Overturned Cobbles: Leeds Black History Walks

‘The pattern of historic silencing becomes disturbingly clear…‘

Recolouring an erased history is an intimidating task, yet a necessary one. Over a two-hour period, Joe Williams and Vanessa Mudd take their fellow walkers through millennia of rich Black history in Leeds; overturning the cobbles so carefully laid by eurocentrism. 

Joe, a Leeds-born actor and alumnus of the university, regularly takes groups around the campus, with each stopping point being another setting for chapters in a forgotten history. Beginning at the Parkinson Steps, walkers follow Joe to the Clothworkers Court, passed the Pyramid Stage, through Clarendon Place where the walk scenically concludes in St George’s Field. While the places of reference change, the overarching narrative is constant: too many aspects of African heritage have been “swept away”. 

The walks go ahead throughout the year, come rain or shine. Such is the dedication to this philosophy that Vanessa and Joe have invested in a yellow umbrella printed with ‘Leeds Black History Walks’. The next walk (October 10th) is a particularly special one, as Joe will be joined by guest performance artists. 

After participating in the walk and reflecting on it, one must conclude that Joe’s dedication to his role as educator makes the experience all the more special. As a creative, Joe artfully inhabits historical figures, giving accounts of their lives in the first person, rendering the walk a sort of ambulatory theatre at times. As he becomes figures such as Olaudah Equiano, their stories step even further out of a darkness into which they were forced. 

A few stopping points pass, and the pattern of historic silencing becomes disturbingly clear. What is never quite reconciled, however, is the frankness. At one point, you stand in campus facing the Edward Baines building, with Michael Sadler behind you and Parkinson around the corner. To be surrounded by dedications all to white men and yet still colour them all with elements of black history is testament to the power of the walks. To put it another way, you do not feel you walk back on the same streets you walked in on. A particularly harrowing fact shared on the walk was the existence of a monument to commemorate the lives of animals that died in World Wars One and Two and yet no such monument exists in remembrance of West Indian slaves, whose exploitation has benefitted every aspect of British life. 

The Black History Walks aim to reshape narratives to benefit the future, and so, naturally, Joe and Vanessa do not shy away from discussing relevant issues concerning race or political correctness. Stories of the struggles of the Windrush generations and police brutality provide a context to recent events and reminds us that we live in just another episode in the fight for equality. Vanessa recognised the need for an overhaul in the language we use when referring to atrocities of the past: she corrects Joe when he recounts Europeans “taking the slaves” to using the word “enslavement”. With this use, there is no implication that we just conceptualise West Africans in this period as slaves.  

For ten years, these walks have gone unfunded by any sort of council or arts body. Vanessa herself works three days a week unpaid to see to their administrative responsibilities. The popularity of the Leeds Black History Walks has meant that Joe often is asked to contribute to various exhibitions however regularly does so feeless. It is only this year, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, that they have begun charging for the walks. 

Securing funding is an active pursuit for Joe and Vanessa as, not only will it aid in their security, but it is also an indirect source of validation. With funding comes the recognition that Leeds’ Black History Walk does invaluable work for enriching local culture and understanding of local history. One can’t help but think that their content has perhaps overturned one too many cobbles. 

It’s only appropriate to echo the words of Joe Williams: “history has given the impression that only certain people can be heroes and there is a continuity of African creativity being removed.” With Joe and Vanessa on the Leeds Black History Walk, each step you take leads you further into the injustice and misrepresentation of Black history yet also leads you into its richness and interest. 

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Image Credit: Leeds Inspired