Liverpool has taken centuries to elect non-white people to the highest offices.
But that’s all changed within the space of less than two years.
Led now by a Black mayor, with part of the city represented in Westminster by a Black Member of Parliament, and at one point concurrently having a Black Lord Mayor.
Each the first Black person in their role in this city. Each a Black woman.
Flashback 40 years ago to the Toxteth riots of 1981 and there were no Black councillors or MPs in Liverpool, home to one of the oldest continuous Black communities in Europe for over 300 years.
Michelle Charters, CEO of Kuumba Imani, a multi-cultural community centre in Liverpool 8, the historic home of Liverpool’s Black community, was at the count centre when recently-elected Mayor of Liverpool Joanne Anderson’s victory was announced.
READ MORE:Toxteth is picking up the pieces after the year from hell under coronavirus
She told the ECHO of a trip around Liverpool city centre on a walking tour led by Laurence Westgaph, a local historian.
Laurence whipped out an advert from a London newspaper proving the sale of slaves on Water Street, where Liverpool Town Hall and the first Black mayor’s office stand today.
Michelle told the ECHO : “When Joanne was announced as the mayor, my subconscious mind just flashed back to that image. And for me, it was a very emotional moment.
“Because it was like, finally, you know, here we go, we’ve got there, we’ve done it.”
Anna Rothery was appointed Lord Mayor in 2019 following the resignation of her predecessor, who had shared a racist video. She was the first Black Lord Mayor of Liverpool, but someone almost beat her to it.
A quarter of a century before, in 1994, Petrona Lashley, the city’s second Black councillor, representing Toxteth’s Granby ward, was on the verge of taking the position, already holding the role of deputy Lord Mayor.
But it was not to be. News spread through the city of her spent prior convictions for sex work to feed her kids, and a more recent one from before her election to the council for obtaining property by deceit.
The Labour Party promptly dropped her as a candidate both for Lord Mayor and for councillor. It would be over 10 years before another Black person was elected to Liverpool City Council.
It could have been less than a decade between the first Black female councillor being elected in Liverpool and the appointment of the city’s first Black Lord Mayor. Instead it took 32.
Kim Johnson, Liverpool’s first Black MP, was elected in December 2019. She remembers the fall of Petrona Lashley.
She told the ECHO : “I knew her. I knew her kids. I went to school with her kids. She was a strong, formidable Black woman trying to make change in the community. I just think it was despicable what happened to her.”
Kim suspects people took Petrona down because they were afraid of Black people getting into positions of power, saying: “that’s what tends to happen, doesn’t it?”
The Riverside MP said: “I think that’s always been the situation with Black people in the community, you know. People might have had some involvement with the police, or their family had some involvement with the police. Should that preclude them from ever being able to get on and do stuff?”
Ben Osu, 28, has been a community activist in Toxteth since he was 13. He knows the importance of having role models and opportunities to give Black kids a chance to succeed.
He works with anti-racism charity, the Anthony Walker Foundation, which launched a ‘You Cannot Be What You Cannot See’ campaign last year. This involved billboards featuring famous and successful Black people in Liverpool, including footballers, social workers, and Anna Rothery.
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Speaking of what it takes to break free from the mould, Ben told the ECHO : “It takes an awful lot of courage, for a lot of people, especially Joanne, who actually went out there to be judged by the public, in effect.
“It takes an awful lot of courage to stand up and put your head above the parapet, and stand for what you stand for on a public platform. Because you will constantly be judged, you will constantly be knocked down.
“And whilst you will have the support of many people, the negative thoughts and opinions and viewpoints will always be the ones that are the loudest and that will shine through.”
It also takes the work and support of people and groups who came before, who struggled and suffered and succeeded before, and who may not get their portraits hung on the walls of the Town Hall.
When Liz Drysdale, Liverpool’s second Black and first Black female city councillor was elected in 1987, Ray Quarless, now 69, was working with the Steve Biko Housing Association in her Granby ward, or what is today Princes Park.
