By Mark McConville
THE lives of Black Americans who fled from the slave trade to Victorian Britain have been revealed in a new book.
Incredible images show Samuel Ringgold War who escaped to Britain in 1853 and had his book Autobiography of a Fugitive Slave published in 1855, Marta Ricks who was born a slave in Tennessee before arriving in Britain via Liberia and even met Queen Victoria, and Thomas Lewis Johnston who went to Cameroon as a Baptist missionary before settling in England.
Other striking shots show world bantamweight boxing champion George Dixon who fought in London in 1890, Peter Thomas Stanford who became the minister of Hope Street Baptist church in Birmingham, UK in 1889 and Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield who sang for Queen Victoria in Buckingham Palace.
Their remarkable stories are told in Jeffrey Green’s new book, Black Americans in Victorian Britain, published by Pen and Sword.
“British attitudes were affected by the testimony of these black witnesses who informed the British and Irish about life in the United States,” he writes in the book’s introduction.
“Individuals made their homes in Britain and married British people to an extent which might have surprised historian Benjamin Quarles who commented in 1969: ‘they posed no threat to the laboring man or to the purity of the national blood stream. Hence they received that heartiest of welcomes that comes from a love of virtue combined with an absence of apprehension’.
“Some refugees did not return after slavery was abolished and the Confederacy defeated.
“These and other experiences of African Americans in nineteenth-century Britain reveal overlooked elements in the history of the American people and aspects of the nature of Victorian Britain. Uncovered fragments are part of a mosaic, sometimes with only one piece discovered.”
Green’s book aims to name those Americans who immigrated to Britain in the hope that they will be researched in more detail, if he has been unable to find much out.
It also deals with the legacy those immigrants left and the effect it had on America and those who still lived there.
“Having crossed the Atlantic towards the rising sun, they had rejected the United States of America,” added Green.
“A number went further east by migrating to Australia and New Zealand suggesting their ambitions had not been satisfied by life in Britain. Thousands of British people migrated to the Antipodes, so we cannot be sure what had encouraged that secondary black migration which like the African American presence in Victorian Britain, is under-researched.
“The often superficial nature of newspaper reports and inconsistencies in official documents with the spelling of names is one difficulty but the almost total absence of ‘race’ as a concept is a major problem.
“No British birth, marriage or death registrations indicate ‘race’ or ‘color’ as American documents did. Schools, colleges, churches, chapels, graveyards, and street directories do not distinguish between the people they listed. For migrant African Americans, whose entire lives had been defined by the colour of their skin, this official blindness and its apparent recognition by the majority of Britons was so different to their natal land.
“African Americans who had lived in Victorian Britain had an impact on kinfolk in the United States. They influenced the British.”
Jeffrey Green’s book, Black Americans in Victorian Britain, is published by Pen and Sword.