The Great War to Race Riots (GRWW) archive project centred around a rediscovered section of the Lord Mayor’s correspondence, concerning the plight of black soldiers, seamen and factory workers in Liverpool between May 1919 to November 1921, deposited to WoW by a longtime Liverpool 8 activist.
The archive contained the personal testimony of black servicemen and workers stranded or left destitute in Liverpool following the First World War. It revealed the plight of daily racism and unemployment after a colour bar was instituted in many industries (when white workers, often supported by their trade unions, refused to work alongside them).
Politicians and the media blamed the presence of black workers for the lack of jobs and housing, whipping up the resentment of white workers, till it boiled over into 1919 race riots in seaports across Britain. In Liverpool, Charles Wotten, a black seaman was murdered by a white mob during the riots.
A short film about the GWRR made in partnership with Liverpool University Geography department, narrated by Project Manager Janaya Pickett.
Participants researched and responded creatively to the archive, led by poet Levi Tafari. During the WWI centenary Weeping Window exhibition at St George’s Hall in 2017, we commissioned visual artist Faith Bebington to lead a community workshop creating black resin poppies, which she then incorporated into a sculpture exhibited at Liverpool Central Library.
The valuable research of the project team uncovered more black servicemen whose lives and experiences been long forgotten. Beyond the tragedies of the race riots in Liverpool, the participants also identified descendants of some of these men.
After contacting historian David Olusoga through our GWRR Twitter account, Great War to Race Riots project participants were featured on his 2016 BBC series Black and British. David unveiled a plaque at the Queens Dock, in commemoration of Charles Wotten and the victims of the 1919 race riots, and later attended a sharing event of participant’s poetic responses to the archive material.
Participants gained experience of archiving and research with Liverpool Record Office archivists and as a result their research became invaluable to the published book, Great War to Race Riots, written by Co-Director Madeline Heneghan and local writer, Emy Onuora, launched during WoW’s first Black History Month festival in 2017. You can buy a coy of the book here.
In June 2019 BBC News featured us in an article: ‘Call to teach 1919 Liverpool Race Riots to Schools‘
WoW Co-Director Madeline Heneghan and Ernest Marke discuss the Liverpool 1919 Great War to Race Riots as part of a BBC World Service series exploring Liverpool historical footage.
The Great War to Race Riots walking tour, a collaboration between participants and MA students at the University of Liverpool, was launched during WoW’s first BHM festival. Both the published book and the walking tour continue to receive recognition: our GWRR walking tour is still requested regularly in 2024 by trade union, student and other groups. Our GWRR book has recently been added to reading lists at the University of Liverpool and Edge Hill University.
If you’re interested in exploring further, attending a Walking Tour or discussing a commission, feel free to reach out to Janaya@writingonthewall.org.uk.