Black History Month: Black Heroes Foundation presents The Story of John Archer

Performance view: The Story of John Archer. Photo: Dr Anni Domingo

Joyce Fraser tell us about the recent special event that Black Heroes Foundation hosted for the Windrush generation and their families at Battersea Arts Centre.

To open Black History Month 2021, Black Heroes Foundation hosted a Gala luncheon, exhibition and performance of The Story of John Archer in Battersea Arts Centre’s Grand Hall for local Windrush Elders and their families. This was followed by a public evening performance of the play plus a Q&A to celebrate the Windrush generation and local Black Heroes.

Celebrating the life of John Archer (1863–1932), London’s first Black Mayor, the event provided an opportunity for elders to socialise after a long period of isolation due to COVID19. We hoped that the audience would leave with a feeling of pride and empowerment having learned about John Archer, his life and the period he worked in.

A lifelong champion of those neglected and mistreated by society, John Archer’s worldview and sense of social justice was shaped from a very young age. He grew up in the shadow of Liverpool’s Brownlow Hill workhouse and this early reckoning with inequality and disenfranchisement left a permanent mark, leading John to dedicate his life to fighting for justice. In his political career he took on racism (at home and abroad), the demonisation of the poor and bigotry in the criminal justice system. With values rooted in Pan-Africanism, and a loyal friend and confidante to such notable figures as Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Jane Roberts, Ida B Wells and W.E.B. DuBois, John Archer never stopped striving for self-determination across the African Diaspora. 

In 1913 he was elected mayor of Battersea, making him London’s first Black mayor. 

Archer earned his living as a prizewinning photographer and ran a photography studio in Battersea Park Road. His legacy can still be seen in the foundations of today’s Battersea, and we are incredibly proud that we are able to stand on his shoulders.

The event was a resounding success with some 200 guests in total. The elders enjoyed the exhibition about local Black Heroes and the play. Many attendees commented that they were grateful to have the opportunity to learn about Archer and his inspiring achievements, which they had not been taught about at school, and the community was delighted to be reunited after such a long time apart. 

“Battersea is a very special place in London for me. It is where I arrived in the country, so to know more about its history was truly amazing.”

“It was nice to come and meet other old time people and people not seen for a long time”

“It was a privilege to sit at the feet of some our elders…the exhibition in the foyer was excellent. It brought back many childhood memories”

“I cannot thank you enough for the good work you are doing for the community. Your organisation was invaluable during lockdown.”

In the evening, guest speaker Esuantsiwa Goldsmith told her moving story of growing up in Battersea and how her grandfather introduced her to John Archer, who became her hero. He features in her book The Space Between Black and White. You can read her personal tribute to Archer here

It is vital that we acknowledge, respect and celebrate our Black heroes, to ensure that our history is no longer hidden, and that our contributions to society are recognised. We are looking forwarding to taking the play to Liverpool, the city of John Archer’s birth.

Directed by Dr Anni Domingo and written by Joyce Fraser and Jennifer Farmer, The Story of John Archer honours the life and legacy of one of Britain’s Black Heroes. The play stars Patrick McKenzie and Vivienne Rochester, alongside opera singer Melody Compton. The sound design and Stage Manager was Katherine Vamva. 

This project was funded by a Wandsworth Grant Fund.