Winds of change

Paul Reid, the director of the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, talks to Eleanor Mills about activism, history and how to make change happen
Profile image for Eleanor Mills
Eleanor Mills
“You can go anywhere in the world and mention Brixton and people have a sense of where that is,” says Paul Reid, the director of the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) in Brixton, London. “The area is synonymous with activism, struggle, those types of qualities, and the change that’s taken place here. We can look back and see it as history to be proud of.”

The BCA very much embodies that change. It has grown from archive facilities first in Kennington, then on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, opening as a public venue in 2014 under Reid’s directorship. It is still the only institution of its kind in Britain – a place that tells the histories of the black people of Britain over centuries via objects, documents, publications and oral histories.
Reid describes the venue as “enabling the black community to tell its own stories and its own history in its own voice for the first time”. The venue attracts a different demographic from many UK cultural institutions  – half black, half white, most in the 18-to- 34-year old age bracket.

Reid was born and brought up in Brixton and has been part of the activism and change that’s taken place there over the years. He was involved in the 1981 Brixton uprisings, yet later held managerial positions at Lambeth Borough Council.

“I had a flat with some mates, and on the day when things kicked off in Brixton in 1981, I remember the telephone call, and our response as a group of young black boys living together in Brixton Hill, it was not it’s time to get our own back, but actually, yeah, there’s some unresolved business,” Reid recalls.

The riots came at a point of high unemployment, deprivation, racial tensions and poor relations with police. It was that same year that the ambition of the black historian and activist Len Garrison came to fruition in the founding of the Black Cultural Archives. The institution has come a long way since then and now has a home on Windrush Square in Brixton town  centre. But it hasn’t been a straightforward journey.

“Our founding chairman, Len Garrison, passed away in a management committee meeting, and Mike Lyon, another chairman who unfortunately got cancer, spoke about the importance of this place right down to his final words,” says Reid.
“There are people in our community who have more or less given their entire life to the changes that we’re talking about. We’ve had to fight for this. The baton being passed on represents transference of responsibility, but there also has to be memory and continuity, and there’s an art to that.”

Pillar of the community

Reid speaks passionately about the BCA and its mission, and it’s obvious how central he’s been to Brixton, and how central Brixton has been to him. As the town centre manager, Reid has been key in making the Brixton we see now.

“The creation of Windrush Square and this building was an important project when I was at the council,” Reid says. “Prior to what you see today, this was a space that some people didn’t like. There were drug dealers and all sorts of undesirable activities taking place.”

Reid says that he was quite an unconventional council officer. “My background was youth work and community development, and my relationships around Brixton are second to none,” he says. “At the council, I had the identity of an activist, juxtaposed with the identity of a local authority officer.”

Working with his manager at the council they reimagined Brixton’s central Windrush Square, and hoped it would be a catalyst for change. “I certainly didn’t pre-empt the Brixton we’ve got today, the gentrified Brixton. I think things have tipped too far personally. There’s been winners and losers, and far too many losers were black people that struggled for that change.”

One of Reid’s biggest aims is for the BCA to have a far higher profile. “From 1981 to when we opened in 2014 you’ve got this continuous community development self-help tradition, but also learning about how the black community professionalises this stuff,” he says. “This is because we’re perceived to sit alongside spaces like the V&A and the British Museum, however we hold a unique and undefined space that straddles community and cultural heritage.”

Raising funds

But Reid says that raising money for capital projects and finding ongoing revenue to  support them has been challenging over the years, and that a lot of schemes have fallen through.

“If you refer to something as a black project, you’re asking the black community to finance it,” he says. “But the black community in this country is considered a minority, and from within that minority there’s a minority that will give. We tend to volunteer more than anyone else but we’ve still not cracked the sustainable black organisation.”

Reid points to the equivalent of the BCA in the US, the $600m National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 and is part of the Smithsonian Institution, which operates 19 museums and a zoo.

“I’m targeting the UK government for funding,” Reid says. “The Windrush generation scandal has been a great window of opportunity for us to make sure that people pay attention.”

The Windrush scandal came to the fore in May this year and is centred on those people who were invited to take residence in the UK and travelled from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971 to do so – some on the Windrush ship – but were never given proper documentation proving their indefinite right to remain.
The scandal arose over the Home Office requesting documentation proving residency from all that time ago. The BCA held surgeries for people going through the trauma of having to do so, and Reid has been campaigning for legislation to change ever since.

“There was a parliamentary debate around the Windrush scandal that I attended,” Reid says. “Representatives from Lambeth council were there and I was in the gallery. The politicians David Lammy, Dawn Butler, Diane Abbott and Helen Hayes didn’t just get up and start talking, they each presented papers. And every one of those contributions, without exception, referred to the Black Cultural Archives.

“I haven’t been attending these roundtable events at the Home Office around Windrush to celebrate us and to roll out red, gold and green bunting and have lovely tea parties in Windrush Square – I’m not there for that. I’m there to establish a lasting legacy.”

On a wider level, Reid wants to see black history embedded in the cultural and education sectors, backed up by an acceptance  that this narrative is part and parcel of the fabric of UK society.

Black History Month

“In fact, I want to ban Black History Month real soon because we should have passed this stage by now,” he says. “Not to say that people don’t use the month to do good work, but we’re not talking about it the other 11 months of the year. You can’t have a situation where on the one hand we talk about all these great black projects and all of this, but at the same time struggle to identify five black national institutions.”

You can look at the BCA as an archive and exhibition space, but actually it’s more a hub for conversation, for thought, for meditation and for campaigning for a rounded, inclusive history. Reid says it is very important to involve the public in exhibition programmes and give people a voice.

“The BCA is an antidote to a narrow marginalising of black history. This isn’t about a job. There’s real purpose here,” says Reid. “We can change the mainstream account of British history, which becomes fundamental to how we see ourselves and how others see us.”

Paul Reid at a glance

Paul Reid has been the director of the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) since 2006.

He has an MA in multicultural urban education from the UCL Institute of Education, and diplomas in independent studies and management.

Before he joined the BCA, Reid was the capacity-building third sector manager for Lambeth Borough Council, and before that was the Brixton town centre manager.

In 1999, Reid co-founded the charity New Initiatives Youth and Community Association. The charity runs the Origin: African-centred Rites of Passage Programme, which works with young black men to support them from childhood to adulthood. Reid still leads the programme in his spare time.

Black Cultural Archives at a glance

The Black Cultural Archives (BCA) was founded in 1981 by the black historian and activist Len Garrison. Its original location was in Kennington, before moving to Coldharbour Lane in Brixton.

In 2014, after a £7m fundraising campaign, the BCA opened in its current venue, a Grade II-listed building, number 1, Windrush Square in Brixton.

The BCA still has a store in Kennington.The organisation receives no central government funding and runs on just £750,000 a year, most of which goes on staffing and maintaining high quality archive conditions.

There are 10 full-time members of staff and 100 volunteers. To this day, the BCA remains the only national heritage centre dedicated to collecting, preserving and celebrating the histories of black people in Britain.

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