9 April 2019

Exploring Leeds’s Black History with Joe Williams

We sat down for a cuppa with GCF Creative Associate, Joe Williams, to find out a bit more about his connection with Geraldine Connor, the crucial work he’s doing sharing Leeds’s Black history with Leeds Black History Walks, and how he is helping commemorate an important event in the history of Leeds.

First question on the agenda was ‘What was your connections with Geraldine Connor?’ Joe met Geraldine when she first came to teach at the Leeds College of Music in the 1980s. She was looking for a Black theatre company to connect with. At the time, Joe was a founding member of Kuffdem Theatre Company, helping to push the banner of diversity and producing productions in the Chapeltown area of Leeds that engaged with the local community.

Geraldine joined the company for their production of Ebony Eyes as Musical Director in 1990. She “brought in a sense of organisation” to the production with her “fantastic spirit”, and also helped mentor the young performers she saw had great potential, including Jason Pennycooke, now an award winning performer in London’s West End.

Once Geraldine had settled into her teaching post at Bretton Hall, she and Joe created the Black Expressive Theatre Enterprise, together with David Hamilton and Oliver Jones in 1993/4, an advisory group for the West Yorkshire Playhouse which advised the theatre on programme diversity and community engagement.

Joe remained close to Geraldine before her death in 2011, and particularly around the commemorations surrounding the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007. He set up the Leeds Bicentenary Transformation Project along with Arthur France, in which Geraldine was an honorary member. To Joe, Geraldine brought “a lot of reassurance to many of us in the arts. Because she understood us and she had that authority that was respected on both sides, which was rare.”

Following his MA in 2014 from the University of Leeds, Joe developed the Leeds Black History Walk and founded Heritage Corner. The Leeds Black History Walk shares the rich narratives that make up an African presence in Yorkshire dating back 2000 years: introducing walkers to Nubian pharaohs, an Ethiopian prince with connections to Queen Victoria, and abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sarah Parker Remond, to name but a few.

On Friday 19th April, Joe is leading a very special heritage walk in Leeds to commemorate the life and death of David Oluwale (now sold out).

It’s 50 years since the British-Nigerian citizen, David Oluwale, was hounded to his death in Leeds. David arrived in Hull as a stowaway from his native Nigeria in September 1949. He served 28 days in a Leeds Prison for his breach of maritime regulations. Twenty years later, in May 1969, he was pulled out of the River Aire in Leeds, where he had drowned. David had spent ten of the sixteen years between 1953 and 1969 in High Royds Psychiatric Hospital; for the other six years he lived rough on the streets of Leeds. In November 1971, two Leeds police officers were acquitted of the manslaughter of David Oluwale, but were imprisoned for assaulting him.

Joe’s walk on 19th April will tour the places where David worked and socialised in Leeds, as well as the locations where he slept as a homeless person. Joe will guide us around the places where David had his good and his bad times, accompanied by musician Juwon Ogungbe.

“Without your history, there is no track record of your humanity. Without your humanity, people can say or do to you anything that they want. And David Oluwale is a perfect example of that. But with knowledge of history and heritage, you get more agency of self.”

A big thank you to Joe for sharing his knowledge with us. Joe’s walk is just one of many events commemorate the life and death of David Oluwale. To check out the full programme, head to the Remember Oluwale Facebook page here.

If you missed Joe’s Oluwale Walk, join him on one of his Leeds Black History Walks, which run from April to October on the first Saturday of the month. Find out more information here.