and I think there are lots of people who understand that that’s a profession that should be respected, but on the other hand you know working in Britain as an African nurse inevitably you’re also going to have these kind of experiences of racism as well and she certainly encountered those kind of individual experiences of people insulting her or not wanting to be touched by her. It’s something that I felt she kind of brushed off to be honest, I think she was sort of dismissive of those kinds of experiences because in her mind her duty was to all of her patients and I get the impression from the way in which she talked about their experiences that … she somehow found a way of cutting through that kind of prejudice and dismissing it to the extent that she could still treat those people with [good] intention and commitment and care.[34]

If Margaret had not shared her life stories with her daughter, and if we had not been able to interview Joanna, it is likely that Margaret’s story and her contribution as an African woman to the NHS would have gone unrecognised outside of her family and community. Through our project, we are able to memorialise Margaret, her life and her work as a nurse, along with the other women interviewed.


A behind the scenes shot of a Young Historian conducting an interview in the house of interviewee. Reproduced with kind permission of the Young Historians Project

The Importance of Reflection

A fundamental aspect of the YHP process is to learn, teach and develop our knowledge and skills as we progress with our research projects.  As such, we have held numerous workshops on oral history, interviewing skills, utilising the archives, producing podcasts, and conducting research. The workshop (in summer 2019) on interviewing and oral history covered both the practicalities and historiography of the method and proved particularly illuminating. At this stage we had already completed a number of interviews and reviewed the transcripts.  The workshop allowed us to reflect on our methods, what we had learnt and how we could improve.

Young Historian Project ran a workshop in 2019 on how to complete interviews and use filming equipment. Each member took turns as interviewer, interviewee, sound technician and camera technician to get used to the process. Reproduced with kind permission of Young Historians’ Project

As we listened to the interviews, and read the transcripts, our members were able to identify moments when the interviewees censored themselves or held back. This self-censorship could have many roots: perhaps a reflection of the interviewee’s personality, or difficulty with discussing certain topics, or how the interviewee chose to approach a question they were unsure how to answer. This reflection then led to new guidelines and support for sensitive or awkward topics or discussions. Capturing a person’s life history can be challenging: we are faced, in effect, by two people: the person the interviewee is in the present and the person they are building from memory, and this can have varying results. Some women recounted tales as though their historical self was a separate individual from their present self and expressed thoughts and feelings they had held at the time, before recounting how the present version of themselves perceived events. Other women provided narratives as a reflection and evaluation of past events. In that moment, we were students considering how life history and oral history as a methodology could elicit varying dialogues in style and content. The subjects’ ages, country of origin, religion, etc. could produce contrasting experiences and we had the responsibility to probe and capture their subjectivities.

Overall, we emerged from this workshop with much to consider as young historians, and we were driven to ask new questions, to engage with more thorough pre-interview calls and to build and maintain rapport with each woman – after all many of these women were friends or family members of current and past YHP members, or friends of friends. The process solidified our organization’s decision to use oral history to complement our research; and as a methodology, it has proved fruitful where written primary sources have been lacking or difficult to access.

These interviews have revealed that African women had a range of experiences working for the NHS. We listened to their stories about journeying to Britain, whether as children or adults; their experiences of settling in and dealing with culture shock and their educational experiences in school or higher education institutions. We have learned about the women’s professional careers, from training in Africa and Britain to being employed in hospitals, clinics and pharmacies, and qualifying in their chosen specialties. They have shared their experiences of racism and prejudice from the public, colleagues, and patients; but these healthcare workers have also shared fond memories and warm relationships forged at home and at work. In the Black tradition of “lifting as we climb,” the women gave advice to young Black people in Britain today, offering words of encouragement and motivation based on their own experiences to help the next generation of Black Britons.[35]


The YHP was formed in response to the low level of engagement of Black students in Britain with history at school and university, and its objective is to stimulate interest in the history of Black people in Britain among the Black community, by producing histories which are relevant to them. In the course of our work, we have explored the omission of Black people’s contributions to the history of Britain; and the problems with archives and the dominance of self-interested parties in creating what histories do exist in which Black people are only represented as sources of labour or as ‘raw materials’. Given the invisibility of African women’s contributions to the NHS and to British society at large, we decided to create an oral history project to enable a cohort of African women to tell their own stories and engage us in conversation. As these interviews progressed and patterns emerged from the tales of their journey, our project flourished, and we discovered new information and areas of research not yet covered. In addition to incorporating the voices of women whose stories would have remained untold if it were not for the YHP project, the project also provided an opportunity for the reclaiming of history-telling for the Black population. The project is testament to the fact that we are our own historians.  YHP has made it possible for this group of women to tell their own stories, confident in the knowledge that we are dedicated to presenting their stories as authentically as possible, and that our fundamental goal is to make their voices heard. We are also contributing to the current shortage of resources by producing materials for people of different age groups and backgrounds to engage with the topic. Our ultimate goal is to encourage the production of more research into, and discussion of, African people’s contribution to Britain.