Originally the Liverpool 8 Housing Association, it was launched in 1982 in the aftermath of the riots, to overcome discrimination against Black people in accessing social housing and to improve the quality of homes left to deteriorate in an area neglected by the city council.
Ray told the ECHO : “Joanne is there because of the struggle of others. That’s why she’s there. She’s there through her efforts, by all means, but she is also there because of the struggle of others.”
Names rolled off his tongue as he listed the people who lay the foundations for what was to come, including Dorothy Kuya, an anti-racist activist and the namesake of a University of Liverpool student halls, whose previous namesake, former Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, was raised on the proceeds of slavery.
From the ashes of the Toxteth riots rose a flurry of community initiatives that lay and grew these roots of change. Among them was the Steve Biko Housing Association, a new creation, and the Liverpool Black Sisters, who had existed since the 1970s.
Michelle Charters joined the Sisters when she was 17. Liz Drysdale, the city’s first Black female councillor, was already a member.
Michelle, 58, told the ECHO : “It was a hub. It was a strength of sisterhood, for us at a time when we were having a really hard time.
“We couldn’t get into jobs, and we couldn’t get the academia that others were getting, and we didn’t have the opportunities that others had. So it was a really good support network of Black women.”
The Sisters’ dream was to have a permanent base from which to improve the lives of Black women in their community. The Kuumba Imani Millennium Centre, founded in 2004, is their legacy.
Michelle is proud to be a caretaker of that dream. She told the ECHO : “Liz Drysdale, Maria O’Reilly, all the elders, my peers, who I absolutely looked up to, listened to, and really learned a lot from, they’re the ones who were like, ‘Well I’m not having this’, and that made you say, ‘Well I’m not having it either.’
“And to this day, I see them. To this day, I acknowledge them. To this day, I acknowledge that Kuumba Imani is the vision of the Liverpool Black Sisters. You know, it was their vision, it was their dream.”
This story of support and solidarity is the story of how the series of Black firsts came to be.
Before Kim Johnson’s election to parliament, she was the Black members officer in Riverside constituency Labour Party (CLP) where she set up a Black members group and encouraged Black people to run for party positions and elected roles.
One of these was Michelle, the recently-elected chair of the constituency party. Kim also got Joanne Anderson active in politics, and encouraged Lucille Harvey to run for Joanne’s council seat in Princes Park this year.
Anna Rothery has represented this area on Liverpool City Council since 2006. For years, she was the only Black councillor on the 90-member council.
But something changed in the local party to make it more open to running Black candidates. There were more women and young people in active roles.
Kim told the ECHO : “It was all to do with Jeremy [Corbyn], when we had a massive increase in membership, people wanting to get involved in politics because he inspired people. And I think there was this shift, a call to change within the CLP as a result of that, and I think that’s when things started to happen and change significantly.”
Ray Quarless described the relationship between the local Labour administration and Liverpool’s Black community in the 1980s as ‘sensitive’ and ‘on edge’.
He told the ECHO : “We were obviously suspicious of them. We had to be on edge and cagey about who we were dealing with, because we knew what we were dealing with.
“But at the same token, we would support them against central governments, you know. So that’s why I’m saying that it was a cagey one, it was an edgy one. Do you know what I mean?
“We would walk on demonstrations in support of them, no problem with that. But when it comes down to us, don’t treat us like fools, because we’ve had enough of all of that.”
Even now, with six councillors, a Mayor and an MP who are Black, the Labour Party in Liverpool is far from the ideal vehicle for advancing racial equality for many people. It is simply, in their eyes, the best one available.
Speaking on whether she could imagine Labour putting forward a Black candidate for mayor in previous years, Kim told the ECHO : “I could honestly say, no, I couldn’t. You know, I think we have to be honest, in terms of where people are at.
“We’ve still got people in parts of the city that will say, ‘Oh, no, we can’t put a Black candidate up because no one will vote for a Black candidate’.”
Chantelle Lunt, founder of Merseyside Black Lives Matter, was born in Toxteth and moved to Halewood as a child. She says she was once approached about standing in a council election for Labour, only to be rebuffed when the person discovered she didn’t live in L8.
