Stoke-on-Trent – Staffs Black History

By Robert Burns

Once seen as Europe’s friendliest city its governance no longer fits that status, although it must be said that although much of the city’s authorities have questionable ethics, by far the bulk of the population are not racist and absorb the local multi-cultural population as it’s own. The legendary poet Arthur Brown referred to the famous Stoke-on-Trent oatcake as the ‘Potteries Poppadum’.

Staffordshire and Stoke do not have terrible history in regard to the slave industry. Although we know that rich households had Black slaves as a status symbol of their wealth though local records do not record this. The relative freedom of this area may be the reason that free slave Francis Barber moved here.

Francis Barber

Francis Barber (about 1745 to 1801) was originally from Jamaica, he was Samuel Johnson’s valet and secretary at his house in Gough Square, London. Barber arranged Johnson’s trips, received documents and kept his diary. Johnson was known to be very fond of Barber – when as a youth he ran away to sea, Johnson arranged for him to be discharged. He later paid for him to be educated at Bishop’s Stortford School.

When Johnson died in 1784 he left his estate and a gold watch to Barber. Francis settled in Litchfield, Staffordshire, where his descendants still live including Cedric Barber who we believe is still living in Stoke-on-Trent.

In modern times the region has become increasingly right wing, resembling some of the racism, we as a group of organisers have faced from the institutional racism of the police and the council for many years, indeed Stoke-on-Trent Council Cabinet recently selected a BNP member to become mayor.

People of Staffordshire should embrace the Black community and its history of decency, for their work, community spirit, honesty and openness and not listen to the minority of racists and blamers who pigeon hole all Black people.

Josiah Wedgwood

Something that many people in Stoke-on-Trent don’t realise is that Josiah Wedgwood was a prominent and fierce Abolitionist. The Wedgwood medallion was the most famous image of a black person in all of 18th-century art. Josiah Wedgwood, Britain’s renowned potter, was a man of conscience, deeply interested in the consequences of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution.

L0001806 Portrait of Josiah Wedgwood after Sir J. Reynolds Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Portrait of Josiah Wedgwood Engraving By: Joshua Reynoldsafter: S.W. ReynoldsPublished: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Josiah Wedgwood ‘Am I Not A Man And A Brother?’

The kneeling slave shackled in chains remains the icon of the Abolitionist Movement. ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ it asks humbly. And it is evident that through the success of the medallion that Wedgwood had succeeded in bringing universal attention the horrors of slavery.

As an ardent appreciator of Wedgwood pottery Benjamin Franklin was a promoter and distributor of the cameo. His commitment is recorded in a letter:

‘I am distributing your valuable present of cameos among my friends in whose countenances I have seen such marks of being affected by contemplating the figure of the Suppliant (which is admirably executed) that I am persuaded it may have an effect equal to that of the best written pamphlet in procuring honour to those oppressed people’.

From the National Museum of American History:

This medallion, first made in 1787, became a popular icon in the British movement for the abolition of the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Staffordshire pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood probably engaged sculptor Henry Webber to create the design of a kneeling slave, his hands in chains, a figure based on the cameo gemstones of antiquity. The modeler, William Hackwood, then prepared the medallion for production in Wedgwood’s black jasper against a white ground of the same ceramic paste. Above the figure the words “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?” appeal to the reason and sentiment of late-eighteenth-century men and women, disturbed by accounts of atrocities committed on the trans-Atlantic slave trade routes, and informed by abolitionist literature distributed in coffee-houses, taverns, public assembly rooms, reading societies, and private homes.

The medallion expressed in material form the growing horror at the barbarous practices of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the premises upon which that trade thrived. Wedgwood produced the medallion for the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave trade, founded in 1787 by Thomas Clarkson, who in 1786 published his Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. Wedgwood was a member of the Committee – later known as the Society for the Abolition of the Slave trade – and it is likely that distribution of the medallions took place through the organization, and that Wedgwood bore the costs himself.

In America, Quaker groups were active in their opposition to the slave trade in the late seventeenth century. When British opposition emerged in the 18th century from among the non-conformist congregations – Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, and Unitarians – communication between the North American and British groups was quickly established. In 1788, Josiah Wedgwood sent a packet of his medallions to Benjamin Franklin, then president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, with the words:

“It gives me great pleasure to be embarked on this occasion in the same great and good cause with you, and I ardently hope for the final completion of our wishes.” Franklin wrote to Wedgwood: “I am persuaded [the medallion] may have an Effect equal to that of the best written Pamphlet in procuring favour to those oppressed people.”

Neither Franklin, nor Wedgwood, lived to see those wishes fulfilled.

The medallion became the emblem for the British movement carried forward by Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, leading to Parliament’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Men and women appropriated the cameo for personal ornament on snuff-box lids, shoe buckles, hair pins, pendants, and bracelets. By 1807, and before the abolition of slavery in all the British colonies in 1838, many versions of the kneeling slave found their way onto the surface of artifacts made in ceramic, metal, glass and fabric. The representation of the slave in the Wedgwood medallion carries several conflicting meanings. Here we see a man on his knees, pleading to his white masters, and perhaps to God at a time when many slaves took the Christian faith. The rhetorical question, “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER”, calls for pity, but at the same time demands a review of the black African’s place in the world as fellow human being, rather than a separate species, a status conferred upon them by slave owners and traders. The image of the kneeling slave is noble, but at the same time without threat; he kneels, and he is in chains. He may represent the literary figure of the “noble savage,” and at the same time draw forth in late 18th-century white men and women their sense of magnanimity. Materially, the medallion underscores the message with the figure rendered in black on a white, or in some versions a pale straw-colored background.

Against fierce opposition, and for all their contradictions, hypocrisies, and ill-informed sentiments, the British campaigners for the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and for the abolition of slavery, were astonishingly successful in achieving their aims. Strategies like widespread petitioning, the distribution of leaflets, pamphlets, and printed images, and the production of artifacts like this medallion, established the tactics for subsequent political and social pressure groups on local, national, and now on a global scale. The printed T-shirt, badges, and mugs distributed or sold today are the descendents of the Wedgwood medallion.

Black Heritage of Roy & Dougie Brown

Roy Brown was a talented footballer and he was signed by Stoke City on leaving school at 14, he was their first black player. The Second World War interrupted his football career although he did play for the club in the Football Regional League. He made his debut in 1941 and played a few games before joining the armed services. The league did not resume until the 1946-47 season. Brown scored14 goals in 74 games for Stoke City.

Dougie Brown trained as a physiotherapist to help in the recovery of injured soldiers. In 1967 Doug set up the first “Lads-and-dads” matches on local school football pitches, which had previously been closed at weekends. For his work with Lads and Dads he was nominated by Footballers Garth Crooks and Robbie Earle for the BBC People’s Awards.

The same year Doug joined the Labour Party. He was appointed Lord Mayor in 1984 and then later helped to set up “Match Mates” to help combat Hooliganism.