In celebration of black history month I delved in to the archives to find out more about material we hold relating to black lives and black history. Although a number of collections caught my attention, I decided to focus on the Papers of Henry Gunter (MS 2165). These papers provide a fascinating insight in to the life of a black citizen in post-war Birmingham who tirelessly campaigned for positive change.
Henry Gunter (1920-2007) was born in Portland Jamaica in 1920 where he trained as an accountant and also wrote on political and social issues. After working in Panama and the U.S.A. he moved to Birmingham in 1949. In the June 1949 edition of ‘Jamaica Arise! The Political and Labour Guide’, Gunter wrote about some of his reasons for coming to Birmingham saying ‘I have placed myself in the industrial heart of the country so as to meet more of the workers’ (MS 2165/2/1).
Although Gunter had skills in accountancy, he was sent by the Labour Exchange to work as a mate in a brass rolling mill. He lost his job after challenging the shop steward for racist verbal abuse. He then went on to work in other factories in the city as a machine operator and a tool cutter and grinder. Alongside his day job Gunter joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union. He was the first black member of his union and the first black delegate to Birmingham Trades Union Council.
Gunter used the positions he held to write and speak out against injustice and to inspire action. Material in the archive includes Gunter’s writings on the struggles faced by black citizens in post-war Birmingham. In the Caribbean News, February 1953 (MS 2165/2/4) he wrote that landlords either refused to rent out rooms to black people or exploited them by charging rents above the market rate. Although West Indian workers had been encouraged to come to Birmingham during World War Two to work in munitions factories, Gunter wrote about the huge unemployment issues they faced after the War with major firms refusing to employ them.
One of his key publications, which survives in the archive, was ‘A Man’s a Man: a study of the Colour Bar in Birmingham- and an ANSWER’ (MS 2165/2/5). In this document Gunter discussed problems faced by black people in areas of employment, housing, hotels and social activities. He suggested five actions that anyone could take including ‘Take a stand against colour-bar and the spreading of racial prejudice wherever you find it.’ The pamphlet was published by the Communist Party in 1954.
On 12th October 1952 Henry Gunter helped organise a protest in Birmingham on these issues. Protestors held banners with slogans such as ‘End Colour Bar in Britain’ and ‘Freedom Now for Africa and West Indies’. As a result of the protest, at a meeting on 13th December 1952, Birmingham Trades Council adopted a resolution: ‘In view of the appalling conditions which immigrant workers have to live under in Birmingham, and the failure to meet this problem, we ask that the Trades Union Congress demand that the Government provide accommodation for these workers’ (MS 2165/2/4). Gunter was also involved in a campaign in 1954 to provide employment for black workers in the city’s public transport system. This campaign was particularly successful.
Gunter joined the Afro-Caribbean Society in Birmingham and became its chairperson. Amongst other material, photographs in the archive document his involvement in this group (MS 2165/2/9/1-2). For an image see the Connecting Histories website (Gunter is standing on the far left in the back row of this group). He arranged social events and public meetings with illustrious attendees such as George Padmore (the black journalist and author), Fenner Brockway MP (the British anti-war activist and politician) and Seretse Khama (the first president of Botswana). Gunter met Paul Robeson, the famous singer and civil rights activist who visited Birmingham in 1949, in the USA and he renewed his acquaintance with him when Robeson visited Birmingham.
As well as a number of Gunter’s published writings, the archive contains his memoirs (MS 2165/2/16) which are an invaluable resource for gaining an overview of his life and activities from his own perspective. Gunter took a keen and active interest in the preservation of materials to help future research into the history of Birmingham’s black population in the 20th century which lead to the deposit of his papers in Birmingham Archives and Collections.
The papers of Henry Gunter are available to view by appointment in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research. To make an appointment to consult them email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For further information about Henry Gunter see: Fiona Tait, ‘Gunter, Henry Charles (1920–2007)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2013 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/105624, accessed 3 Oct 2016]