As the first African to be elected a Lewisham councillor, first elected in 1990, I am privileged and proud to reflect on the progress we have made in this borough over the past three decades. Needless to say, I was a political activist both here and in Kent where I lived before moving to London. Many things have changed since but my political alliance remained and will remain constant.
I have been a local councillor for over 30 years. During that time, I served on various committees. I was Chair of the Community Affairs, Voluntary Sector Grants and CYP Scrutiny committees. In the past we also had a Race Committee and, then an Equalities Committee, both of which I also chaired. In 1995 I took part in Outreach Africa, a project to support development, particularly in post-apartheid South Africa. It was as the Chair of Race Committee that I had the honour of welcoming to Lewisham Her Majesty the Queen as joint patron, with Nelson Mandela, of Africa Jubilee Year. When I was introduced to His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh as Chair of Race Committee, his question to me was “what race, bicycle race or horse race?” I responded “human race, Sir”.
One of my most treasured memories was to initiate the adoption of Black History Month in our borough and it is to my great contentment that the celebration of this event in the month of October has continued until this day. The commitment I made and which was agreed at a subsequent full council meeting was that this authority would always acknowledge the rich history of its black and ethnic minority population with a month of events showcasing the talents and skills of our diverse community. Lewisham was one of the first of the 32 London Boroughs, after the Greater London Council, to start celebrating Black History Month.
The launch of Black History Month in those days was a great occasion, in which the hall was packed with members of British and European parliaments, in addition to other great dignitaries from within and beyond the Borough of Lewisham. We were also treated to cultural performances and a lavish reception.
There is a plaque commemorating the opening of the Black History Month in the civic foyer just outside the council chamber. We were fortunate on various occasions during the launch of Black History Month to have such luminaries as the Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize for literature, to perform the opening ceremony for us. We also have had Clive Lloyd, former West Indies Cricket Captain, and Her Excellency Cheryl Carolus, the first black female South African High Commissioner, appointed to the Court of St James following the end of Apartheid. It is clear therefore, Lewisham Council has always taken seriously the celebration of Black History Month.
It is my passionate belief that a knowledge of black history not only raises awareness but in the context of local authorities will allow, in future, for the local contributions by local people to receive due acknowledgement. By ensuring an annual event on black history, in time, these contributions will be recognised. Black history is not only important for the indigenous white population but it is also vital for our black and minority ethnic populations. It is particularly important for our youth who are the future of this country. They need to see and understand the contributions of their people in bringing the ‘Great’ to Great Britain and making Great Britain a truly multi-racial nation, with rich diversities that benefit us all.
It is very important therefore that in spite of declining resources, we are able to continue this tradition and that the event remains on our calendar. I am very proud to have been the initiator of this important event, which recognises the contribution made by BAME population to the richness of life in Lewisham.