“I have not come here to be insulted by a set of wretches, every brick in whose infernal town is cemented with an African’s blood.”
So George F. Cooke, 18th Century actor, is supposed to have responded to an audience admonishing him for being obviously drunk at Liverpool’s Theatre Royal, Williamson Square sometime in the early 1770s.
|Theatre Royal, Williamson Square. |
Source: The Internet Archive and University of Toronto.
Though the building no longer exists, the story lingers to remind us of the truth of Liverpool’s unquestioned central role in one of the major forces that shaped the world as we know it today.
The Shakespeare Theatre.
Over a century later, in another theatre- The Shakespeare - a stone’s throw away, a young Black American actor was appearing in a play in which his character was required to whistle. He was totally incapable of doing this, so he was asked to sing instead. Somewhere on Fraser Street, Liverpool, where there is now only a car park, was heard on the professional stage for the first time, the glorious voice of Paul Robeson.
Charles Wotten plaque
Image: Dan Lewis
One wonders how welcome Robeson felt on that his first visit to the city, for only three years earlier - June 5, 1919, the city had witnessed a race riot in which a young Black man was chased by a mob into the river at Queen’s Dock, pelted with rocks, and drowned. His name was Charles Wotten, and he has been memorialized on a plaque on a three-foot-high stone dock bollard since early 2017. Some may consider it unsatisfactory that Liverpool’s first race riot of the 20th century - and its only victim - should be marked in so remote and seemingly so insignificant a spot, but that was not always the case. In 1974, with support from Liverpool City Council and in recognition of the fact that there was poor representation of Black people in higher education, the Charles Wootton [sic] College for Further Education was set up, and it catered primarily to Black people from the Liverpool 8 area, and the city. “The Charlie,” as locals called it, was housed in a converted Georgian building at 248 Upper Parliament Street and became something of a landmark in the city: one that not only kept the young man’s name alive, but also became a symbol for Black self-help and advancement in a city that has always struggled with its slave-trading history. Sadly, the Charlie closed its doors in 1994, for reasons too numerous and complex to address here, seemingly reflecting a halt in the progress that it represented. The building is now an anonymous block of flats, with no indication that it was ever a significant part of Liverpool’s Black History.
Stanley House Youth
Source: Liverpool 8 and Liverpool 1
Old Photos Group (facebook)
At its height, it provided activities and facilities for all ages, literally from cradle to grave. In its basement, a Black vocal group called The Chants was formed in the early 1960s.
They so impressed two white musicians that they persuaded the singers to let their group of four white boys be their opening act in one of their gigs some weeks later.
The Derelict Stanley House
replaced by Gladstone Court
Source: Philip Mayer, flickr
John Lennon and Paul McCartney, like countless other white musicians, had also been regular attendees at many of the dozens of clubs on and around Upper Parliament Street – like the Gladray, The Pink Flamingo, The Beacon, The Somali, Rachael’s, The Nigerian, where Black musicians from Liverpool and beyond, played all kinds of music from the US, the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere - on their way to creating what would eventually become known as the Mersey Beat. It is likely however that most tourists travelling from the Cavern Club or the Beatles Museum to Penny Lane would drive along Upper Parliament Street or Princes Avenue without realizing how much modern Pop Music was spawned behind the facades and in the basements of the buildings they were driving past.
The father of the founder of the aforementioned group, The Chants, had first arrived in Liverpool from the Gold Coast (Ghana) around 1930, and soon became organist and choirmaster at a church called The African Churches Mission, started in 1931 by a Nigerian man called Pastor Daniels Ekarte. From the Mission, Pastor Daniels provided food and shelter to the poor of the Dingle area of Toxteth, to many Black immigrants who found themselves homeless or destitute, and to children abandoned by white mothers because they were the result of liaisons with Black men, some of them American GIs stationed nearby in WWII. For 35 years, he heroically continued with this work despite being repeatedly denied assistance from the City Council, and finally the Mission was demolished in 1964. In the early 2000s, a housing association built a block of flats on that site. It would have been nice if they had named it after Pastor Daniels, but they didn’t.
|John Archer Hall|
Many immigrants do thrive though - right there on Upper Parliament Street itself, one will find several African doctors working in the Women’s Hospital. In my own case, having completed my training at the Liverpool School of Architecture in 1992, I fared pretty well as a self-employed architect in the years leading up to, and following the millennium, with buildings here and around the North West. When I decided in the mid-2000s to become a developer however, things began to unravel, to such an extent that in 2009 I was forced to liquidate my architectural and property development companies. I did keep a community-interest company dormant, with the aim of resurrecting it at some future date, in case any of my “dreams deferred” looked like they might one day come to fruition.
52-56 Upper Parliament St.
Sales Brochure (2008)
The site remains undeveloped
|62 Rodney Street|
Someone suggested that if I had drugs money to launder, it would have been a different story. I won't comment other than to say that even here, one can find historical precedent. One particular house on Rodney Street (named after the Admiral that saved Jamaica for the Crown against France), No. 62 was built by one John Gladstone, owner of slave plantations in Jamaica and Demerera. When the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833, Gladstone received the largest compensation on record - £83 million in today's money. His son William would become British Prime Minister four times.