She told the ECHO : “I was like, ‘So as Labour, you’re only looking for a Black person in the Black area?’ So it’s still that, a Black person can only win in a Black area, and just pigeonholing us constantly. I was so annoyed.”
Despite being the historic home of Liverpool’s Black community since the Second World War, the ward encompassing Liverpool 8 wasn’t the first to be represented exclusively by Black councillors.
As of 2019, Picton, just northeast of Toxteth, is represented by three Black councillors. Abdul Basit Qadir, a key ally of Mayor Joanne Anderson, is the cabinet member for neighbourhoods.
His ward colleague, Nathalie Nicholas, was first elected in 2012, at that point one of only three Black councillors in Liverpool.
Nathalie is a graduate of Operation Black Vote, which runs a shadowing scheme for people aspiring to be councillors and MPs. Anna Rothery, councillor for Princes Park, is also a graduate.
Little by little, the demographics of Liverpool City Council and the politicians who represent the region are changing to reflect the people who live here.
Education is a big factor in this. Anna Rothery, Kim Johnson and Joanne Anderson all have university degrees. They have all had opportunities and experience that made them strong candidates when the time came to stand.
Ray Quarless also believes their local roots are important. He told the ECHO : “Those three women have always been involved in the Black struggle in Liverpool. Always. And that is really significant.
“They’re not just going there because they’re there on behalf of the Labour Party. They’re also doing it to get there to represent the Black community. And that’s why I said, they are there as a result of the struggle of others and their own struggles as well.”
The struggle continues. Most people I spoke to in Toxteth and in Liverpool’s wider Black community look at Liverpool, the country and the world with a cautious optimism at best, if not fear and dread.
Kim Johnson told the ECHO : “Very little has changed if I’m honest with you. And if you asked a lot of Black people in the community, they would say that very little has changed. In fact, we’ve taken a backward step.
“Covid and George Floyd shone a bright light on racism and equality last year. You know, we don’t have the community organisations that we used to have back in the 90s, that would advocate on behalf of the community. They’ve all gone, you know, and the community and the area has changed. It’s been gentrified.”
The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 galvanised a global movement that sends ripples to this day. It brought activists like Chantelle Lunt to the forefront, and some feel it may have played a role in the election of Joanne Anderson as Mayor of Liverpool.
Ray Quarless told the ECHO : “I think one of the biggest, probably most positive things that has come out of George Floyd events is that white young people recognise the issues of racism.
“It’s on the doorstep, but they didn’t realise it previously. And that they do respond and react in a positive way against it.”
Echoing this view, Ben Osu said: “This year, unlike other years, there was was a difference in the way that the conversation changed and the way that the air blew, and all that kind of stuff.
“You couldn’t deny the fact that what happened to George Floyd happened. It exposed the institutional and the societal and structural racism for what it is. People had to wake up.
“And I feel like, as a person of colour, I no longer felt like I was on my own, or felt like, you know, I had a chip on my shoulder about talking about racism, because I felt like there was just an army of people behind me, whether that be Black, or White, or Chinese, or Asian or whatever. And the world was awake. It was the year that the world woke up.”
There are moves to improve the situation in Liverpool. Tracy Gore, director of Steve Biko Housing, was appointed as Chair of the Race Equality Taskforce last year to investigate racism and racial equality in the city.
Community organisations are returning and flourishing. The Kuumba Imani Centre and L8 a Better Place are fostering community activism and small businesses. The Granby Street Market is bringing life back to a deserted Granby.
The flame is being lit in a new generation.
Reflecting on how she felt when Liz Drysdale was first elected 34 years ago, Michelle Charters told the ECHO : “A sense of pride. Absolute sense of pride, and disbelief, like it was with Kim, like it was with Joanne.
“When a community is hidden, or its achievements are hidden for so long, to then see public recognition for a person and their achievements, it’s heartwarming.
“It’s a bit of that, about bleeding time. You know, it’s just, it’s good for young people to see and to aspire, because you’ve got to see to be, is something I always say.
“You’ve got to see it in order to believe that you can be it.”
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