As a result of the project, we were able to accumulate a collection of photographs and documents (including documents pertaining to their training and qualifications) provided by the interviewees that serves to authenticate their experiences in the NHS. Without the YHP project, these photographs and documents would likely have remained in private collections, much like their verbal stories, forever unavailable as historical sources.

or YHP, the project has been a positive experience that we can use to pave the way forward. We utilised non-traditional sources to bridge the gap between communities’ histories and the ‘official’ archives, through intergenerational dialogue; and at the same time have constructed an accessible online resource that can continue to grow and be added to. All the interviewee transcriptions will be available for future researchers and interested parties, alongside our interview summary pages and highlights from the interviews.  In addition, a gallery of the images we have acquired and have permission to share will be available on our website. We will also have a timeline of key events and summary reports including additional themes; and we hope users will contribute, feedback amendments and continue adding to our growing resource as it will only benefit us all – especially future historians.

The subjective preservation of historical material, limited accessibility and restrictive categorisation of material continue to challenge historians. Our digital approach has been both out of necessity and a revelation of the power of the internet in sharing resources. Through digitisation and concerted efforts to engage with lesser utilised material encouraging research and preservation, we can unearth sources and bring to life areas of history that are overlooked. In a challenge to voices unheard and material yet to be found, we can engage with oral history methodology as a legitimate tool for historians in producing new narratives and presenting new perspectives of the past that encompass the experiences of all those involved, especially the previously marginalised. Through oral history and the improved preservation of source material, we can create history that is authentic, representative, and collaborative.

In wrapping up the final phase of our project, from June to August 2021 we completed a series of digital launch events including an online exhibition and a preview of material generated. Recordings of the various launch events can be found on our YHP Vimeo site (Https:// and the online exhibition is available on our website ( The YHP is also working on e-book based on the project which will be launched soon; extracts from the e-book can be found on the YHP Vimeo site (  When circumstances permit (in these Covid times) we hope to host an in-person event to showcase our documentary series and share a space with our interviewees who made the project what it is. Finally, we look forward to sharing our material with others, hopefully it will move the conversation forward and encourage others to contribute to the written works on African women in Britain.[36]


[1] Texts which have covered these specific areas of contention include Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era (New York: Cornell University Press,1997); Onyeka Nubia, Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England: Their Presence, Status and Origins (Narrative Eye, 2013); and Olivette Otele African Europeans: An Untold History (London: Hurst Publishers, 2020). Contemporary issues of whitewashing of the national curriculum have been discussed in various articles such as:

[2] Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: the Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (London: Hutchinson, 1987); ‘The Peculiarities of the Black English’ in Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures, London, Serpent’s Tail (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1993). Stuart Hall’s work has been brought together in a recent compilation of essays, introduced by Paul Gilroy and edited by Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore: Selected Writings on Race and Difference, a collection of essays by Stuart Hall ed. by Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2021). ‘The Young Englanders’ was originally published by the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants in 1967; ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ was originally published in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference ed. by Jonathan Rutherford (Chadwell Heath: Laurence & Wishart, 1990). Chapters by Hall and Gilroy also appear in Black British Culture and Society: A Text Reader ed. by Kwesi Owusu (Abingdon: Routledge, 2000).

[3] Julian Rappaport, ‘Community narratives: Tales of terror and joy’, American Journal of Community Psychology 28 (2000), 1–24.

[4] Patricia Ewick and Susan Silbey, ‘Subversive stories and hegemonic tales: Toward a sociology of narrative’, Law and Society Review 29 (1995), 197–226.

[5] Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture, Nobel Prize, (1993) Available at: [Accessed 30th April 2021].

[6] Yasmin Khan, ‘Refugees, Migrants, Windrush and Brexit’, in Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain, ed. by Stuart Ward and Astrid Rasch (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), 101-11.

[7] Examples of scholars who, while providing ground-breaking research and insights into the history of Caribbean people in Britain, demonstrate an academic prioritisation of Caribbean experiences in Britain over those of the African migrant, include Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips (Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, 1998) and Winston James and Clive Harris (Inside Babylon: The Caribbean Diaspora in Britain, 1993).

