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Facing the Past: Lancaster Black History Group and the Lela Harris Commission

Lancaster Black History Group and Lela Harris

On the evening of June 3rd 2020, 500 people gathered in Dalton Square in the city of Lancaster in North West England to participate in a Black Lives Matter protest in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police officers on a sidewalk in Minneapolis, USA. Black Lives Matter protests continued in Lancaster in the days that followed and increasingly concentrated on sites in the city known to be connected to Lancaster’s history as an eighteenth-century port town that had been at the epicentre of the British slavery business. The grave memorial of a Lancaster slave-trading and slave-owning family, the Rawlinson’s, in the grounds of St. Mary’s Priory, was spray-painted with the words ‘Slave Trader’, and vigils were held along St George’s Quay where Lancaster Slave Ships had departed for the African coast in the eighteenth century.

In the eighteenth century, Lancaster was the fourth largest slave-trading port in England. Lancaster merchants developed extensive commercial networks in the West Indies and Americas, importing slave-produced plantation goods such as mahogany, sugar, dyes, spices, coffee and rum, and later cotton for Lancashire’s mills, from plantations, and exporting fine furniture, gunpowder, woollen and cotton cloth and other sundries. Young men from Lancaster families worked as agents, factors and planters across the West Indies. Lancaster merchants built and fitted out slave ships, made sails and ropes, and developed a sugar-processing industry (near the site of the Sugar House nightclub), furniture workshops, water-powered cotton mills and more (see Tyler). In short, wealth from ‘the slavery-business’ transformed the social and economic life the town.

Over the last decade, projects such as UCLs Legacies of British Slavery project and database, the Slave Voyages database and Glasgow Universities Runaway Slave Database, have dramatically changed our understanding of these histories. The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in Britain dramatically brought this history onto the streets.

In June 2020, Lancaster’s ‘unprecedented public reckoning with the cities historical ties to slavery and colonialism, Geraldine Onek, a primary school teacher, and her friend Rebecca Joy Novell, a Social Worker, founded a new community group, Lancaster Black History Group (LBH) and I was invited to join them. The aim of this group was to make sure the BLM protests became, in the words of Geraldine Onek, a movement not a moment, and we committed as a group to fight racism through education. By working with schools, colleagues, university and heritage organisations, our intention was and remains to make sure that breach that the BLM protests forced open between racial injustice in the past and present, remained open, and that the work of reparation, in multiple forms, could begin and would be sustained.

A portrait of Thomas Anson, by Lela Harris.
Thomas Anson, by Lela Harris.

Lancaster Black History Group has worked on several projects since 2020, including the creation of a new Glocal history community collection at Lancaster University Library, and the production of a Key Stage 2 teaching pack, ‘Facing the Past: Lancaster’s Slavery Business and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, developed by Geraldine Onek and now being used in over sixty primary schools in the region.

In 2022, we collaborated with Judges Lodging Museum (Lancashire Museums) in a bid to the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) New Stories New Audiences funding (part of the National Lottery Heritage Fund) to commission an artist who would help us address the radical absence of representations of the African and African-descended people who have lived in Lancaster and the local region (for at least 400 years). Lela was the artist we choose for this commission ‘Facing the Past: Black Lancastrians’.

This commission Focused on eighteenth Black Lancastrians. Drawing on both academic scholarship, community research, and school workshops, we worked carefully with Lela for over a year, providing her with historical data and research, but also introducing critical Black studies scholarship about slavery, its aftermath and its appropriate commemoration. We wanted to make sure that the art works emphasised the humanity, agency and resistance of those Africa and African-descended people brought to live in Lancaster in the eighteenth century.

- Professor Imogen Tyler, Sociology Department, Lancaster University.

EPOCH is delighted to have spoken with Lela Harris about the process of creating artwork for historical source material, and the challenges of bringing Black Lancastrians to life.

