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“You’ve got to step up and not be intimidated. If we still stay on the periphery, we’re going to be waiting forever.” Meet the UK’s foremost archivist of Black British lives

As Black History Month gets underway EC1 Echo’s Oliver Bennett meets Leon Robinson – the UK’s foremost archivist of Black artefacts

An archive photograph of a man and a woman in victorian clothes, the man sitting, the woman with her hand on his shoulder
Couple taken at J. Hart studio, 179 City Road. Picture courtesy of Leon Robinson

Every collector, says Leon Robinson, lives “a life of regret”. As an archivist, educator and keeper of what is probably the largest Black archive in the UK Leon has spent over 30 years building up a collection that spans 2,000 years of the Black presence in Britain – and he recognises that his life’s calling is an inex- haustible task, compelling but impossible to complete. Already, Leon’s archive has become so vast that it occupies several roomfuls of storage space. The many thousands of items he has found are filed in timeframes – Victorian, Edwardian, 18th century etc – and also sorted by themes: entertainment, military, slavery and so on. A current project – which can be seen at The Peel this month – is Forget Me Not Day: an archive of Black involvement in World War I which Leon has been building for many years, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The project’s name came from a photo in Leon’s collection that he was particularly struck by. “The drive to support the brave, courageous men who took up the call to arms really brought it home to me,” he says. “The community spirit, the oneness of everyone supporting the cause it was as if the Forget Me Not Day had could become a symbol of hope and caring In one photo you found out about the children and adults hungry to do their bit, whether knitting scarves and hats for the brave men at the front or writing letters or sending drawings. The picture was like being in a time machine.”

There’s a real, live poignancy to the project, which Leon particularly finds when schoolchildren see people from over 100 years ago that look just like them.

“When I go into schools I’m still amazed to see how inspired young people are,” says Leon. “They say, “Wow – I never knew that. In some schools they tell me of certain young people who are hard to reach, but when I show them the archive, it comes to them and resonates with them straightaway.” One such pupil was so enthused that he leapt up to show his teacher a picture of some West African soldiers. “It made him really happy,” says Leon. “Then I’m happy because I know he’ll go home and share that experience with his parents.”

Leon Robinson poses sitting in a pavement holding an archive photo of a smart young man
Leon Robinson

The Forget Me Not flower was a precursor to the poppy and Leon says that its use as a memento goes back to Napoleonic times. “During World War I you saw men, women and children all over the globe raising money for soldiers.” he says. “Children here in Islington would do flag days for the troops, and performers at places like Islington Hippodrome Theatre would sell pictures at the end of their performances to raise money for the soldiers on the front line.” These went into family albums and many are now in Leon’s archive, along with music sheets, publicity shots, cigarette cards – indeed, any collectable item related to the Black presence in Britain.

Leon, who was born in St Albans of Jamaican parents, says that the great thing about being a collector here is that “the British are the greatest hoarders on this planet”. While he’s from a theatre background himself Leon’s family is steeped in print – his grandfather was a photographer in Jamaica’s famous Morais Studio in Kingston and his father came from Jamaica where he worked at the coun try’s Jamaica Gleaner newspaper, before coming to work in the newspaper industry here along with Leon’s mother, a nurse. So perhaps it was his calling to collect ephemera. “It’s true that I’ve been a collector all my life,” says Leon, 59. “Even as a child. I used to go down to Hadleigh Castle, where they had a dump for London rubbish, and pick up clay pipes and old R. White’s lemonade bottles. My mum would gripe. “What’ve you got now? But if you’re a collector, it’s in your blood.” Now Leon trawls second- hand shops, auctions, car boot sales, antique shops and junk shops for items relating to Black Britain. “A lot of dealers know me,” he laughs. Some put relevant artefacts aside for him.

The historical depth of his collection corrects the commonplace assumption that the Black presence in the UK dates largely from the period post-WWII. “Of course those wonderful 20th-century pioneers like Amy Ashwood Garvey and Claudia Jones pushed things forward.” says Leon. “But Black people were here all the way back to the Roman era. I’m interested in the older sources, the 17th and 18th century etchings and engrav- ings – weirdly, it’s often easier to find an item from the Victorian and Edwardian period rather than something from the early 1970s.”

Leon’s collection is itself an education. But he’s also interested in its power as a corrective to a systematic gap in British media and education. “If you’re not aware of these contributions, that could be because it hasn’t been taught, or has been unreported by the media,” he says. “Otherwise, why are we still having to rely on people like me with my archive to convince people that Black people are a part of British history?”

Hence the reason they come as a surprise to some, including some great pictures shot in Clerkenwell as well as African soldiers dressed for combat. One shows a Black Edwardian couple pose in bonnets and waistcoats for a studio in City Road; another couple pose in a Clerkenwell Road studio.

As historical artefacts they create “a real connection over time”, as Leon puts it. “When you see these South Africans on their way to the Somme you think, how does this affect the debate about immigration? Their individ- ual life stories are also often incredible. One Armistice Day photograph Leon holds features a soldier, Eldridge Eastman. “From Canada, he was the fastest runner in the world, a Usain Bolt of that time- and he was part of the Northumberland Fusiliers.” says Leon. Others are jarring. such as Leon’s photographs of East and West Africans who by dint of German colonialism, fought for Germany in WWI. “You had brothers and sisters more or less fighting against one another.”

As well as military images Leon has plenty of entertainers, some of whom have strong links to Islington like La Belle Creole (Josephine Laura Fanny Steer) who was born in the borough and whose father and brother were local cab drivers, and George Carlisle of Carlisle and Wellman of Hillmarton Road N7, all headline acts and well known in London.

“These guys were huge,” says Leon. “But remember, there were hundreds of black entertainers working in Britain during WWI.” As an entertainment historian, Leon is thrilled to uncover the publicity pictures, post- ers and playbills of yore. “I love finding photos highlighting the Black presence in Britain because it gives me a sense of the rich diversity in our history, and helps us recognise that heritage and inheritance are part of the same family. We should be proud and the raw excitement of fresh discoveries keeps me going.”

Leon has shown his archive at Tate gallery, where the audience was moved. But it’s important to him that the archive is a living thing that informs the future. “I see the collection as an inter-generational tool available to all,” he says. “A thing that upsets me is when people think history and heritage is academic and only available to a certain class. But it’s for everyone.” As for historians who just spout dates, “that’s the easiest way to get me to fall asleep. As Maya Angelou said, ‘Legacy can only be measured by what survives.’”

It also slightly irks Leon that people think the archive is somehow related to modern phenomena like Black Lives Matter. “Wake up,” he says. “If you think finally people are looking at Black British lives now, what were they thinking about before? What about the work of pioneering film director Horace Ove, who did amazing work for decades, or Richie Riley, founder member of Ballets Negres, Britain’s first Black Ballet Company, or Colin Prescod, former BBC commissioning editor, academic and chair of the Institute of Race Relations? There have always been such people, working away, and we should acknowledge these people who dared to dream, ask questions and change the narrative.”

Leon’s hope is now that better resources will fall into place for this kind of activity, to embolden future generations.

“I want to inspire new archivists and historians and hope that I’ve already inspired lots of young people,” he says. “You’ve got to step up and not be intimidated. It makes it easier for the next person to land. Because if we still stay on the periphery, we’re going to be waiting forever.”

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