Black History Month

By Hannah Albrecht (From Seeds September – October 2022)

On Sundays I walk to Augustine United Church from my little flat by Easter Road.

My route takes me past countless historic buildings and stately monuments, breath-taking views of the Old Town from Regent Road, and along the beauty and grandeur of the Royal Mile.

I’ve walked this way hundreds of times, but it’s not become old yet, after five years of living in Edinburgh, this city, these views. But my thoughts on it have become more complicated, more reflective, more critical.

It was along those streets that Lisa Williams led a dozen of us after a Sunday service in early June. We spent two hours on the Edinburgh Caribbean Association’s ‘Black History Walking Tour’ – two hours that weren’t nearly enough time to cover Edinburgh’s complicated, ugly history with the transatlantic slave trade and abolitionism, and at the same time, the powerful lives that People of Colour have been living here, to this day.

We learnt about the bitter history of Sugarhouse Close, a sugar emporium that was built on the work of slaves. We passed monuments to influential people whose riches and power came from the oppression of people of colour, such as tobacco merchant James Gillespie, or who further cemented racial injustice by endorsing slavery, such as David Hume. We heard hopeful stories of activist and reformer Frederick Douglass and his connections to abolitionist groups in Edinburgh.

Some people like to declare, dangerously, that the transatlantic slave trade is in the past and its effects are no longer felt. Lisa’s expertly woven stories and incredible knowledge of Edinburgh’s rich and painful history, however, showed us how wrong such a declaration would be. Hundreds of years of systematic oppression are not undone in a few decades. Slavery is indivisibly connected to the landscape of our city, the power it has given some people over others still felt today.

Lisa, whose own existence is inextricably connected to this history and its present consequences, offers these walks as part of a larger mission of ‘healing’. Her focus is on educating, on closing the gaping wounds that the long-term oppression of people of colour has created. And she is graciously inviting and powerfully urging us to join her.

As we in the URC explore the legacies of slavery, the ‘Black History Walk’ opens the conversation up even wider. What can we do to contribute to this healing process? How can we support the work of people like Lisa? What can we do to name and acknowledge the racial injustice in our society at large (and our city specifically) and, at the same time, work to actively abolish it? There is a long road ahead of us.

The path to healing is a difficult, complicated, stony one. But it is a walk we have to undertake if we want to create a city, a world in which there is equity for all.

Making apology – calling for reparations

Revd Dr Tessa Henry-Robinson has became the first woman from an ethnic minority background to be made Moderator-Elect of the United Reformed Church.

In the same week, the URC’s General Assembly made a confession and apology for the role of its antecedents in transatlantic slavery and its continuing complicity in the legacies of the trade today.

The Church also made a commitment to undertake practical actions to address ‘the continuing negative impacts of the legacies of transatlantic slavery on black communities in the UK, the Caribbean and Africa’.

As her first act as the Moderator for 2022-23, the Revd Fiona Bennett, with the Revd Adrian Bulley, Deputy General Secretary (Discipleship), declared that the confession and apology ‘is firmly rooted in the gospel call to repentance and gives life to the commitment in our Basis of Union to be “formed in obedience to the call to repent of what has been amiss in the past and to be reconciled.”’

They said: ‘We have heard the pain of sisters and brothers who have been hurt, and are still being hurt, by these legacies, including the continuing scourge of racism … In a spirit of humility and vulnerability, we are urged on by a movement of God’s Spirit, calling us for a journey of words and actions towards a future built on equity, justice, and love.’

Do we know?

The resolutions calling for both apology and practical actions in relation to the legacies of slavery have been introduced.

Karen Campbell, Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries (pictured) said: ‘The hurt of slavery is still real for millions of people. You may not see the wounds bleeding, but they are still not healed. I was born in Britain, but I stand before you as someone who belongs nowhere. I’m cut off from my history, with no way of knowing something as basic as my true family name, and this is a legacy of transatlantic slavery.’

She said the Legacies of Slavery Task Group has heard many testimonies and been asked many questions.

Karen has captured some of these in this poem.

Do they know, Karen,
Does the URC know
All that we face, day out and day in
What we see, what we hear
What we take in our stride
What it means
How it feels
To walk in our skin?

Can they imagine the sting,
Standing fresh in the church,
Offering gifts of talents and time,
And much more,
To be told, ‘You’re not needed
For this, nor for that –
We’ve called a white colleague
We knew from before’?

Do they know how it burns
When the message is shared
‘She says she’s not coming on any such day
That you lead, that you preach,
Because she insists
She can’t understand a word that you say’?

Do they have any idea
Just how much it smarts
When a colleague, in collar,
Seeks to keep me in check –
Says I welcome ‘your folks’ in the pews, but cannot
Accept a white collar
Around a Black neck?

Do they know, Karen,
Does the URC know
Just what we encounter
While they say we ‘belong’;
What it means to be Black in this Church –
Our Church?
Please, hear what we see –
See that something is wrong.

Karen Campbell, June 2022