One such person was Dorothy Kuya, who passed away just before Christmas following a brief illness. For almost all her life, Dorothy acted on the principle that a better world is possible, whether it was in her native Liverpool or in the wider society. It started early. As a teenager she addressed street corner meetings from a soapbox on behalf of the Communist Party and would often recall how she presented a bouquet of flowers to civil rights hero Paul Robeson when he visited Liverpool during his England tour in 1949.
Never one to mince her words or suffer fools gladly – a combination of political conviction and Scouse bloody-mindedness – she was a formidable personality. She trained as both a teacher and nurse but would go on to play a pivotal role in race relations at a time when it was neither fashionable nor straightforward. Over the years she helped bring about a number of key milestones, including the establishment of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, which more than anything represented an official acknowledgement of the city’s huge role in the triangular trade and its neglect of its centuries-old black community.
Dorothy was born into that community – Liverpool 8 – and like so many Liverpool-born blacks of her generation, or ‘LBBs’ as they are called, was the product of a union between a local white woman and a West African, in her case a Sierra Leonean. She took her surname, though, from her Nigerian stepfather, a seaman, whom her mother married, and grew up with two brothers and sister in what by her own account was a loving family.
If Britain possessed a ghetto, then Liverpool 8, an area within walking distance of the docks, fitted that description perfectly. Although many of its families could trace their roots back to the 18th century, so forming what is reckoned to be the oldest black community in Britain, they were treated as foreigners in their own country, condemned to the worst housing and jobs, if there were any, and made to feel unwelcome outside the area’s immediate confines. As Dorothy once told me, you’d be hard pressed to find a black face in Liverpool city centre, only 20 minutes away by foot.
But poor and despised as it was, Liverpool 8 was a lively, close knit community, famed for its various social clubs that represented the many nationalities and cultural groups that lived there. It was this spirit which Dorothy imbibed from childhood and which would propel her onwards and through to old age, even as bulldozers began knocking out the heart of her beloved district 10 years ago.
When Liverpool 8 erupted into riots in 1981, few outside of the city had ever heard of the place that would produce the fiercest and most prolonged of the string of disturbances that swept England that year. In fact, its media designation of ‘Toxteth’, a name not used by locals, was always a source of annoyance for Dorothy.
At the time, she was living in London, working as head of race equality for Haringey Council following on from her pioneering role as Liverpool’s first community relations officer, and had been well aware that it would only be a matter of time before Liverpool 8 would ignite, given the notorious level of discrimination its inhabitants were subjected to, not least at the hands of the police.
This is when I first got to know Dorothy, recognising quickly the qualities that made her such a powerful campaigner. I had been up to Liverpool for the first time to report on the riots and was eager to hear her take on them, and to find out more about a community with which I felt an instant kinship, perhaps because, though British born, I felt like a foreigner too. She duly invited me to her small flat near the old Arsenal stadium and was truly a mine of information.
I visited her again, this time in Liverpool, where she returned in 1994, living only a stone’s throw from her childhood home. Looking forward to a peaceful retirement amid family and old friends, she instead found herself battling to save her home after the ward she lived in was earmarked for demolition. Ten streets of fine Edwardian houses were eventually knocked down as part of a so-called government regeneration scheme and, were it not for the fight Dorothy helped lead as part of the Granby Residents Association, her own pleasant tree lined street would have gone the same way.
As it was, her house was one of the few that remained occupied, as she successfully challenged the council’s attempts to compulsory purchase it. The rest were emptied, boarded up and left to rot while, of the 100 or so shops that once lined the area’s main thoroughfare, Granby St, only six remained. It was nothing less than a ghost town.
In an interview I did with her for Black History 365 magazine (see ‘Ghost Town’ from October 2011 in the strap above), Dorothy described the demolitions as a deliberate policy to disperse the black community. “What has happened here is a scandal,” she said. “It is not only decent homes that have been destroyed, it is a whole community.” She was particularly scathing about the new suburban housing that was put up to replace the demolished homes, saying they were “pokey and cheaply built” and already looking the worse for wear.
Four streets were eventually saved. So a victory of sorts, I ventured. “We may have won the war but many were killed,” replied Dorothy in her characteristically terse fashion.
While all this was going on, Dorothy was also involved in a great many campaigns, including the establishment of the International Slavery Museum in 1992, the first of its kind in the world. It was opened by the Queen in 1994 before being expanded and relaunched in 2007, the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade. As a member of the museum’s board she was also instrumental in developing the annual Slavery Remembrance Day on August 23 that is now a civic event attended by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, beginning with a ‘walk of remembrance’ through the city centre and ending with a traditional West African libation ceremony at the dockside. It was clearly the highlight of her calendar, a living monument to the hard fought campaigns waged over the years by the people of Liverpool 8. It was a time when Dorothy would look at her most relaxed and allow herself to enjoy her role as an honoured grandee.
Sharon Grant, wife of the late Tottenham MP Bernie Grant, reminds me how she was an early supporter of the African Reparations Movement, which Bernie set up in the 1990s. (Dorothy had gotten to know Bernie well during her time at Haringey, where she was a member of the Gifford inquiry into the 1985 Tottenham riots.) “A true Liverpudlian at heart, she insisted on meetings being held there and thus introduced many of us to the city,” says Sharon. “She was responsible for Bernie’s several visits to the city, not least in 1999 to unveil a plaque on the quayside to commemorate the transatlantic slave trade, shortly before his death in 2000.”
Always keen to lift the lid on Liverpool’s hidden black history, Dorothy conducted heritage trails around the city in her fitter days, and recently was involved in the ongoing scheme to create a memorial to victims of the slave trade in the graveyard of the 18th century St Jame’s Church in Liverpool 8 where many slaves were once buried.
But it was the Africa Presence project to promote Liverpool’s African heritage that most captured her imagination in later years, in part because its base is to be the former Ibo Club, which once formed a part of Liverpool 8’s thriving club scene, itself an important part of the area’s history and probably of Dorothy’s as well. Dorothy wanted Africa Presence to be much more than a cultural hub, but a centre of research and scholarship too. To this end, she intended to donate her archive of some 2,000 books to the project once it was up an running.
All her life, Dorothy had come up against people, both black and white, who time and time again would put a spanner in the works, either because they had their own agenda or because they were not up to the task. It became a common subject of conversation whenever we met, such was her exasperation at the slow pace of change or shift in consciousness. In Africa Presence she envisaged an organisation that was completely independent of meddlesome bodies, set up by individuals who, like her good self, were genuinely committed to the common good.
For me, Dorothy was like breath of fresh air, such was her passion and, above all, intellectual honesty. Despite her frustration, she took the long view of change and remained fundamentally an optimist. The race relations industry that arose after the disturbances of the 1980s co-opted many militants from the black struggle and gave them fat salaries and fancy titles. Very quickly, they began sounding less and less radical in their smart suits. Not so Dorothy, who remained true to her principles but found herself eclipsed, in terms of public recognition, by a whole army of careerists. I doubt if this bothered her much, though.
People were often taken aback by her seeming abruptness, as I was at first, but this was her stage persona more than anything else. In private she was a warm and generous person, who appreciated down to earth decency in people, whatever their political stripes. As a campaigner, she was second to none, and the gap she leaves in her home city will be very hard to fill indeed.