Set up in 1999, the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre was named after a Bangladeshi boy murdered in a racially motivated attack in Burnage in 1986. It is a resource centre on everything from the criminal justice system in the United States to the history of the local Pakistani community of Manchester.
Louis Kushnick OBE is the driving force behind the centre and has been involved in race relation issues in Manchester since the late 1960s. It was his personal collection of books, journals, articles and news cuttings that formed the basis of the archive which is located in the University of Manchester campus today. Arwa Aburawa spoke to him about the history of the centre, the projects it has worked on, the changes he has witnessed in the education system and the impact of the recent government cuts on the centre’s future.
Louis Kushnick, who was born in Brooklyn and studied at Yale, came for a one-year scholarship at the University of Manchester in 1963 and decided to stay. Now a retired professor, he has worked as a senior lecturer at the university for forty years, alongside other responsibilities such as chairing the Research Institute for Race Relations and editing the quarterly journal ‘Race Relations Abstracts’. By 1998, he had acquired such a substantial amount of material on race relations issues that it required a separate office to house it.
“It was getting out of hand so the question was well what do we do with it?,” he recalls. “A group of us got together and decided that if we gave all this material to the University of Manchester John Rylands library it would continue to used by academics but that would be it. So what we wanted to do is create some sort of centre that anyone could access.” As there was no money available for a centre, the group approached Martin Harris, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester at the time, to ask for financial assistance. Harris agreed to support the project as it would be located within the university and he hoped it would help encourage a greater diversity of people to attend the university, which had a reputation as a place for white, upper-middle class students.
The group was given a space behind the Blackwell’s bookshop on Oxford Road which had been empty for some time; the rent was paid by the University. Once the premises had been cleaned, the group bought some cheap shelving and started moving books into the archive, categorizing them with the support of MMU postgraduate students.
The Centre Opens & The Macpherson Report
The formal opening of the centre was on February 9th 1999 and in the same week, the Macpherson Report, which identified institutional racism not only in the Metropolitan police but also in the wider criminal justice system, was launched. “I remember that on Radio Manchester that morning, Selina (the oldest daughter of the Ullah family) said that for what it was worth, at least her family got some sort of closure as the boy who killed Ahmed was convicted. She thought the Steven Lawrence family would never get that and she was right.”
When the centre opened there were three people sharing a 0.5 post which was paid for by the University of Manchester. However, the money soon ran out and so the group began looking for more support which they soon found in the Progress Trust, which works to ensure that BME communities in Greater Manchester access urban regeneration funding. The funding allowed the centre to expand its activities beyond its focus on keeping the centre open for visitors, to creating outreach programmes for teachers and working with schools.
Murder and Racism in the Playground
Working in the the education sector, racism in education and the power of anti-racism education are issues close to Kushnick’s heart. It was one of the reasons why he decided to contact the family of Ahmed Iqbal Ullah to ask if they could name the centre in his memory. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah was a 13 year old boy of Bangladeshi origin who went to Burnage High School, where a fair amount of racist bullying went on. In 1986, a fight in the playground broke out and Ahmed came to the aid of some younger Asian boys when a 13-year old white pupil took out a knife, stabbed and killed him.
“The boy [who stabbed Ahmed] himself came from an extremely disturbed background and it was a tragedy all round,” states Kushnick. “but the incident did raise the issue of racism in schools, how whiteness becomes an identity. So we wanted to send a signal and use the material in outreach programmes to teachers in schools with limited resources, a narrow curriculum and encourage an environment where all children could flourish. We wanted to challenge stereotypes that Asians should be doctors or that you don’t expect anything from working class children – we wanted to encourage more inclusive ways of teaching and encourage teachers to expect all their pupils to succeed.”
Breaking Down The Stratified Education System
Armed with funding from the Progress Trust, the Millennium Awards and pro bono support of the University of Manchester (which allowed them to use the premises rent-free and also did their payroll), the centre began to put together materials for teachers.
“At the time, Britain had a highly stratified education system. Working class students were 8 times less likely to pass the 11+ exams than middle class ones,” says Kushnick. “Meanwhile teachers went to school everyday and very few of them woke up thinking ‘another day to mess over some working-class kids, another day to lessen their self-esteem and another day to convince them to have no or very limited aspirations.’ But everyday they went to school thinking that white working class parents didn’t care about education, that girls will go off and work in Woollies for a couple of years, get married and have kids. Meanwhile the lads could get an apprenticeship, settle down, marry the girl who used to work at Woollies and have kids…”
People from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities were also approaching the centre and them asking it about their history in the country and in Manchester. The team quickly realised that whilst they had lots of really great resources on race relations, there was very little primary information or secondary sources when it came to the local level. “The people’s stories about how they came to this country, their experiences, how they created their own religious and housing education, how they dealt with the education of young children – we had very little of that,” remarks Kushnick. The centre decided to tackle both these issues through their outreach work at schools by asking pupils to collect information and stories about their communities. Not only would this help fill a gap in the archive but it would also raise the confidence of BME pupils whilst educating others about the history of the wider BME community.
Collecting Stories from Manchester’s BME Communities
BME pupils interviewed their grandparents and found that some had great aunties who worked in the Land Army in World War Two or family who served in the British Army. The interviews – 144 of them – were transcribed, printed and kept in the archive alongside family photographs and heirlooms. Children from Sikh, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Chinese and Afro-Caribbean communities contributed interviews, and four girls from Levenshulme turned these interviews into a book called ‘Strength of Spirit’ which is full of interviews and photos from the Bangladeshi community. The centre also spent a year working with Refugee Action to put together an exhibition and teaching information pack on refugees in Manchester and the hardships they face on their journey to the UK.
Over the years, more and more of the centre’s projects consisted of producing material which would contribute to the archive and also help build a record of the local BME community which was later used for teaching materials, travelling exhibitions and the annual Black History Month. Working with primary schools in Rusholme, Moss Side and Whalley Range, the centre helped to put a book together retelling the story of Olaudah Equiano, an eighteenth-century slave who was freed in London and became one of the leaders campaigning against the slave trade. A book was also published on the life of the former slave Mary Prince (c.1788- death date unknown), who presented her testimony about the horrible conditions endured by the enslaved in the Caribbean, and Noor Inayat Khan who was captured and imprisoned by the Gestapo and was executed at Dachau in 1944. Khan was posthumously awarded the French Croix de Guerre in 1946 and the British George Cross in 1949.
Kushnick says that the centre’s future projects will continue to focus on anti-racism education and adding material to the archive. Some of the projects currently underway include school schemes exploring international folk tales as well as a funded initiative looking into the Yemeni community in Salford and documenting its experience. However, the cuts in government funding are worrying for the centre, which will be looking to find new forms of financial support in March 2012. “In this crisis no one is sure how they are going to be affected,” says Kushnick. “Of course we hope everything will be okay and we can keep the centre open but, in all honesty, we have no idea what will happen.”
The Race Relations Archive is located near Manchester Piccadilly station and includes over 8,000 resources available for use by students, practitioners and the general public. For more information and visiting hours see the centre’s website.
Article by Arwa Aburawa.
Originally published at Manchester’s Radical History.