Historical Notes: The black middle class has a history

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The Independent Culture
THIS SUMMER's celebrations of the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 honoured the Jamaican settlers it carried to Britain, but how many people know that there has been a black presence in Britain for centuries?

They appear, sometimes indistinct, in major aspects of Britain's history - Samuel Johnson's friend Francis Barber, sailors on the Victory with Nelson, Charles Darwin's teacher of taxidermy in 1820s Edinburgh, the Crimean War nurse Mary Seacole, the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor are some examples.

The men, women and children of African birth or descent who lived in Britain at the beginning of this century - at the high noon of empire, when whites ruled the world - included people in every social group, but the black middle class has been largely overlooked. Despite Coleridge- Taylor's father's being a London-trained doctor born in Sierra Leone, few have investigated the trail of evidence that is left by a property- owning, privately educated, servant-employing, professionally qualified person.

Thus these black doctors, lawyers, businessmen, dentists, authors, local councillors and civil servants have disappeared from history. What can explain this?

There has been a grand deception: the emphasis is that black people in Britain are migrants - an emphasis that the Windrush celebrations have not diminished. A second, more insidious, deception is that black people are manual workers, people with few skills that fit a modern economy, who could find employment in labour-intensive industries such as public transport, factories, sewing, cleaning, catering. As the British economy changes these newcomers have to adapt or return. They are temporary and do not belong.

Any evidence of positive contributions to British society would challenge that view: as would evidence of an earlier and stable presence.

Well-intentioned historians have added to the blacks-are-migrants stereotype when detailing the leaders of many anti-imperial movements in Africa and the Caribbean, for the independence movements were often led by individuals who had studied in Britain. Their years in Britain are presented as a prelude to the years of struggle. Who recalls Hastings Banda of Malawi as a middle-class Londoner? He was a doctor in London for over a decade. Others traced include James Jackson Brown, a Jamaican, who settled in London to study medicine and work at the London Hospital. He organised a cricket team, was host to younger students, and developed a thriving practice in Hackney where he was recalled with great respect decades after he died.

The ambitions of Britain's black middle class encompassed all those of the larger society. They were active in voluntary work and attended meetings of societies both professional and relating to their hobbies. They won elections and served on councils, attended church and taught at Sunday schools, sent their children to private schools and applauded their success on the sports field. Their children had music lessons and acquired other refinements.

Does it matter that the doctor son of the Jamaican-born Dr Goffe was a friend of the writers A.A. Milne and E.V. Lucas, that Henry Downing wrote plays or that Dr Alcindor was deeply interested in tuberculosis? Yes, yes - yes, indeed. Such is the deeply racist nature of Britain today that those involvements would be seen as positive aspects of black people in 1998.

It is necessary to remind ourselves that there was - and is - a black middle class. We should consider why such an ambitious and successful section of British society has been forgotten.

Jeffrey Green is the author of `Black Edwardians: black people in Britain 1901-1914' (Frank Cass, pounds 18.50)

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