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Archival Groundings: The life of Jessica Huntley by Dr Hannah Ishmael

Over the past few months, we have all had to adjust to a life lived online. For those of us who have been using archives for research we have also had to come to terms with exclusively using digitised material and making feverish plans to return to archives once they have reopened. For some, this period may have led to greater reflection on the growing interest in the ‘archive stories’[1] and acknowledging the power relationships inherent within archival holdings and the gaps within collections. Along with uncovering these archive stories and interrogating the gaps within the collections, my research has been looking at the ‘archival impulse’[2] that shapes the development of archives within communities, focussing on the development of Black-led archives and collections that led me to Jessica Huntley.

I have been reflecting not only on the stories held within archival collections, but also the routes that the collections have taken to become archives. It can be easy to overlook the huge effort behind the creation of archival collections, particularly those that represent marginalised communities. Jessica Huntley’s visionary attitude to collecting and ensuring the availability of material that honestly portrays Black lives and experiences, filling some of the gaps in our historical narratives, exemplifies the intersection between these archive stories and archival impulses.

Jessica Huntley nee Carroll, was born in British Guiana (now Guyana) on 23rd February 1927 and was active in trade union and anti-colonial activities from a young age. Jessica married Eric Huntley in 1950 and they soon became active in the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). Despite the PPP winning the general election of 1953, the constitution was overturned by the British Government and Eric Huntley, along with other senior members of the party were imprisoned. Eric Huntley was released in 1955, but found it difficult to find secure work, moving to England in 1957. Jessica Huntley remained behind to care for their young sons, Karl (named after Karl Marx) and Chauncey and continued within the party standing as a candidate in the 1957 general election. However, Jessica Huntley lost the election and decided to join her husband, arriving in England in 1958.  Their sons joined them in 1962 after the Huntley’s had saved enough money for their fare, and in 1959, their daughter Accabre (named after one of the rebels in an uprising) was born.

1968 would prove to be a major turning point for Jessica and Eric Huntley when they learnt that their good friend, Marxist historian Walter Rodney had been banned from re-entering Jamaica where he held a teaching post at the University of the West Indies. At the dawning of Black Power, Rodney had been actively involved in learning exchanges with the Rastafari community that made the newly independent Jamaican Government nervous. On learning of the banning of Rodney, Jessica Huntley organised a demonstration at the Jamaican Tourist Board against the ban and decided to type up and print copies of his speeches under the title ‘Groundings with my Brothers’. The popularity of ‘Groundings’ led the Huntleys to form Bogle L’Ouverture Press, which remains one of the foremost Black owned publication houses bringing Black history and culture to a mass audience. Bogle L’Ouverture went on to print Rodney’s key work, ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘Dread Beat and Blood’ and works by Andrew Salkey, Valerie Bloom and Lemn Sissay amongst others.

Jessica Huntley focussed on the importance of education, particularly cultural education that sought to disrupt the Eurocentric and white supremacist narratives that devalued African and Caribbean history and culture. Jessica Huntley was one of the first to recognise the importance of Bernard Coard’s widely influential work on the education of Black children in England during the 1970s, that would later be published under the title ‘How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System’. Melding politics and culture, Jessica Huntley, along with John La Rose of New Beacon Books and Darcus Howe of Race Today, was one of the founders of the renowned ‘International Book Fair of Radical and Third World Books’ that brought together audiences, publishers and writers throughout the 1980s and 1990s. As demonstrated throughout her work, Jessica Huntley ensured that education and access to resources was at the forefront of her political activism.

Following decades of political campaigning and activity that ranged from education to protecting young Black men from police violence, Jessica and Eric Huntley sought to ensure that this history was not lost. In 2005 they agreed to loan their impressive collection to London Metropolitan Archives and have annually held a conference that continues to bring communities together. Following her archival impulse, the Huntley collection remains a vital resource in the telling and sharing of Black British and Caribbean history.

Hannah Ishmael has recently completed her PhD thesis looking at the development of Black-led archives in London. Hannah works as the archivist at Black Cultural Archives and is a Teaching Fellow on the Archives and Records Management MA programme at UCL.

[1] Antoinette Burton (ed), Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions and the Writing of History (Duke University Press, 2005).

[2] Hal Foster, ‘An Archival Impulse’, October 110 (Autumn 2004).

Image credit: Nell Freeman