Over two decades ago, I held a conference in England to make historical links with this place and my community and culture. I learned about the slavery exhibition that was in Liverpool and I took a train ride from London to that city. As those who have continued to follow my writings online will recall, I wrote a very well read piece regarding the energy that I felt as I nearly got blown away at the Liverpool docks. I looked up at the masts of the ships there and immediately saw how people had the audacity to name enslavement vessels after Jesus given that the top of the masts resembled crosses. These vessels like crucifixes were symbolic of the death that would come, but those manning those ships didn’t even think of the new life that would rise in another land far from these ports.
I found myself back in Liverpool a decade later as the first Black and the first woman to lecture for the “International Slavery Museum” which replaced the exhibition that I originally saw. I had been to this country multiple times at that point and saw that in spite of the existence of the exhibition and now the museum, the people still did not get the fact that England had a massive amount to do with the TransAtlantic Slave Trade and the creation of the African Diaspora.
On my numerous journeys to England during their celebration of “Black History Month,” I also didn’t see an outpouring of Black scholars presenting on Black history nor were there Black people in the audiences of these lectures. Given that I had celebrated “Negro History Week” and later, “Negro History Month,” which has evolved into “Black History Month,” all my life, I was take aback by this. This was our time to shine and show out! So, I couldn’t bring myself to grasp what this lack of melanated people at these events and during this time of celebration here was about.
I was still not discouraged from continuing to search for the links to my cultural legacy in each of these British cities. I continued to bare the cold and walk the cobblestone to find out what was hidden beneath.
I made my way back here in 2007 when the commemoration of the abolition of the British Slave Trade took place and I thought that I would hear a great deal about this commemoration and see my people here pouring out into the streets, but that wasn’t the case. I took another journey to the British Museum where I had previously been given the hard stare at their library when I told them that I was an independent scholar from the Gullah/Geechee Nation doing research on the British involvement in slavery. The woman that let me in, after saying that I could not bring in my bag, my own pad, my pen or anything, was shocked by the materials that I requested to view and from which I took notes. I only had a short amount of time to delve into the few things that they listed that they had, but I knew that there was more. The simply fact that they did all of this extra work to try to keep me out spoke volumes to that effect. So, I kept searching.
The trip into the British Museum this time around was quiet and intriguing since there was a textile exhibition in a private part of the building that required a special ticket. A brother that was the security guard said, “Hello, family. Go ahead and take a look.” We proceeded inside and saw various cloths that were from Manchester and some from elsewhere that were African prints that are made and printed in Europe and then sent to Africa to sell. I knew from that day, I wanted to get to Manchester.
I was driven to get to Manchester like I was driven to get to Liverpool and into the exhibition so many years before. For the last decade, I made more trips to England and found myself in Leeds without having yet set my feet in Manchester. Aaah, but I was getting closer. The steps were still heading in that direction. So, I knew that the day would finally come when I would get to the city and see what the pull was about it.
As I kept searching for links, I knew that the major one would be textiles which my mind deduced to be cotton. Well, I had no idea just what a connection to cotton I would find! As we left Scotland for Manchester, every city along the way had farms of sheep for wool, but in the midst of them would be mills and names of mill cities. I knew that all of these mills could not have been set up and all of these trains couldn’t be running to them just for wool. This had to be the “cotton pickin’ “ link that I have been searching for. Sure enough it was!
The entire Lancashire Region was built by and from cotton. The majority of the spinning of it took place in towns of south Lancashire and north Cheshire. There were mill towns that have now become these cities that the train was making its way through. Manchester itself was built by the cotton that came via Liverpool and got milled and turned into cloth. So much so that it is called “Cottonopolis.” That cotton that Liverpool brought in came from Carolina. Whose hands were picking the cotton in Carolina? The hands were Gullah/Geechee. So, not only had the exploitation of my ancestors and their skills and knowledge built the infrastructure for what is now called “America,” it had also built this place.
As I walked the streets of Manchester, I felt a joy in finally completing a long awaited journey, but I also felt pain. I saw how gentrification was tearing up the stories that once stood here and were pushing out those who could tell those stories. I reflected on how this is being done in the cities of the Gullah/Geechee Nation.
