Britain has paid tribute to its notable men and women since 1866 by placing blue plaques on buildings in London where they lived or worked. Yet only 1.6% of those honoured are of African or Caribbean descent. Ignored by the establishment during their lifetime, the significant contributions of many Black Britons continue to be ignored posthumously, and their stories are at risk of being erased from history. Our goal is simple: to preserve these precious stories of Black achievement and keep them alive so they can inspire future generations. Our short and medium-term objectives are threefold: a) To raise awareness and public support of the issue. b) To place it on the news agenda and win the support of influential individuals and organisations within London c) To hasten English Heritage to address historical exclusion and become more inclusive from now on.
The Black Plaque Project champions 30 of Britain’s forgotten Black heroes with temporary black plaques on buildings in central London, in the hope that with public support, they’ll be recognised permanently with blue plaques. We utilised a 150-year-old commemorative plaque scheme to tackle a 150-year-old problem. By installing our message on buildings throughout the city we raised the issue for all to see and experience. The conspicuous Black plaques disrupted the blue plaques that have become part of the everyday fabric of central London. The plaques placed the names and achievements of important Black historical figures alongside their white contemporaries where they rightfully deserve to be. In doing so, we reminded people of their stories and their outstanding contributions. Many people, particularly the younger generation, had never even heard of most of these people or been aware of their stories. In collaboration with The Nubian Jak trust and a panel of experts from the Afro Caribbean community, we identified 30 individuals who merit posthumous recognition for their outstanding contributions to British society. Some had been overlooked by English Heritage for years, others had never even been considered. We worked with local district councils, building owners and tenants to negotiate the temporary installation of 30 Black plaques. The project was launched with an immersive and informative mobile platform that geo-mapped the locations and told the full stories behind each Black plaque. Effectively the city became an outdoor installation of curated forgotten and lost stories of Black Britons. Buildings that have remained anonymous for years became platforms to tell the stories of their long-forgotten occupants. We used an ecosystem of film content, billboards, print and social media to activate public support and interaction.
In 2020 with the Black Lives Matter movement at a global tipping point, there were mass demonstrations in London and Britain against institutional racism. The focus of people’s anger became the divisive historical figures from Britain’s colonial past who have been immortalised with bronze statues. These statues became emblematic of systemic racism in Britain, and many were vandalised or pulled down from their pedestals. But the issue is just as much about those who have not been recognised with memorials as those who have. We saw a tactical opportunity to highlight the deficit of diversity in Britain’s oldest and most respected commemorative schemes, London’s famous blue plaques. We partnered with the Nubian Jak Community Trust, an influential voice amongst London’s Afro Caribbean community, not just to call it out but to help change it and make it more inclusive going forwards.
The initiative won the full support of the Mayor of London’s office, which is hugely influential in bringing about social and policy change in the city. Britain’s main commercial broadcaster ITV serialised the unveiling of the first four plaques on the early evening news every Friday for a month. Thanks to overwhelming public support, English Heritage have responded positively and turned Winnifred Atwell’s temporary Black plaque into a permanent blue plaque. For this to have happened after just three months has exceeded our expectations and given The Black Plaque Project and its partners a platform and momentum on which to build. Excluded from the British education syllabus, most people would have been hard-pressed to name a person of African or Caribbean background in Britain before WWII. We have now successfully reintroduced at least 30 forgotten Black heroes to a new generation of Britons.