Andy Hamilton was one of the first Jamaicans to come to Britain in the post-war years, arriving here in 1949. A saxophonist, he had spent a few years gigging in America. He came to Birmingham to see a friend, expecting to return to the States. Nearly 50 years later he is still here. "I just came to love the place," he says.
Leela Taheer came to Britain almost a decade after Hamilton. She was just three, but remembers well her arrival. "My father had come to Britain three years earlier. My mother was expecting me at that time. When my father met us at the airport, it was the first time he had seen me - or that I had met my father."
Andy and Leela are among hundreds of black people whose photographs are part of a unique exhibition at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. The exhibition, called Being Here, is based around the work of Ernest Dyche, a portrait photographer who worked extensively with Birmingham's black communities during the Fifties and Sixties. The 10,000 photos in Dyche's collection, which are now held in Birmingham City Library, incidentally document the development of a new black community. A local black arts group, The Drum, has recognised their significance and organised the exhibition as a fascinating history of black people in Birmingham. While the current exhibition only shows photos from the Fifties, future exhibitions will display works from subsequent decades.
The photographs are striking for their formal, elegiac quality. Most were taken to be sent home to relatives and friends. For newly arrived immigrants, such photographs provided tangible evidence that they really belonged here and were part of British life.
The England to which the first-generation immigrants came was very different from the England of their imaginations. Colonial schools taught English history, English geography and English culture. "We knew more about this country," says Hamilton, "than most of the people calling us 'blackie' or 'nigger'." But the reality of England was often startling. Many immigrants were bemused by local accents, having believed that all English people spoke in clipped, upper-class tones. Others, coming from lands in which only black people performed manual work, could not understand why white people were scrubbing floors or navvying.
Most black people in Birmingham had come to work in the foundries. West Indians were also recruited to work on the buses or in the newly created NHS; but such jobs were usually denied to Asians, who often could not speak English. A small group of Asians worked, remarkably, as door-to- door salesmen. Leela's father was one: "He used to sell clothes mainly to Jamaicans. One shoulder was lower than the other because of the heavy suitcase he had to carry." Eventually, he started making clothes, rather than selling them, and opened up the first Asian shop in Ladypool Road, which eventually became a thriving Asian commercial centre. "He opened the way for the other Asians," remembers Leela.
Memories of the Fifties are striking for the mixture of raw racism and genuine integration experienced by the first generation of black immigrants. "People used to stare at us," remembers Hamilton. "On buses, children used to shout, 'Mummy there's a blackie over there.'" Colour bars were the norm. "No blacks, No dogs, No Irish" was a common sign in boarding houses. Dance halls such as the Birmingham Mecca and the Scala in Wolverhampton refused entry to single black men or to black men with white partners. Local papers whipped up prejudice. "The 'Little Harlems' Must Go" claimed the front-page headline of the Evening Despatch, in February 1955. A few years later, the same paper ran a feature on "The Problems of City's Coloured People" headlined "A 'Little Jamaica' Can be Danger" (sic).
Yet, despite such naked racism, there was a surprising degree of integration between the black and white communities. The Dyche photographs also show that mixed relationships were common, not just between Afro-Caribbeans and whites, but between Asians and whites too. "At a practical level, people just got on with their lives," says Pevaiz Khan, the exhibition curator, whose own parents came to Birmingham in the Fifties, and some of whose family photos are in the exhibition. "And that meant friendships, relationships, marriages. Many of the women who married black men were Irish, and themselves knew all about prejudice."
Andy Hamilton, who set up a band and organised multiracial dances, himself married a local woman, Mary. Leela, too, remembers the friendship and support her family received from white neighbours. "They helped us settle in. Mum could not speak English, and so they helped her out shopping and with other things. Everybody was so nice, so friendly."
Andy and Leela did not know the photographs existed until they spotted them in an article about the exhibition in a local paper. Leela can be seen here on the far left of the second picture from the left in the top row. (Andy's picture, which is in the exhibition, is not shown here.) The other pictures here are as yet unidentified, although the exhibition organisers are hoping that people will come forward with information about them.
"It's very exciting," says Leela. "It's a part of my history that I had almost forgotten."
! "Being Here" can be seen at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery until 16 June (10am-5pm, Monday-Saturday; 12.30-5pm, Sunday; admission free). If you have information that you would like to share about the identities of the people in the pictures, telephone Drum on 0121-693 3616.Reuse content