New Heritage Centre in Deptford, South London

Devon Thomas, one of the most active members of the Ubele Ciritcal Friends Group, launched a new heritage centre last weekend, in Foreshore, Deptford, (which is hidden on the edge of Pepy’s estate), as part of our Black History Month celebrations.

The important resource is housed in a 300+year old warehouse formerly used to house sugar resulting from the labour of slaves in the Caribbean region.

The centre which is located on the Thames river front, will house a wide range of information and material which highlights South London’s key role in supporting the continuation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It will link closely with national and regional institutions including the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

The launch event covered important aspects of the history of black people in this part of London. I arrived just as the group had gone on a local historical walk with Devon. There seemed to be a lot of surprise not only at the  extent of the history, our history as African and Caribbean people in London, just on our door steps (my own family lived for almost 40 years in a house in Evelyn Street, directly opposite the estate), but also that it largely remains hidden even to this day. Hence the need for such a centre – which needs our / your continued support!

I was asked to contribute to the programme and reminisced about my experiences growing up in Lewisham…I now call my story that of, the ‘Children of Windrush’ I am deeply curious for us to share our stories, as part of the Ubele dialogue. We need to be able to share these through the eyes of the child. (see below for more on that story).

I also spoke about the need for us to capture our family history as it unfolds – we are (whether we like to think about it or not), our family ancestors of tomorrow!

I urged people to make notes of proper and pet names, dates and places of birth, any baptisims, marriages etc., of all living family members and then work backwards. I was also able to share information about how to access Caribbean records free of charge, such as through the Mormon Family History Centre in Kensington (and no, you don’t need to be a Mormon!) – I and large numbers of black people tracing their roots, have used their excellent resource on numerous occasions.

I wrote ‘My Big Question’ article a year ago (last November), and dialogue about the work we need to do as a community has started in earnest and the Ubele initiative was born as a result.

Another big questions I am now holding (which can be reflected on within Ubele)  is…’what did we experience as children growing up in in England during the 1950’s – 1970’s? How was it for us as Children of Windrush?’

Several of those children’s stories will undoubtedly be painful ( regarding to the challenges experienced within family life, as well as the type of treatment we were subjected to as children from the host community). However my deeply held belief is that many more will be stories of perseverance, survival and indeed that we emerged triumphant over adversity.

Though born and brought up in South London, I can still remember my five older siblings arriving from Jamaica, and our experiences for example, in poor and often over crowded housing (and even when we owned our own homes we often had white ‘sitting tenants’ in a part of the house – ours lived downstairs). Also within the British school system – those experiences of labelling, stereotyping, exclusion and direct racist attacks to name a few. However, I also remember with relative fondness extended family gatherings in homes on Sunday, summer coach outings (where the coach would invariably either break down or get lost (or both) and the setting up of sound systems we got there and my mother (who passed recently aged 90 years), creating Jamaican and English dishes, sewing and mending clothes for us to make ends meet. My own family upbringing left me with a unique ‘fusion’ of Jamaican and English culture (with Yoruba and Zulu culture added over the past 20 years to form an incredibly rich mix).

How these and so many other experiences (positive and not so positive) shape who we are as African and Caribbean people in England today needs to be part of the big conversation our community enters into…I am deeply curious about our Future (which is what Ubele means in Swahili),…though I might be somewhat biased..I believe we avoid such deep and challenging, but wholly necessary conversations at our peril……

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