When Ossie Glover arrived in Plymouth 35 years ago, he came across only five fellow black people, and they were all in the armed forces like him.
‘It was a bit of a cultural shock, coming from Notting Hill in London,’ he recalls. ‘We stuck out like a sore thumb yet at the same time, we were completely invisible.’
Glover was 17-year-old recruit in the Royal Marines and despite feeling like one in a million, he decided to eventually settle in the Devon city.
The decline of the Devonport Dockyard, the city’s main employer, has turned Plymouth into an economic backwater, deterring any large-scale migration.
But the expansion of the city’s university and its designation as a dispersal centre for refugees and asylum seekers means the population profile has changed considerably.
Between eight to 10,000 of what are termed black and minority ethnic people now live there, but by far the largest group are people of mixed heritage.
In response, Glover set up Fata He, or Inclusion, to campaign on behalf of the city’s small ethnic community, particularly in the areas of health, housing, education employment and crime.
‘In many ways Plymouth is 50 years behind a place like Bristol,’ says Glover. ‘Because we are small in number the attitude is – no problem here.’
Although there have been no serious racial attacks on individuals, people still have to grapple with routine prejudice and isolation, particularly asylum seekers.
‘Those of mixed race may also have identity issues, and we try to offer them support,’ Glover adds.
Fata He’s work is not confined to Plymouth, but the whole of Devon and Cornwall, an area known officially as the far south west. ‘Or deep south west,’ quips Glover.
‘The situation for black people in Cornwall is even worse because it is so rural. In Cornwall, even people from Devon are regarded as outsiders so imagine being the only black person in a village of 400 people.’
Fata He has also helped highlight the fact that it was a local man, John Hawkins, who kicked off England’s slave trade, first sailing from Plymouth in 1562 for the West African coast but raiding a Portuguese slave ship on the way.
Future expeditions to Guinea and Sierra Leone involved similar acts of piracy as well as the direct kidnapping of Africans, who were trafficked in the Caribbean for luxury goods. About 3,000 captives in all were sold.
Made Lord Mayor of Plymouth and knighted by Queen Elizabeth, Hawkins was also granted a special coat of arms, which has a bound slave as the crest.
In the 1960s, Town Hall chiefs erected a commemorative plaque to the ‘merchant adventurer’ and also named a small square after him. Both can be found in the Barbican, the Elizabethan port from where Hawkins set sail.
A few hundred metres away on the city’s most prominent landmark, the Hoe, stands a statue of Hawkins’ cousin, Sir Francis Drake, who accompanied him on his slave raiding voyages before becoming a naval commander.
‘Hawkins and Drake were both pirates,’ Glover says pointedly. ‘For years, Plymouth just wanted to see them as romantic heroes. They didn’t want to talk about the thousands of Africans they enslaved or killed.’
Although the city council has recently acknowledged the duo’s role in the trade on a section of its official website, it is reluctant to consider erecting a monument or remembrance to their victims, he claims.
Despite Hawkins’ activities, Plymouth never developed into a slave-trading centre. ‘This was not because of any moral scruples,’ observes Glover, ‘But because its port was small and unable to provide safe anchorage.
The Miller family from Plymouth has a distinguished record in the city’s political life – producing one of the Brtiain’s first black councillors and the country’s oldest.
The son of a Sierra Leonean seaman, William Miller was elected in 1925 and rose to the position of deputy mayor, playing a pivotal role in the ambitious post-war housing programme that saw thousands of new homes built in the bomb-damaged city.
An ardent socialist who began his working life in Devonport Docks, he was on close terms with leading figures in the 1945 Atlee government and in 1958 became housing chair of the Association of Municipal Corporations.
In Plymouth, where there is a street named after him, he was often referred to as ‘Darkie Miller’, an indication of the kind of attitudes he was up against despite his prominence.
Miller’s son, Claude, has followed in his father’s footsteps and in 2004 he was appointed Lord Mayor, crowning a political career spanning three decades.
Re-elected last year at the age of 92, he has entered the record books as the country’s oldest councillor.
‘My grandfather came to Plymouth from Sierra Leone in the 19th century,’ he explains. ‘His father was a freed slave.’
Claude Miller, who was awarded an MBE for his services to local government in November, was raised in Stonehouse, one of the oldest districts of the city and the place where his grandfather settled down with a local woman.
‘I never knew him because he died before I was born, but I knew all about him,’ he says.
Black History 365/spring 2008/ www.black-history-month.co.uk