I saw no markers that alerted you to the story that was below the cobblestone either. Yet, I knew that the stories were here. As usual, it is my job to bring them to the surface and to share them with those that may never get to walk these streets.
I kept walking to find the statue of the man that had written and signed the Emancipation Proclamation to only find that he had been taken away by gentrification, too. The monument that I was told was a must see was no longer standing in the city. The Abraham Lincoln statue was one of two that had been given to England by William Howard Taft’s son, Charles Phelps Taft. This younger Taft was the mayor of Cincinatti, OH. I didn’t know this when I stepped out of the doors of my hotel in Cincinnati and wondered if I was actually seeing Abraham Lincoln in the square across the street. I wanted to take a photo by that statue, but the rain stopped me from doing so.
The cold here was not going to stop me from digging deeper into this and finding more connections, though. I found out that the statue was actually to be a symbol of Anglo-American unity since the colonies that would become America and Britain had peace between them for 100 years. George Barnard created the statues for London and Liverpool as replicas of the one in Cincinatti. However, the president of London’s son didn’t like the design and dubbed it the “stomache ache statue.” So, London wouldn’t allow it to be erected outside of Parliament. Instead, it was erected at Platt Field Park in Manchester in 1919 where it remained until 1986.
The plaque on the statue bears the following inscription:
“the support that the working people of Manchester gave in their fight for the abolition of slavery during the American Civil War….By supporting the union under President Lincoln at a time when there was an economic blockade of the southern states the Lancashire cotton workers were denied access to raw cotton which caused considerable unemployment throughout the cotton industry.”
During the United States Civil War, the Union Army blockaded the southern ports which prevented cotton from getting shipped around the world. This caused what is known as the “Cotton Famine” in the United Kingdom. Riots broke out there because of the hardship suffered by the cotton workers that were now unemployed. Some cotton mill owners flew the Confederate flag on Lancashire mills.
The Confederacy wished that England would come to their rescue since this was causing both of their economies to suffer. However, we know that they waited in vain. Meanwhile, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The mill owners and workers saw this as an issue of tariffs against trade due to the blockades and on December 31, 1862, a meeting cotton workers met at the Free Trade Hall to vote to support the Union in its fight against slavery. It is unclear if they took this stance due to a letter that Lincoln wrote which included these words:
“To the working people of Manchester 19th January 1863 / I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working people of Manchester / and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis. It has been often and studiously / represented that the attempt to overthrow this Government which was built on the / foundation of human rights, and to substitute for it one which should rest exclusively / on the basis of slavery, was likely to obtain the favour of Europe. / Through the action of disloyal citizens the working people of Europe / have been subjected to a severe trial for the purpose of forcing their sanction / to that attempt. Under these circumstances I cannot but regard your decisive / utterances upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has / not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic / and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal / triumph of justice, humanity and freedom … I hail this interchange of sentiments / therefore, as an augury that whatever else may happen, whatever misfortune / may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exists / between the two nations will be as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.”
Unfortunately, none of this is written on the rebuilt walls of the Free Trade Hall which is now a hotel. I recognized the building from the outside due to my research and was looking forward to reading a marker about this human rights work that had been discussed there. However, the only writing on the walls was about how the building had been rebuilt in the 1950s.
Rebuilding and removing seemed to be a theme around here. In 1986, the Lincoln statue was moved from Platt Fields to where I was now walking, Lincoln Square. This area was the center of town. Yet, it seems that the town didn’t center on it. An article in the Manchester Evening News during the time of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery read:
“The statue of Abraham Lincoln in Brazenose Street has suffered from the ravages of pollution and the weather, leaving it almost impossible to read the words on its plaque.”
Now, we couldn’t read the plaque because the statue had been removed and Lincoln Square is being gentrified. I shook my head as I walked away from looking at the construction site. However, I gave thanks for knowing enough about history to seek it out on every journey. It was good to know that I was walking through a city that once contained people that supported the Union forces in which many Gullah/Geechees served. Had my ancestors not left the cotton fields to fight for freedom, there would be no monument to look for and I would not be on this side of the world to which cotton had also made its journey. Thankfully, the cotton famine fed freedom for the Gullah/Geechee and I can walk away telling this story.