From Bristol, to Bridgetown (Barbados) and St.Johns (Antigua) to Oxford, the toppling of statues and the legacies associated with them has been high on the agenda this year, an attempt to balance the way the general public view historical figures memorialised in this way. Several of the statues removed now face an uncertain future – do they disappear completely, end up in museums or do they return to their previous places?
“They’re not going to pull them down, it’s going to have to be a process”, believes Dr Jak Beulah, an entrepreneur and cultural activist who has spent 16 years revolutionising the memorial space. “People are not fully conversant to the full narrative”, he continues. The same reason the mainstream historical narrative needs to be challenged is the exact same reason Jak believes the statues – at least those in the UK – are unlikely to disappear completely, at least for now. But this narrative does more than simply allowing slave owners to be canonised in the eyes of the British public. It also erases and minimises the achievements and contributions of Black people at every level. And while many of our efforts have focused on agitating for the permanent fall of these statues and what they represent, for the best part of two decades Dr Jak has instead been on a mission to ensure Black history is finally recognised in an equivalent way on the streets of Britain.
“Back then there was no Black Lives Matter”, he remembers, recalling that “only 1.6% of commemorative plaques across London were recognising Black people – and only six were to Black women”. English Heritage, which manages the UK’s historic monuments reached out to Dr Jak in 2004 after hearing about his early 90s creation Nubian Jak, a one-of-a-kind boardgame that mixed education and entertainment to celebrate Black History. They hoped he’d help increase their engagement with Black and Brown communities. Instead, Dr Jak took this one step further setting up the Nubian Jak Community Trust (the NJCT).
The Trust’s work started with a plaque in honour of Bob Marley during Black History Month of 2006. Two years of work, research and negotiation went into the initial plaque, marking the start of a scheme that would be the first (and only) of its kind in Europe. The following year another historic plaque went up, this time for Ignatius Sancho, the famous abolitionist who was brought to the UK aged two and left a lasting mark on British society through his activism. Sancho’s plaque still sits on the Foreign Office building nearby the place he would have lived and run his grocery store some centuries earlier, reminding all those who pass it of the man’s important legacy. “Its the most popular of our plaques”, Dr Jak notes.
To date the NJCT has rolled out 56 plaques across the country, recognising achievements from politics to popular culture and beyond. Compared to the 1% of plaques memorialising Black people in 2004, today, Dr Jak is proud to note that “6% of the plaques in London are to Black people”, an increase made possible by the Trust’s work. For the first time In June 2017 this work expanded to include monuments, with the NJCT’s African and Caribbean War memorial unveiled in Brixton’s Windrush Square.
Despite some 2 million African and Caribbean servicemen and women contributing towards both world wars, of the 70,000 war-related memorials recorded to exist, not a single one had been dedicated specifically to them.
Now working alongside global advertising agency Havas to expand the reach of their commemorative project, this week alone the NJCT has honoured two Black figures with plaques of their own, namely political figure and activist William Cuffay and Winifred Atwell, the UK’s first Black popstar.
Despite the successes, the Nubian Jak Community Trust feel their work is far from over – “Not until the ancestors say ‘time’s up'”. Next year June they’ll unveil another monument – this time in honour of Black nurses whose contributions to the NHS have often been overlooked. It’ll be only the third statue to a woman of colour in the country. “That’s how behind we are”, Dr Jak emphasises. And with the launch of the Black Plaque Project site, virtually charting each of the memorials and the history that made them necessary, Dr Jak’s 16-year project is now set to reach & teach minds internationally.
2020’s activism has shown how much significance we attach to memorials and statues, something that should be reflected in the tenacity of our opposition to the ones we seek to tear down and those the NJCT have erected over the years in honour of our unsung Black heroes.
“It’s one thing to look at our contributions in a board game and a book but a plaque or a monument is permanent – it says ‘we are here’ – and that’s why we do the work we do. “
Keep up with their work at: https://blackplaqueproject.com/