Had my dreams come to fruition, I wouldn’t have been the first Black developer, or entrepreneur, in the city. Most of the clubs mentioned earlier were Black owned, though they no longer exist. It would be difficult to list the number of Black-owned lodging houses (where else would Black people find accommodation up to the middle of the last century?) that were compulsorily acquired in a so-called slum clearance, and made way for the expansion of the University in the 1960s. Much more recently, another Nigerian made national headlines when his company succeeded in developing many homes for some housing associations in the city in the mid 2000s. His company sadly no longer exists, and his recounting of the difficulties he had along the way may suggest one of the reasons. Sneaking a peak at his file during a meeting with a bank manager once, he told the Observer, he saw a card on which was written, 'Black, Nigerian, Liverpool, Living in Toxteth, High Risk.'
Following the Liverpool 8 uprising (the local description of the “Toxteth riots” of 1981), the Granby Triangle, the former centre of Liverpool’s Black population, is only now recovering from over thirty years of blight, as the vast majority of millions of pounds of regeneration money that flowed into the city as a result of the uprising seemed to bypass the area.
The 1989 Gifford Report on the uprising confirmed what the community had warned about in the years leading up to the riots: that such an explosion was inevitable because racial discrimination in the city was “uniquely horrific.” This would certainly have been at the back of the minds of the city’s leaders when in December 1999 they issued a formal letter of apology for the city’s involvement in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. It reads in part: “The City Council hereby commits itself to work closely with Liverpool communities and partners and with peoples of those countries which have carried the burden of the slave trade. The Council also commits itself to programmes of action with full participation of Liverpool's Black communities which will seek to combat all forms of racism and discrimination and will recognise and respond to the city's multiracial inheritance and celebrate the skills and talent of all its people."
Twenty years on, I am sorry not to be able to offer myself as an example of this commitment having been met, nor does anybody else readily come to mind. I can however try to see what else is happening in the heart of Black Liverpool, in the world of property development. Let’s go back to Upper Parliament Street.
The Merseyside Caribbean Centre is a small building on a large piece of land owned by the City Council, leased to the Caribbean Community since the 1960s. In its heyday in the 1990s, the centre attracted visitors from all over the country to the annual carnival and to multiple year-round events, but it closed in 2013, the site now serving mostly as a car park for the Liverpool Women’s Hospitalopposite.
A community-interest Company called the African Caribbean Heritage Centre recently took up responsibility for its residual affairs, which now include dealing with a private developer (introduced to them by the council) who has drawn up a scheme for over 400 residential units, on the understanding that a new Caribbean Community Centre will be included somewhere in the development, although affordability of the flats to the local community didn’t appear to be uppermost in the developers’ or Council’s minds.
|Source: Save the l8 Caribbean Centre (facebook)/|
Dr. King famously spoke of his dreams of racial equality, peace and justice. Stephen Lawrence dreamed of being an architect, Anthony Walker a lawyer. One can only speculate what Charles Wotten’s dreams were before the salt water of the Mersey filled his lungs in June 1919, but they would certainly have been similar to most people’s: to be healthy, happy and well fed, and to do good for oneself, one’s family and for society in general.
I am grateful that my own dreams of developing property for social and environmental good have cost me only money, time and faith in the city I call home, and not my life. I have seen my local MP about the series of resistances I have experienced, and she has taken it up with the new Chief Executive of the Council. While one cannot expect a finding similar to that which followed the enquiry into the police handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder (in which the Met was described as “institutionally racist”), I can’t help feeling justified in describing my treatment by Liverpool as “institutional cruelty” at the very least.
Nonetheless, I have one new dream to share. I have a dream that in a few years, the site of the former Caribbean Centre will be developed into social housing primarily for people of African descent, regardless of financial means. I have a dream that the development will be led by a community-owned company, using Black developers, architects, builders and the like. I have a dream that it will be self-sustaining, spawning several thriving community-interest companies. I have a dream that little Black boys and little Black girls will live and play there together, with their mothers and fathers, their grandmothers and grandfathers, all caring for one another and enjoying together beautiful music, art, stories and good, clean air. I have a dream to share. I have a dream that Liverpool City Council, with several Black men and women in its leadership, will be a national and international example of excellence in promoting community cohesion and prioritizing people over profit. I have a dream that all the contributions that Black people have made to Liverpool, and to the world from Liverpool, will be properly recognised in the naming of streets and buildings, and that people will come from far and wide to celebrate and marvel at their achievements. I have a dream to share.
I’m sure many Liverpudlians – Black, White, Brown, Yellow, whatever - would share this dream.
And the council? Well, if the extent of their creativity is to use a community-interest company’s legal status to thwart a great idea, I fear that they might be institutionally incapable of sharing this dream.
Dedicated to the memory of three men whose funerals I attended in the space of a single week at the end of June 2019:
Alhaji Captain Miftah Osi-Efa, one of the founder-members of the Al Rahma Mosque, Liverpool.
Paul Agoro, one of the founders of the Granby Residents Association, who successfully resisted plans for the wholesale demolition of the Granby Triangle.
Bala Lloyd-Evans, whose first business idea was in employment for ex offenders, but was knifed to death in an unprovoked attack. His funeral reception was held at the Caribbean Centre.