Here’s an accurate Black history of Edinburgh, from eugenics to reparations

Black students have attended the uni since the 1800s!

Did you hear David Hume pretty much got cancelled? Edinburgh Uni even changed the name of their infamous DHT to 40 George Square recently. I mean it’s pretty awkward when a great thinker and one of the Uni’s most famous alumnae doesn’t think very much of black people. Yikes.

Because, let’s face it, Edinburgh is oh-so white. The UK’s last census revealed that black people make up a measly 1.4 per cent of the city’s population. This context of a majority white space means that black stories and voices can be overlooked when care is not taken.

Beyond Edinburgh, black people are a minority group in the UK. That said, black people are only minorities in specific contexts. Black people around the world deserve respect and acceptance like everyone else. And believe it or not, there are places in the world where we don’t have to prove our humanity.

So here are some facts and stories that reveal a history of Edinburgh that dares to look beyond deceased male caucasians.  Cheers to all the people who were told to go back to Ahfricah and never did! We see you!

Here we go:

Freed African-American slave Frederick Douglass visited Edinburgh

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Frederick Douglass went from oppressed slave to an abolitionist intellectual. His story is incredible. After escaping his life of slavery in Maryland he fled to the North as a free man.

In 1846, Douglass gave a speech at the Assembly Rooms sharing the story of an escaped slave to an audience of over 2000 people!

Slave adverts appeared in Edinburgh papers

Adverts appeared in papers marketing the sale of enslaved people or offering rewards for their capture. In 1727 in the Edinburgh Evening Courant read:

“Run away on the 7th instant from Dr Gustavus Brown’s Lodgings in Glasgow, a Negro Woman, named Ann, being about 18 Years of Age, with a green Gown and a Brass Collar about her Neck, on which are engraved these words [“Gustavus Brown in Dalkieth his Negro, 1726.”] Whoever apprehends her, so as she may be recovered, shall have two Guineas Reward, and necessary Charges allowed by Laurence Dinwiddie Junior Merchant in Glasgow, or by James Mitchelson Jeweller in Edinburgh.”

Edinburgh’s infrastructure was built using slavery profits

By 1817, Scots owned about 37 per cent of the slaves on plantations in Jamaica. Edinburgh benefitted massively from these profits. Many of Newtown’s residents were involved in the slave trade and the luxury of the area reflected this.

Scotland’s first black professor overcame significant challenges

Sir Geoff Palmer OBE became Scotland’s first black professor in 1989. Before this achievement, he was rejected from a PhD at The Ministry of Agriculture. Unfazed by this, he accepted a place studying a PhD delivered by Heriot-Watt and The University of Edinburgh.

I spoke to the amazing professor and activist who shared his thoughts on academia in the UK, “academic staff representation in our higher education institutions does not reflect the racial demographics of our society. Black and others non-white graduates should be encouraged to to become academics. A diverse society requires diverse management to be fair and prosperous.”

Telephone-inventor Graham Bell supported eugenics

Acc 000095, Box 3, Folder 32 Alexander Graham Bell; “Photograph of Alexander Graham Bell, an American scientist and inventor of the telephone.”

Graham Bell attended The University of Edinburgh and is known best for inventing the telephone. However, he also supported the study of eugenics which insisted on the inferiority of non-white races and often sought to control or sterilise non-white populations.

Slaves took to court in 17th c Edinburgh to appeal for their freedom

Between 1756 and 1778 slaves attempted to obtain their freedom in Edinburgh courts. The last of these appeals was successful, the case of Joseph Knight. In 1778, the runaway servant argued that Scots law could not support the status of slavery and won.

When slavery ended, slave-owner reparations began

The 1833 Slavery Abolition Act freed hundreds of thousands of slaves in the Caribbean and beyond. Although this law ended legal slavery, it was the beginning of hefty payouts to slaveowners for their losses!

Muirhouse was a hotbed of anti-black racism in the 90s

The 90s saw organised far-right harrasment and violence against black folk living in the Muirhouse area in Northern Edinburgh. In response, the Muirhouse Anti-Racism Campaign was set up and campaigned for the council to pay for the costs of racism victims moving home and to evict perpetrators of racist crimes. They campaigned against the intimidation perpetrated largely by young men claiming to be a part of the far-right British Nationalist Party.

Black students have attended the university since 1809

Jamaican-born William Ferguson is the first known black student to enrol at the uni in 1809. Also, Africanus Horton from Sierra Leone, graduated from The University of Edinburgh Medical School in 1859. This info was revealed by the UncoverED research project. The project is led by students at our uni held an exhibition in 2018 celebrating non-white communities and historic figures linked to the uni.

You can take Black History walking tours of Edinburgh

The Edinburgh Carribean society organises tours from Old town to Newtown that reveal a fresh perspective on the monuments and sights of Edinburgh. All the autumn dates for the tours are sold out unfortunately but I’m sure more will pop up at the start of next year.