Power in the Telling

Young Historians Project: African Women and the Health Service

This article is part of the ‘Power in the Telling’ feature – curated by the Windrush Strikes Back project – on the production of community-engaged histories of Black Britain.

The Young Historians Project (YHP) emerged as a result of the History Matters conference in 2015, as a youth-driven initiative to encourage and support other young people of African and Caribbean descent to pursue the study of history, whether as a hobby, a focus of study or a career. Our main activities revolve around historical research and oral history interviews conducted and delivered by young volunteers. Our members take part in various training workshops to develop skills in areas such as archival research and film editing. It is clear that there is a growing appetite for Black history in Britain. It is important that we centre young Black people in the production of these histories, to ensure that they are able to benefit from the skills that history provides, as well as learn and share community histories which are often not covered in mainstream education or research.

Nurse Ademola c. 1939

Our first project was on the Black Liberation Front (BLF), an organisation which played a key role in the Black community in London as well as developing links to liberation struggles throughout the African diaspora. This project resulted in the creation of a documentary film and an exhibition. Resulting from the success of the BLF project, we recognised that the history uncovered in the project focused heavily on people from the Caribbean and, more specifically, men. We decided that the next project needed to counter this.

With the 70th anniversary of the NHS in 2018, and the increasing recognition of the important contributions of the Windrush Generation, there has, happily, been more and more written on the contributions and experiences of Black nurses. However, these narratives have largely been centred on Caribbean women, to the exclusion of African women health workers. In this project we have readjusted the focus to allow us to write the history of these African women, through archival research and oral history interviews. We have gone beyond a focus on their significant contributions to the NHS to also write a wider social history of their lives in Britain.

YHP’s journey so far: Uncovering the History of African women and the British Health Service (1930-2000) from Young Historians Project on Vimeo.

The outputs of the project will be an eBook, a documentary, a mural and an online exhibition, as well as a podcast documenting this history in the making. We have completed over a dozen filmed oral history interviews at the time of writing, with women from a range of nationalities and professional roles from across the UK. We have researched in archives such as the Black Cultural Archives, The National Archives, London Metropolitan Archives and the George Padmore Institute on key questions related to this topic. We are also working closely with the Black Cultural Archives to make sure that our own records of our process of writing this important history will be preserved.

YHP’s Frankie Chappell (left) with one of our interviewees, Midah (middle), and YHP member, Ijeoma (right).

In 2015, history was the third least popular subject to study at undergraduate level among Black British students. Four years later, only 2.4% of Historical and Philosophical Studies (H&PS) undergraduates, 2.3% of H&PS postgraduates, and 0.5% of History staff are Black. YHP is aiming to change this landscape. The young people who volunteer with the project get to engage deeply with the histories we research, but also learn a wide range of skills from videography to public speaking.

In undertaking archival research and oral history interviews with women who are often left out of the historical record, we hope to make history more inclusive as a whole, and more attractive to those who have been made to feel that it’s not for them.

Written by: Frankie Chappell, member of YHP


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