In her regular column, Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome talks about Black History Month in Notts
Every year during Black History Month, I learn something new about our city’s past, and the huge role that Black communities have played in shaping it. Nottingham wouldn’t be the same without the many pioneering Black figures who called it home: from George Africanus, a former slave who became a successful entrepreneur, to Eric Irons, Britain’s first Black magistrate; Louise Garvey, a nurse who campaigned for equality in the health sector, or Des Wilson, our first Black Lord Mayor. It’s fantastic to see this history become more visible across the city; commemorated with plaques and murals, or buildings and buses named after prominent Black Nottingham residents.
As an MP of colour, I often emphasise that I stand on the shoulders of giants: of people who came before me and fought for their right to be heard. Among them were fellow parliamentarians, trailblazers like Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott, but also countless people whose names we don’t always remember, who for generations worked to challenge racism and lift up our communities. That’s why in this month’s column, I wanted to take the opportunity to pay tribute to two of those Black activists who had a profound impact on Nottingham, and who inspired me: George Powe and Valentine Nkoyo.
George Powe was born in Jamaica in 1926. At seventeen, he lied about his age to serve in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He then moved permanently to England, where he worked as an electrician and a maths teacher.
Witnessing widespread racial discrimination, George threw his energy into a long list of campaigns: he got the Raleigh bicycle company to overturn its ban on employing Black staff, led a campaign against a pub that refused to serve Black and white customers in the same room, and challenged Nottingham City Council over its policy of having a specific welfare officer to deal with complaints from Black residents, rather than speaking to them directly. In 1963, he became one of the UK’s first Black councillors, and later went on to establish the Afro-Caribbean National Artistic Centre in St. Ann’s. He was a lifelong socialist, trade unionist and campaigner for nuclear disarmament.
George passed away just over a decade ago, in September 2013. Sadly, I never had a chance to meet him. I heard tributes from those who had during the unveiling of a plaque in his memory in Mapperley, and it’s clear that he made a lasting impression on our local community.
I also know George from his writing. His pamphlet Don’t Blame the Blacks (which is available at the Five Leaves) is just as relevant today as when it was written in 1956. As a response to rising tensions between white British and migrant workers, Powe wrote a powerful appeal to working class unity.
“The first thing we must try to put over to each other is the fact that our struggle is the same, providing we have to sell our labour for a living,” wrote Powe. “It is always the policy of the ruling class to divide and conquer. The easiest way to achieve this is to have a scapegoat upon whom they can throw the blame for all the social ills.”
The answer to deprivation is not turning against migrants, but working class people of all ethnicities organising together for their common interests
It’s striking how little has changed in those 67 years. Today, like then, migrants are being accused of ‘stealing’ jobs and driving down wages, blamed for overcrowded schools and long NHS queues. These arguments are very convenient for governments that have clamped down on workers’ rights and failed to raise living standards or invest in our public services. As Powe argued, the answer to deprivation is not turning against migrants, but working class people of all ethnicities organising together for their common interests.
Unlike George, the other person I wanted to celebrate in this piece is someone I was lucky enough to know personally. Valentine Nkoyo was born in Kenya, and from a young age she had to fight to receive the same education as boys did. As a teenager, she wrote a poem for her dad to convince him to allow her to stay at school. She came to Nottingham for her Masters degree, and stayed.
For nine years, she led the Mojatu Foundation, working to support and empower communities of colour, especially women and girls. In particular, she gained recognition for her work to combat female genital mutilation, something she experienced as a child. She organised events bringing together MPs, experts and FGM survivors, and her efforts led to Nottingham becoming the first UK city to declare zero tolerance for FGM.
I first met Valentine through one of my previous jobs, working on hate crime prevention. Her passion for change was contagious, and her expertise impressive. I learned so much from her, and I was deeply saddened to hear of her untimely passing in July of this year. Valentine touched so many lives in Nottingham and beyond, and while she’s no longer with us, her legacy will live on.
George and Valentine were just two of the many unsung heroes who helped make Nottingham a better place. They inspired many more incredible activists, who are now following in their footsteps and continuing the struggle against injustice.
Black history in Nottingham is still being made today, and it deserves to be celebrated – not just in October but all year round.
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