From Great War to Race Riots

An advertisement for a Great Flag Day, to be held in Liverpool 1919
An advertisement for a Great Flag Day, to be held in Liverpool 1919

I recently had the privilege of attending the launch of From Great War to Race Riots, an exciting project from the Liverpool community organisation, Writing on the Wall.The group has been given access to a collection of fascinating documents that relate to the experiences of Black ex-servicemen, seamen and factory workers in Liverpool just after the First World War. With financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Writing on the Wall have begun a project to explore, preserve and archive this valuable collection of historical material and find creative ways to share the information that it contains.

While many people are understandably concerned with remembering the events of the war, the immediate aftermath of the conflict was, in many ways, just as interesting. In Liverpool, as elsewhere, many of the returning service personnel found it difficult to adjust to the demands of peacetime and the changed realities of postwar Britain.

The documents in this collection tell of the particular difficulties of families from the West Indies and the Caribbean, many of whom were in Liverpool as merchant seamen or as volunteer soldiers but who found themselves the target of racial abuse and even an organised boycott by white workers who felt that their jobs were threatened by the presence of Black workers. These tensions flared into violence, including rioting and, on the 5th June 1919, of the killing of 24 year-old Charles Wootton, a ships fireman from Bermuda. Wootton, who was chased by a crowd to the Queens Dock, where he either jumped or was thrown into the water, was hit on the head by a stone and drowned.

Charles Wootton’s tragic story is reasonably well known. What the collection of documents offers is the chance to uncover more lives and expose some of the hidden histories of this chapter in the Liverpool story. Among the documents are a list of names and addresses of men who served in the merchant marine, several letters from the Lord Mayor and an advertisement for a ‘Great Flag Day’ to raise fund for discharged soldiers.

A letter from the Ministry of Labour to Liverpool's Lord Mayor
A letter from the Ministry of Labour to Liverpool’s Lord Mayor

Writing on the Wall are working with writer Emy Onuora, historian Mike Boyle and poet Levi Tafari to explore and respond to the archive. They are appealing for volunteers to get involved and to help investigate this treasure trove of hidden history.

Participants will have the opportunity to:

  • Explore Black settlement in Liverpool and the UK from the early establishment of that community in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and will gain an understanding of how the Liverpool community differed in its development as compared to other UK cities while being able to identify similarities across the Black British experience.
  • Conduct historical research and have the opportunity to research members of their own community and families.
  • Develop skills, in cataloguing, digitisation, preservation and curation, in relation to historic documentary archives, receive training and advice from a range of professionals including staff within the Liverpool Records Office and National Museums Liverpool.
  • Develop web based skills through the scanning, cataloguing and digitisation of the archive on a dedicated website.
  • Respond creatively to the archive guided and supported by renowned poet Levi Tafari from the huge interest generated by the George Garrett Archive, the Library management have indicated their willingness to house exhibitions and host activities to raise awareness of this new archives presence.

For more information, or to get involved, please visit Writing on the Wall’s website.

Levi Tafari
Levi Tafari

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Levi Tafari offered readings of some of his poems at the launch event. He has very kindly provided copies of them which you can read below:

 

A LETTER OF CONCERN

 

THE TOWN HALL

LIVERPOOL

13 MAY 1919

 

Dear Home Secretary in Parliament London

I am writing this letter to you

I have had a visit from the Ethiopian Association

I need your advice on what to do

 

Six hundred African British subjects

are stranded here in the city of Liverpool

they are anxious to return home to Africa

as their treatment in the city by the locals is tantamount to cruel

 

Though many of them have served in our armed forces

they have strange practices not to mention their culture

many have married British women and have children

some say the races should not mix they find this practice vulgar

 

Speaking for myself I would just like to say

this is not the way I think

but if this situation is not resolved soon

our city will soon be on the brink

 

Companies won’t employ coloured men

as employers and the trade unions conspire

to up hold segregation in the work place

integration is not what they desire

 

I am caught in the middle which way should I turn

I say pay them five pounds and then repatriate them

it’s a small sum to pay for their return

to relieve us of this Black irritation problem

Can you give my concern your urgent attention

I beg your haste in dealing with this matter

these coloured men bring out the worst in our men

these black men are destroying our culture.

 

I AM SIR

YOUR OBEDIENT SERVANT

JOHN RICHIE

LORD MAYOR

 

P.S. Our city would once again be light, bright and all right!

And did I mention all white.

 

 

© Levi Tafari

May 2014   

 

THE WAR CONTINUES

After the metal curtains of war were fully drawn

the fabric of the landscape was distorted and torn

like ants the troops retreated from the burning embers

but justice and liberty did not await black soldiers

Now back in Liverpool they had to fight to survive

they had fought for king and country and were still alive

returning to the loved ones they had left behind

there was no hero’s welcome love was hard to find

They thought the war was over but they faced a whole new plight

the racism in Liverpool was so severe they became prisoners at night

now deemed as social lepers they had very little support

they were treated like slaves who were sold and bought

The murder of Charles Wooton 1919 turned the city to one of flames

as the powers that be hid their faces with a cloak of shame

the church and the state didn’t have a clue to a solution

a mindset of prejudice added fuel to the devastation

The Lord Mayor stepped forward with an acute suggestion

the answer is simple and clear the answer is repatriation

I think to myself it seems peculiar yes very strange

in the grand scheme of things very little has changed

Immigration is still an issue as it was then back in the day

not all black soldiers who fought for Britain has the right of stay

many have lobbied parliament but their efforts were in vain

as some of them have been repatriated back to from where they came

If you go to battle for Britain and your skin is black

make sure you know who’s the real enemy is before you attack

when you settle back into your civvy you will still face flack

by the same flag you were defending Britain’s Union Jack

© Levi Tafari

 

 

FIGHTING FOR PEACE

Like a baby Liverpool struggled

to stand on her own two feet

the great war was over supplies were spars

and there was rationing on food to eat

 

The fog and the smog were unwelcomed guest

that added to the doom and gloom

austerity and depression occupied Upper Pit Street

so Parliament Street is where black people found room

 

Leaving behind their place of birth to reside in the motherland

seeking to find a better life so they ventured to England

to make a contribution that’s what these black men had in mind

but equality and justice these black men could not find

 

Duke Street was removed from the poverty

that dwelt on Mill Street in Liverpool Eight

Princes Avenue, Newton and Beauford Street

where places were black and white would copulate

 

Black servicemen fought on the battle ground

a fearless heart pounding in their chest

discrimination, segregation, misconception

divorced the black population from the rest

 

It was out of the frying pan into the fire

the battle was now on Liverpool’s streets

Liverpool was hostile in fact very vile

and the black man had to retreat

 

Pleading to the Lord Mayor got them nowhere

as their cries fell on deaf ears

the Lord Mayor made a radical decision yes discrimination

to alleviate his citizens fears

When the locals made outrageous claims shouting racist names

tensions exploded as the battles increased

Black men had fought in the great war and didn’t want to fight no more

but were ready and prepared to fight for PEACE

 

 

© Levi Tafari

May 2014

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