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Race relations in 20th-century Liverpool

As I approached retirement, it seemed appropriate that I should tackle one of the most controversial aspects of Liverpool history: race relations. Since there is outstanding scholarship on the operation, legacy, and memorialisation of the heinous slave trade, I chose to concentrate on later developments, particularly the growth of a large ‘black’ population from the late 19th century, primarily composed of ‘seamen’ who dropped anchor in ‘sailortown’ Liverpool. The gateway of the British Empire and the commercial and human entrepôt linking the old world and the new, the great seaport of Liverpool had a particularly boisterous waterfront area, replete with pubs, boarding houses, brothels, and street markets. Here was a vibrant (if not always harmonious) contact zone between different ethnic groups with differing needs and intentions as transients, sojourners, or settlers. Although not without problems, this ‘cosmopolitan’ profile became a matter of pride and distinction as Liverpool, a world seaport city, sought to rebrand its image after the abolition of the slave trade.

However, by the time of Ramsay Muir’s 1907 History of Liverpool, which marked the 700th anniversary of the first letters patent granted to the borough, the tensions and contradictions within this vaunted cosmopolitanism were laid bare. Decades ahead of other cities, Liverpool, the gateway of empire, was already grappling with the intractable problem of ‘British coloureds’ from the colonies; black and Asian people were seen as belonging out in the empire, not in Britain.  Their legal status as British subjects notwithstanding, these pioneer ‘coloured’ colonials in Liverpool soon discovered that ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack.’ By the time I came to edit the 800th anniversary history of Liverpool, cosmopolitanism was a distant memory. As census figures confirmed, Liverpool in 2007 had become one of the least ethnically varied cities in the country, with numbers of ‘new Commonwealth’ migrants well below the national average. Reflecting on this, I asked myself a number of crucial questions.

Why have historians paid so little attention to the substantial ‘black’ presence in Liverpool in the decades before the fabled arrival of the Empire Windrush in June 1948, regarded as ‘year zero for mass black immigration?’  I began to realise that my research was not just an exercise in local history recovery. Properly understood, the ‘black struggle for historical recognition in Liverpool’ serves as foundation narrative in the making of the black British, an identity obscured by post-Windrush concentration on immigration.

Why was Liverpool shunned by ‘new Commonwealth’ migrants in the decades following the Second World War? Economic factors were obviously a deterrent as recession-blighted Liverpool, once the proud ‘second city of Empire’, found itself in free fall down the urban hierarchy, a seemingly unstoppable descent into the ‘shock city’ of post-industrial, post-colonial Britain.  But was there also a cultural dimension?  How important was the unhappy legacy of the city’s pioneer approach to race relations?  Initial response to the riots of 1981, the greatest outbreak of civil unrest in mainland Britain since the Second World War, took the form of headline-grabbing initiatives to tackle urban deprivation, not the deep-seated problem of institutional racism. Adopting due historical and cultural perspectives, subsequent inquiry into the riots categorised racism in Liverpool as ‘uniquely horrific.’

As I was due research leave in 2011-2012, I planned to conclude my research with an examination of the official records relating to the 1981 riots which, by happy coincidence, would be available for public consultation under the 30 year rule.  Alas, when I presented myself at the National Archives, Kew, I found that all the files had been recalled by the Home Office following the ‘riots’ of August 2011, a summer outbreak of opportunistic and indiscriminate looting (rather than targeted rioting) in a number of urban areas.  Fortunately, while waiting several months for the files to become available, I was able to spend my time researching in the Liverpool Record Office, temporarily relocated in an anonymous warehouse in north Liverpool while the Central Library was being refurbished. After it reopened, it was particularly fitting that guests had to cross a newly engraved poem by Levi Tefari on the floor, a welcome corrective to earlier accounts of the city: ‘spot the African presence the true source of her history.’

Image Credit: “Liverpool by Dalvinder Singh Basi. CC BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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