Black History Month in the Midlands
We're celebrating Black History Month by asking educators, creatives and community leaders to name places and spaces in the Midlands that are meaningful to them personally or to Black heritage in the region.
Thimblemill Library, Smethwick
Libraries were founded some 150 years ago on the principles of social justice and equality, so it's wonderful that Wal Warmington, an experienced teacher, trainer and tutor, has suggested Grade II listed Thimblemill Library in Smethwick for its service to a diverse community. The library was closed temporarily for lockdown, and remains closed until further notice.
In 2017 Thimblemill, built in 1937 to designs by architect Chester Button, was the first in the UK to be named a 'Library of Sanctuary' thanks to its work welcoming migrants and refugees.
"As an educator I’m amazed at what Thimblemill Library has managed to offer the local community within the relatively small confines of its Art Deco building," said Wal.
"Entering the building I’m reminded of the feelings of wonder l used to experience when I was a child going to my local library in Deptford, south east London."
Serving the community
Wal adds that with diminished resources due to austerity and cuts to council services, especially for young people, libraries like Thimblemill had responded admirably in providing a wide range of community activities.
"The thoughtful use of the building is reflected in the numerous ways spaces are created by simply pushing back the book stacks so that different activities can take place. I've seen and benefitted from some of these activities and witnessed how this special building has transformed and enhanced the lives of those taking part in or attending events."
Not only did the library offer outstanding provision for all ages and cultural groups, from yoga to learning English as a second language, it also hosted live music and drama. During Black History Month last year it ran Paul Magson's Marshall Street, set in Smethwick in 1965 around the historic visit of civil rights activist Malcolm X.
Wal, who attended a performance of the play, says it was very impressive work. He said: "Using humour and sharp social commentary the story explored the lives of local people and families from different racial backgrounds.
"Sadly, such racialised issues remain topical, which is why libraries such as Thimblemill are vital in bringing local communities together and in providing space for creative activities. We will all be poorer without such places to share stories and imagine being part of a better world."
African-Caribbean miners in Nottinghamshire
There is a proud mining history in Nottinghamshire, but often omitted from the recollections and documents are the contributions of African-Caribbean miners to the industry.
One particular mine, Gedling Colliery, had a significant amount of Black miners, as well as workers from diverse communities across the world. Historian Norma Gregory, founder of the Black Miners Museum project, suggested Gedling Colliery as a place of significance for Black History Month.
"Through this project we’ve discovered that almost half of 50-plus collieries in Nottinghamshire had Black underground and surface workers," she says.
"The colliery with the most was Gedling, which was nicknamed the 'Pit of Nations' because of its diverse workforce. They’ve recently unveiled a mosaic on Gedling Country Park that features at least thirty flags around it, to represent the many nationalities that contributed to the UK mining industry," she adds.
Brothers united by work
In the 1950s/60s, 25% of the pit’s 1,400-strong workforce was thought to have hailed from the Caribbean. The colliery’s union banner showed a Black miner alongside two white colleagues above the words, 'Brothers beneath the surface'.
The Black Miners Museum project, an initiative led by the social enterprise Nottingham News Centre CIC and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund Midlands and East, partners and the public, has produced a unique collection of audio recordings, oral histories, the Digging Deep touring exhibition, rare mining artefacts, archive and contemporary images, along with a booklet and posters to help preserve and share the miners’ stories.
Gedling Colliery was still in use until 1991, but after a fallow period, in 2014 Gedling Borough Council entered into a 25-year lease with the land owners and then in 2015 bought the land outright. Now known as Gedling Country Park it boasts some of the best views in the county, it also has a cafe perched on top of it, looking down on where the coal was once hauled up.