How saved sound heritage helped me discover the radical lives of Eric and Jessica Huntley
Eric and Jessica Huntley came to the UK from Guyana in the late 50s, part of the Windrush generation. They were pioneering political activists, involved in many grassroots campaigns for racial and social justice, both nationally and internationally. They are highly respected in the African-Caribbean community and beyond for their work in giving a voice to black people in the UK.
I’ve only recently discovered the legacy of Eric and Jessica through my placement at the London Metropolitan Archives, where the Huntley archives are stored. It was the LMA’s first major deposit from the African-Caribbean community, and it reveals the story of the changing cultural landscape in Britain since the 1950s.
Within the collection is a series of interviews that the Huntleys did with Professor Harry Goulbourne in 1992, recently digitised through a British Library-led project that the LMA are part of, called ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’. The project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and, over a period of five years, will preserve almost half a million rare sound recordings that are at risk of being lost, on formats that are physically degrading and gradually becoming obsolete. Through this, I’ve been able to access audio heritage that has helped me understand the importance of Jessica and Eric’s story.
Here’s one of my favourite clips that I’ve discovered from the interviews, which is of Jessica describing her first job in a shirt factory back in Guyana:
I love this story because its shows Jessica’s early revolutionary spirit in calling out injustice, even before she moved to the UK. Once they did, she and Eric went on to campaign about everything from housing discrimination to National Front attacks, and even helped organise the ‘Black People’s Day of Action’ march in 1981, which was the largest protest march of black Britons to take place in the UK. They maintained an international involvement in politics, continuing to demonstrate against government injustices in Guyana, the South African apartheid regime, and the incarceration of Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was on death row in Pennsylvania, USA.
Though not officially part of the Black Power movement, the Huntleys were influenced by its key figures. Here’s Jessica reflecting on Malcolm X’s visit to the UK in the 1960s:
A key part of the Huntley’s activism was through their publishing company and bookshop, Bogle-L’Ouverture, which they set up in 1968, originally in their front room. It was named in honour of two freedom fighters – Toussaint L’Ouverture and Paul Bogle – who were both figure heads in black resistance against the slave trade. It was one of the first black publishing houses in the UK, at a time when books by black authors were rare in mainstream bookshops. This was an important action to stop the voice of black history from being silenced. Once established, the bookshop became a venue for workshops, readings and lectures, and an important community hub. Some notable writers they printed were Linton Kwesi Johnson, the only black poet published by Penguin Modern Classics, and Sir Walter Rodney, after whom the bookshop was renamed following his assassination in 1980.
Eric and Jessica saw the importance of preserving history for community and education. They kept many records of British racism and black activism, and believed in the power of the written word to document the contribution of African-Caribbean people, as Jessica explains:
This belief in preserving heritage and passing down history led to the Huntleys depositing their archives with the LMA. They are managed by a charity called FHALMA (Friends of the Huntley Archives at LMA), who work to bring the material to life and expose it to wider audiences and new generations. One way they do this is by hosting an annual Huntley Conference at the LMA. This year’s conference marked 50 years of Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications. Attendees had the chance to record an audio memory of Jessica, who passed away in 2013, which will later be added to the sound archive. I had the opportunity to volunteer at the conference, helping record these memories – including this one from Eric himself, below. Having listened to so many of his archived interviews, it felt like a huge privilege to be recording one myself.
In June, the LMA and FHALMA are collaborating with arts and diversity organisation Culture& to host ‘The Memory Archives’, an event commemorating Windrush Day. The programme will use sound material, including that of the Huntley Archives, as a reminiscence tool for people living with dementia – particularly those from the African-Caribbean community. ‘The Memory Archives’ will take place at the London Metropolitan Archives on Saturday 22nd June – save the date and we hope to see you there!
Kirsty Kerr is an Archives and Digital Media Trainee at Culture& and a volunteer on the LMA’s ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ project.