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Carolyn Abel describes an award-winning initiative raising the profile of Black British local history

Northamptonshire Black History Project, a community-led initiative, has been working with schools to include Black British history in the classroom. As a response to high levels of racism in east Northamptonshire, project staff worked with 11 pupils from different backgrounds from Ferrers Specialist Arts College.

The focus was on developing their communication, social and media skills by working with them to create a film and exhibition. The students, aged 11 to 15, were given training in various practical skills, such as conducting an oral history interview, structuring an exhibition and making a film. The assistant editor of BBC Radio Northampton helped them to select material.

It was the first time these students had been given information about Black British history, even though Walter Tull, who served in the First World War as one of Britain's first Black officers, lived nearby in Rushden. One of the students demanded to know why he had not been told this before. None of the students (or adults) interviewed were able to identify a Black role model within their communities. The students benefited from the project in the following ways:

* increased confidence;

* raised aspirations;

* improved communication and organisational skills;

* development of leadership skills and team co-ordination;

* diversity of experience, in being part of a team involved in a non-sporting activity;

* having new opportunities;

* being able to air problems relating to racism in a safe environment;

* having an outlet through which less confident students could express themselves;

* having the time to look at themselves and the cultural make-up of their own communities;

* increased awareness of the insular nature of east Northamptonshire.

One student said: "I've gained more confidence towards history", and another: "I feel I've gained some understanding of what people from other cultures have contributed to our area."

Though all agreed that this initiative would work better as a summer school, there are opportunities for including it in other areas of the curriculum.

In a second project, Football, Racism and Cultural Heritage, we delivered sessions in 20 primary and supplementary schools in Northampton as part of an initiative run by Northampton Town Football Club.

Using the stories of five local Black historical figures and linking them to sport, students explored themes of achievement, identity, prejudice and exclusion.

These sessions led to fascinating debates, as well as worrying insights. On three occasions it was ventured that a picture of Walter Tull in his uniform might be Hitler, after it was first suggested that it might be Martin Luther King. Students had some knowledge of Black historical figures in the USand Africa, but little or no awareness of Black British figures.

After the sessions, teachers developed these themes further and the resulting work was exhibited at the football club, where the winner of the best work was announced. The high quality of all the work produced was testament to the effort put in by teachers and students. Examples included newsletters, storyboards, paintings, pottery, poems, banners and even scripts and a play.

The overall winner, Eastfield Primary School, had produced a play based on the figures they'd explored. Their teacher, Barbara Loughney, said: "The students were truly inspired and wanted to work on it further.

SomeJstudents even went to the library to follow-up Walter Tull's story."

The figures also appealed to the students' romantic notions of heroes, princesses and athletes facing adversity. Students began spotting street names and buildings which had links to Walter Tull, encouraging a greater sense of their local geography, and children saw positive Black male role models in the historical figures and in the project staff.

Carolyn Abel is director of the Northamptonshire Black History Project


* Use oral history interviews as a way to engage students - Jparticularly those with weak writing skills.

* Contact local libraries, archives and museums for relevant raw materials to use as stimulus.

* Try not to address Black British history solely as an add-on or only during Black History Month.

* Look at how Black British history can become part of the whole school ethos, eg, naming rooms, "houses" or sports teams after Black figures.

* Challenge the notion that Black British history only relates to post-war Britain.

* Teach in a way that includes all students, Black and White.

* Don't be afraid to address contentious issues like racism and prejudice; students are well informed and happy to debate these issues.

* Try to embed Black British history in curriculum areas such as English, science, music and drama, as well as history.

NBHP, with University College Northampton, commissioned a report which found that 74 per cent of teachers rarely or never teach Black British history; 80 per cent have limited knowledge of the subject or none; 57 per cent lacked the confidence to teach it. However, teachers felt it was important, particularly in rural schools, as it could challenge negative attitudes. Teachers also saw cross-curricular opportunities.

NBHP aims to record and promote the history of Black people in the county over at least 500 years, and is applying for funding to produce curriculum resources.

More information from Carolyn Abel. Tel: 01604 590967. Email:

NBHP won the 2005 Libraries Change Lives Award for work with students in and outside schools, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Home Office. KS1 pupils looked at the lives of significant men, women and children drawn from the history of Britain and the wider world.

* James Chappell, servant to Sir Christopher Hatton of Kirby Hall, near Gretton: James rescued Sir Christopher and members of his family after an explosion at Castle Cornet in Guernsey in 1672. He married a local woman and is alleged to have been the first Black publican.

(Links: family and local history; social, domestic and family life.)

* Dr Naoroiji, one of Britain's first Asian MPs, came to Northampton in 1888 with local MP Charles Bradlaugh. His portrait hangs in the tearoom at the House of Commons.

(Links: empire, world history, politics, elections.)

* Princess Kaiulani, heir to the Hawaiian crown, was educated at Great Harrowden Hall in the 1890s.

(Links: empire, world history, politics, education.

* Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of the last maharajah of the Punjab, was a leading figure in the Suffragette movement and visited Northamptonshire in 1908 with her brother.

(Links: empire, world history, Victorians Edwardians, women's history, politics.)

* Walter Tull played for Northampton Town Football Club from 1911 to 1914.

He became an army officer during the First World War at a time when Black people were not permitted to command White troops. He died at the second Battle of the Somme in 1918. (Links: world wars, family and social life, discrimination.)

* Anita Neil, an Olympic athlete in the 1970s, was born in Wellingborough.

She still lives locally, and an oral history interview is available.

(Links: local and family history, sport, education.)

KS2 pupils looked at Britain since 1930, the impact of the Second World War, and of social and technological changes on the lives of men, women and children from different sections of society.

* Encourage students to consider who fought in Britain's military services.

This would include people from Africa, the Caribbean, India, Poland, as well as Black people who had been settled in Britain for many years. Black people were also factory workers, air-raid wardens, nurses, auxiliaries, evacuees and children resulting from relationships with American GIs.

Listen to and read the oral history interview with Lillian Bader, who was part of the war effort in Britain. (Links: family and local history, literacy by looking at the spoken and written language.)

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