[8] A similar phenomenon was described by late-twentieth century feminist historians describing the ‘othering’ or maginalisation of ‘women’s history’ in university history curricula. See for instance, the debate between June Purvis and Penny Corfield in Rethinking History, 1997 and 1999.

[9] Frantz Fanon Black Skin, White Masks, trans from French by Charles L Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967).

[10] Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden from History. Rediscovering Women in History from the 17th Century to the Present (London: Pluto Press, 1974).

[11] History Matters was formed in 2014 by a group of black historians concerned by the very low representation of people of African and Caribbean heritage among the community of history students and teachers. For information about the group’s activities and upcoming conference see


[13] The documentary film ‘We are our own Liberators’ which was produced from the project can be viewed on the YHP website:

[14] George Padmore 2021. George Padmore Institute – Archive. Available at:  [Accessed 30 April 2021].

[15] Ibid.

[16] Amelia Gentleman, 2018. Home Office destroyed Windrush landing cards, says ex-staffer. The Guardian. Available at:  [Accessed 30 April 2021].

[17] Ian Cobain, ‘Revealed: the bonfire of papers at the end of Empire’, The Guardian, 29 November 2013.  Available at:  [Accessed 30 April 2021].

[18] Shohei Sato, ‘Operation Legacy: Britain’s Destruction and Concealment of Colonial Records Worldwide, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 45/4 (2017), 697-719. Available at: [Accessed 29 May 2021].

[19] Angelika Menne-Haritz, ‘Access: the reformulation of an archival paradigm’, Archival Science 1 (2001), 59.

[20] For a discussion of the ‘power’ of the archivist and the impact of their conscious and unconscious decisions on what is collected and made accessible and what is not, see for instance: Joan M Schwartz and Terry Cook, ‘Archives, Records, and Power: the making of modern memory, Archival Science 2/1 (2002), 1-19.

[21] Matthew Lyons, ‘K-12 Instruction and digital access to archival materials’, Journal of Archival Organization (2002), 19-34.

[22] Bristol Archives,, Records of the Bristol Racial Equality Council (BREC). Available at:  [Accessed 1 April 2021].

[23] Paul Thompson and Joanna Bornat, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, 4th ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[24] Thompson and Bornat, The Voice of the Past, 6. As Paul Thompson also points out, oral history offers a second opportunity to expand the archive as a result of the opportunity provided, through dialog between the historian and the subject, to bring new sources and documents to light from personal collections, that ‘would not otherwise have been traced.’ Thompson and Bornat, The Voice of the Past, 5.

[25] Stuart Davies, ‘A Million Before the Millennium: Oral History and the Lottery’, (2000), Oral History, 28/1 (2000), 10, cited in Graham Smith, ‘A Short History of the Oral History Society c. 1973–2013’ (2013)  Available at:  [Accessed 30th April 2021].

[26] Ron Grele ‘Can Anyone over Thirty Be Trusted: A Friendly Critique of Oral History’, Oral History Review 6 (1978), 36-44.

[27] Conversation with Perry Blankson, Young Historian Project member (May 2021) when asked about the importance of oral history.

[28] Numerous blogs were posted at the time discussing the link between Windrush and the birth of the NHS, many from public bodies and organisations including the NHS itself, the Royal College of Nursing and the Trades Union Council.

[29] Dame Elizabeth Anionwu is a pioneer in the British medical world, born in Birmingham in 1947 of Nigerian and Irish heritage, she started her career as a nurse and health visitor before going on to dedicate her time and efforts to Sickle Cell and Thalassaemia research and community engagement.  See also Elizabeth’s own website: and in her memoir Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union (2016).

[30] Smith, ‘A Short History of the Oral History Society’.

[31] Karen Flynn, ‘“I’m not your typical nurse”: Caribbean nurses in Britain and Canada’, Women’s History Magazine 69 (Summer 2012), 26-35. NB Karen Flynn’s article is reproduced in this issue of the UKAHN Bulletin.

[32] Lamesha Ruddock, Young Historians Project (May 2021) on the Early Women research project. Source: Ancestry Passenger Lists and General Nursing Council of England and Wales, Register of Nurses 1953-54.

[33] Alex Bailey-Smith, YHP project. Ancestry, General Nursing Council of England and Wales, Register of Nurses 1957-58.

[34] Joanna Brown, interviewed by Ribeka Seyoum, Young Historians Project, May 2020.

[35] The motto ‘lifting as we climb’ was first invoked by the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in the US in the late nineteenth century, which reflected their belief that by elevating their status as community leaders, black women could elevate the status of their entire communities.

[36] Our exhibition launch programme can be viewed on our website: and you can follow us on Twitter for updates of the project on the handle @yhp_uk.