Last month was Black History Month in the United Kingdom – a time when we look back and celebrate the huge contribution people of African and African Caribbean heritage have made to our rich and diverse Borough of Lewisham and beyond.
We cannot celebrate Black History Month without first acknowledging the contribution of some key individuals amongst the hundreds of unsung heroes in our communities. The abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-1797) notably lived in Blackheath. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, awarded Freedom of the Borough, was one of our more notable residents in Grove Park in the 1970’s. Former Civic Mayor and another Freedom of the Borough recipient Mrs Sybil Phoenix OBE have both contributed much to Lewisham. Likewise, the late Asquith Gibbes MBE, the first Principal Race Equality Officer in the Borough who chaired Lewisham Community Police Consultative Group for 18 years. Asquith worked closely with the late Andy Hawkins former Civic Mayor, Council Leader and Freeman of the Borough, to progress good race relations in Lewisham.
The Labour Party has a proud history of promoting representation of our diverse communities in both local government and in Parliament. In 1987 Diane Abbott, the late Bernie Grant and Lord Paul Boateng were elected as MPs for the Labour Party, representing an historic leap forward. Lord Boateng later became the first black Cabinet Minister in history when he was appointed as the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health in 2001, Labour’s Baroness Amos became the first black woman to be a Cabinet Minister when she was appointed as International Development Secretary, in 2007 she became the first ethnic minority person to lead the House of Lords.
Historically the Labour Party has always been at the forefront of tackling racial discrimination in the UK. In 1965 the Race Relations Act, now 50 years old, was passed, The Act outlawed discrimination on the “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins” in public places. The Act was strengthened in 1968 by the Labour government making it illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins – criminalising the everyday discrimination that used to see signs on rented houses saying ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs’. It was again a Labour Government who strengthened protections by passing the 1976 Race Relations Act which outlawed racial discrimination and harassment in the work place.
Labour has a proud history locally in Lewisham too. In 1957 the Labour MP for Deptford Sir Leslie Plummer introduced the Racial Discrimination bill to Parliament, the bill aimed to make discrimination on racial ground illegal. Leslie Plummer said in a debate in the House of Common on May 10th 1957 “Surely our responsibility… is to take the necessary steps to see that that injustice ceases, and ceases immediately.”
Local Black History Month celebrations were launched with a flag raising at the Civic Suite in Catford attended by Damien Egan, Mayor of Lewisham, and the mayoress, Barbara Gray. Throughout October, we hosted events filled with music, literature, craft, cooking and more, all inspired by people of African and Caribbean decent and their cultures.
Councillor Jonathan Slater, Cabinet Member for the Community Sector, said, ‘It’s of great importance that we pay tribute to the rich history of our black and ethnic minority communities, especially in one of the most ethnically diverse local authority areas in the country.”