An introduction to sources and method

As this introduction to the project explained, certain black people’s many and varied activities in the wartime city have been documented before. In this post, we’ll look at what we know so far and how using a GIS map helps join the dots in new ways, while introducing some of the new primary evidence on this important topic…

Lots of existing work on black people in wartime London has concentrated on small numbers of individuals and specific groups, often on the more radical end of the political spectrum. This has enriched our understanding of some important people and episodes greatly: you can see this reflected in the citations of various points on the map, drawn from scholars such as Hakim Adi, Amanda Bidnall, Marc Matera, Stephen Bourne, Jeffrey Green, Minkah Makalani and Susan Pennybacker whose valuable work has moved our understanding forward substantially and who it’s important to give credit to.

But the map is designed to take what we already know and apply it in new ways. First, by collecting data from well over one hundred secondary sources, the map enables us to bring information that has been written by different people, from different perspectives about different individuals and places, into a collective conversation. The map shows, quite literally, how closely connected many different stories are.

And second: scouring the secondary literature allows us to build up a useful database of individuals and other leads that can pursued by looking afresh at primary sources. Sometimes this might involve taking archival records that have been used before, such as the records of the Colonial Office at the National Archives, but scouring them for people and places not noticed or of interest until now. And exciting databases such as the 1939 Register of citizens in the UK offer a chance to find out about new people – including the children, spouses and partners of the men who might have already crossed some historians’ radars.

The definition of what has been included is, therefore, deliberately expansive and the net has been cast widely. Whenever a black person, whatever their national original or previously assigned historical ‘significance’, said or did something in the capital that can have a concrete location attached to it, it has been recorded. This has enabled us to build a database of nearly 400 people doing things in around 300 locations. We’re still scratching the surface, however, and will be adding to the data as the project continues.

The use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), meanwhile, has not been chosen as a gimmick or to create a pretty visualization of things we already know.  On the contrary, the aim is to create a system that has genuine interpretive value by providing a solid and historically robust anchor to understand a range of connected important historical stories: from Britain on the ‘home front’ and its military fights overseas, the local and global forces that led to the end of formal European empire in Africa and the Caribbean, to the movement for civil rights in the USA and long-range fights for racial justice.

These sources and methodological approaches pose great challenges alongside fresh opportunities, which we’ll be discussing in future blogs. For now, it’s important to emphasize one thing the project does not want to do, namely to try and promote a myth that the London metropole was the centre of empire and, therefore, the only place that mattered in this history. Instead, the interactive maps are designed to enable us to think anew about the role of urban space as part of historical processes and networks with local, national and international dimensions. And finally, it’s important to remember that, despite the tendency of digital techniques to reduce complex experiences to ones and zeros and points on a map, it’s still history where the people and their stories matter most.