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Long before Black Lives Matter there was…..

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Published on 01 October 2020

Celestine Edwards blue plaque
Celestine Edwards blue plaque

Experts from the University of Sunderland have been researching the work of Celestine Edwards and the contribution he made to anti-racism campaigns of the 19th Century.

On Thursday, October 15 – during Black History month - a blue plaque will be unveiled to Edwards.

Sunderland currently has a small Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) population - less than 5% - but as a port, there is a long history of immigration.

There is a recorded history of anti-slavery activities, first organised by the local Quakers in the city during the early 18th century, and so in celebrating Celestine Edwards’ contribution it is possible to see how the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has local relevance going back nearly 300 years.

The research has been led by Professor Donna Chambers and Professor Angela Smith of the University of Sunderland’s Race, Class and Ethnicity (RaCE) network.

Professor Smith said: “We found that there was very vocal support for the anti-slavery campaigns throughout the 19th century.

“There is already a plaque to commemorate the contribution of James Field Stanfield to the abolition of the slave trade, but what we found was that he was just one of many people in the city.

“A vital part of the campaigns was public events where speakers would offer impassioned appeals for a greater understanding and acceptance of black lives. In Sunderland, these events happened most frequently at the Assembly Hall on Fawcett Street.

“Celestine Edwards was a regular speaker there, even after he moved to London. Renowned African-American anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass shared the stage with Edwards on several occasions.”

The plaque will be unveiled on October 15 in a virtual ceremony and will later be put in place on the old Midland Bank building in Fawcett Street.

Professor Chambers added: “The recent social upheavals caused by the BLM movement have greatly accelerated efforts by a range of institutions to publicly acknowledge and celebrate the often silenced, but invaluable, contributions of Black people to British history and society.

“Celestine Edwards, as an editor of two magazines, was said to be Britain’s first black editor and he used this role and his many speeches at locations throughout the UK, to advocate strongly for the equality of black lives.

“Indeed, so diligent was he in his activism that he died from exhaustion in 1894 when was not yet 40 years old. It is therefore fitting that we finally recognise the contribution of Edwards as an impassioned anti-slavery campaigner who, while he resided in Sunderland, undoubtedly had a profound impact on the community in the period of the late 19th century.

“I believe that this blue plaque to Edwards, in this central location in the city of Sunderland, is long overdue and should serve as a permanent marker to highlight the value of black lives yesterday, today, and into the future.”

Black History Month has been marked in the UK since 1987.

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