Nottingham's Forgotten Race Riot & Me
By James Denham
Saturday 23rd August 1958 is perhaps the single most important day in the history of Nottingham’s race relations. At approximately 22:00 that evening, a young mixed race couple entered The Chase pub in the St Ann’s Well Road area, sparking a mass brawl between members of the city’s Caribbean community and a group of white ‘niggerchasing’ Teddy Boys. At the time, it was the biggest race riot for a generation, but today, it’s fast becoming another forgotten chapter of Black British history.
As a mixed-race man born and raised in Nottingham, it’s hard to imagine such violence taking the place in the city I’m proud to call home. Although I’ve encountered pockets of racial abuse growing up, I wouldn’t single-out Nottingham for being a particularly intolerant city.
Granted, the racial slurs and off-hand remarks I’ve experienced during my formative years have hurt me, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any other racialised communities, notably South Asian people, who hasn’t been through similar experiences. After all, according to the most recent census, Nottingham has one of the biggest mixed-race populations in the UK, and remains one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country. But facts can sometimes divert us from a deeper, insidious truth. And in the summer of 1958 that truth spilled out onto the streets of St Ann’s.
In the weeks leading up to the riot, racial tensions had been building in the city for some time. With the end of the post-war economic boom, Nottingham, like many other industrial cities in the late 1950s, saw growing resentment towards its migrant communities, as employment in the once thriving job market began to dry up.
Since we have no official records to tell us what started the riot, we are left to piece together the events of that evening by examining eye-witness accounts, the majority of which point to a confrontation between a mixed-race couple and a group of white males as the catalyst for the violence.
This led to a string of racially motivated attacks aimed at the West Indian community, with some reports suggesting that black workers were refused employment in Nottingham’s factories.
Accordingly, the injustices faced by the Caribbean community throughout this period has left many to speculate that the outbreak of violence on the 23rd August was largely in retaliation to the abuse experienced by newly formed migrant communities.
Indeed, it is through the examination of eyewitness reports, and the limited newspaper archives, that we are able to grasp the true brutality of the fighting. As one report states, there were up to 1,000 people in the street, some armed with knives and cutthroat razors, resulting in a number of individuals being hospitalised with stab wounds. By the end of the rioting, an article from The Nottingham Post described the scene as like “a slaughterhouse.”.
Although the Nottingham Race Riot gained nationwide attention, its impact was soon overshadowed by the outbreak of severe racial violence a week later in Notting Hill. Consequently, this has meant that the legacy of the Nottingham Race Riot has been gradually fading with every year that passes, as those who were there that fateful evening begin to diminish.
For me, the story of the Nottingham Race Riot symbolises the continued erasure of black British history from our collective consciousness. When I attended secondary school in the mid to late 2000s, I was taught that black history began with the onset of the transatlantic slave trade, and ended with the triumph of the civil rights movement. While this reductive account of black history gave me a basic understanding of black people’s place within the Western world, mainly as slaves and second-class citizens, it didn’t help me to come to terms with my immediate context as a Mixed White British/Black African person of Ghanaian ancestry living in the East Midlands. As far as my school curriculum was concerned, black people had arrived in England aboard the Empire Windrush and then simply vanished into thin air.
ndeed, this was the question that led me to create my own race awareness platform, ‘Black Friends’, towards the end of last year. Operating under this alias, I started a blog, launched a podcast and hosted a series of live Q&A events with some of Nottingham’s most prominent black creatives, in an attempt to get Nottingham talking about race, and the way it shapes the world around us.
As the events of this summer unfolded, and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked new life into the Black Lives Matter movement, I found myself once again returning to the story of the Nottingham Race Riot. The 62nd anniversary was approaching, and I decided to feature the story as an episode of the ‘Black Friends’ podcast.
Those wanting to uncover an accurate depiction of the black British experience are required to search for themselves, as I did during my time at university, where my reading of Renni Eddo-Lodge’s ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race’ first turned me on to the story of the Nottingham Race Riot. But is it fair that people without access to these resources are denied the opportunity to truly understand their history, and by extension, their place within society?
Interviewing a member of the public, whose father took part. In the fighting on the Caribbean side, was a special moment. Hearing them speak, as they passed down the experiences of their Father to me, it showed me how black history can be re-packaged in order to subvert conventional historical narratives. And as I reflect on this year’s Black History Month, at a time when the UK sits on the verge of another lockdown, it’s experiences such as this that reassure me that black voices will continue to find a way to have their stories heard.
It’s only by passing on stories from generation to generation that the story of the Nottingham Race Riot has lived on. Covid-19 has made older people particularly vulnerable to loneliness and isolation. Why not call or video chat with black elders in your community and ask them about their lived experiences.
Once you’ve spoken to an elder, think about the ways that you can share their stories. Perhaps through posting on social media, writing a short story, writing a poem, writing a song, or making a piece of art that is based on their experiences.
If you are interested in exploring Caribbean black British history further, watch Small Axe, a new film series directed by Academy Award, Bafta and Golden Globe-winning filmmaker, Steve McQueen.
The commissioning of Small Axe is significant, but there needs to be more investment in histories and stories outside of London for national film, television, and theatre to contribute to the public awareness of black history and culture across the UK. The story doesn’t start and end with England’s capital city.