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Why the NUJ backs Black history month in Scotland

3 July 2014

Dominic Bascombe

The NUJ has long campaigned on equality matters and supports organising events during the annual Black history month celebrations across the country including in Scotland.

But do we need to celebrate Black history month?

Every October, the UK celebrates Black history month with a wide variety of events held in communities around the country. But just why do we celebrate Black history month, particularly in Scotland where the black population is a miniscule proportion of the general population?

The recognition of Black history began in the United States in 1926. Initially called Negro history week, it was the result of lobbying by black historians and civic society. The second week of February was chosen because it marked the birthdays of both former President Abraham Lincoln and former slave and abolitionist campaigner Frederick Douglas.

With a firm emphasis on teaching black history in schools, it gained in popularity and was eventually being marked by many schools across the USA.

By 1976, its importance was sufficiently recognised for president Gerald Ford to declare it: Black history month, saying that the country needed to: "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history (sic)."

Recognition in the United Kingdom didn't take place until 1987 however, after calls by campaigners to widely promote the month. Again, there was a firm emphasis on education and October was the perfect month as schools resumed after the summer holidays.

Scotland's celebrations of Black history month, although small in scale, are of great significance.

For a number of years, Scottish historians ignored the role that Scottish merchants played in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, choosing instead to focus on the role of Scots in the abolition movement.

In fact, there was a lively trade of Scottish merchants making their fortunes from the barbaric trade in human lives. So lucrative was this business, even the Scottish bard Robert Burns considered moving to a Jamaican plantation to make his fortune.

In more recent years however, it has become widely recognised that Scotland needed to acknowledge its role in both the slave trade and the subsequent abolitionist movement.

Scottish slave owners, though small in number, were brutal. Yet Scotland took the initiative in banning slave ownership a number of years before the rest of the world.

The connections with slavery remain today in the buildings and structures in Merchant City in Glasgow and street names across Scotland.

A new exhibition in the city's Kelvingrove museum also highlights some of Scotland's slave trade links.

For the past decade, Black history month has been celebrated in Scotland, with a large number of events taking place in Glasgow. The events are keen to focus on why celebrating Black History month is important for everyone in our society.

In October 2013, the NUJ hosted an event at the Mitchell Library exploring some of those connections between Scotland and the slave trade.

'Sun, Sea, Sand and Scotland: Scotland's role in Empire, slavery and the Caribbean" featured historical talks by academics well as readings by Scottish and Caribbean authors exploring these links. Speakers included author Chris Dolan, academic Paul Sutton, Jamaican poet and author Kei Miller and Scottish historian Eric Graham.

Black history month provides an opportunity to recognise and celebrate the achievements of black citizens in Scotland, the UK and the world. It helps to address the stereotypes often portrayed of black people as well as helping to educate us all.

It is vital that people of all races understand that Black history is not about idolizing black culture; nor is it about recognising Black issues over any other. Nor is it about arguing for any sort of superiority. Black history is the collective history of all of us. It is impossible to separate Scottish history from black history.

The union encourages branches and chapels to organise events. For support and assistance email: campaigns@nuj.org.uk

Dominic Bascombe is Assistant Organiser at the National Union of Journalists in Scotland.

Tags: , equality, black history, black members, scotland, events