Artist Lela Harris and her portrait of Frances Elizabeth Johnson
Artist Lela Harris and her portrait of Frances Elizabeth Johnson. Image courtesy of Darren Andrews

Have you always created art from historical records?

I started to teach myself to draw and paint about four years ago and initially I was really interested in creating landscapes as I was so inspired by my surroundings in the Lake District. I’m originally from Manchester but relocated to Kendal with my family in 2012 and just couldn’t get enough of the vast skies and ridgelines that were only a stone’s throw away. As I continued to develop my creative practice, my focus naturally shifted towards more figurative work, especially when I became fascinated by documentary photography. I particularly love the work of Vivian Maier, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks and I am continually moved by their ability to portray such emotion, atmosphere, and narrative. This has been hugely influential in my own work and when I was commissioned by The Folio Society to illustrate The Color Purple by Alice Walker in 2021 I took a deep dive into the online photography archives held at the Library of Congress featuring images of dustbowl 1930’s America to ensure that my illustrations were historically accurate. I’ve continued to be inspired by this rich source of historical reference material which I drew upon again when I was creating the portraits for the Black Lancastrians exhibition.

A portrait of Frances Elizabeth Johnson, by Lela Harris.
Frances Elizabeth Johnson, by Lela Harris.

How did you go about transforming these narratives into art? What did you find particularly difficult or particularly easy?

Initially I spent a lot of time researching Lancaster’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade during the eighteenth century to get a feel for what life was like for those who were enslaved and also those who financially benefited from slavery. I was very fortunate that I had such an amazing team of expertise to draw upon including Lancaster Black History Group, academics from Lancaster University and the University of Central Lancashire, the staff at Judges’ Lodgings, and local historians. They were very generous with their knowledge, so I was able to benefit from their years of hard work and experience to start to formulate a narrative for each of the portrait subjects.

For me, the research was just as important as the artistic element of this commission, so I spent a lot of time ‘getting to know’ the portrait subjects. This involved looking at two fascinating databases, University College London Legacies of British Slavery and Glasgow University’s Runaway Slaves, and going through contextual information in various documents, wills, inventories, and letters. It also involved walking around the streets of Lancaster and the buildings associated with the candidates, and picking the commissioning teams brains about how you can fill the gaps between historical fact and historical imagination to create art works which could bring these people to life.

Following this information gathering stage I then decided to put together a ‘bio’ for each of the portrait subjects which split my research into known historical facts and conjecture i.e. what can we infer from those facts. Then I thought about how we could connect the enslaved Africans to what is going on now in Lancaster as well as in the past, and then some personal musings as to what they were going through while they were here and what their lives were like before they came to the UK.

This really helped me start to imagine what these individuals could possibly look like because when I'm developing a portrait, I think more about the emotions that that person is feeling, and then once I fix the emotion and facial expression in my mind, I can then move on and look for references that act as a stepping stone towards developing the drawing or painting of that individual.

I really enjoyed the research phase of this project, as it was a real luxury to be able to dedicate so much time to it and have access to such amazing resources, so I’d say this was the easiest part of the project. What I found most difficult was working on the portraits in isolation as this was my first public commission for a museum and so I spent a lot of time fretting whether the work was good enough or whether I’d captured the spirit of the individuals that the commissioning team knew so well. Thankfully when the team came out to visit my studio to view the work at the end of the project, they were really happy with the portraits I had produced so I was able to breathe a big sigh of relief!

Portrait of Molly, by Lela Harris.
Molly, by Lela Harris.

Which narrative did you find most fascinating?

I found ‘Molly’’s narrative most fascinating mainly because there was hardly any historical evidence relating to her life. As my daughter’s middle name is Mollie, I was immediately interested in her as a portrait subject despite the fact that the only evidence I could find for her were her baptism and burial records which are held at the Priory church in Lancaster. According to these records ‘Molly’ was an ‘Adult Black Female’ baptised on 6 November 1764 and buried 1 December 1764. I was immediately struck by the thought that it was possible that ‘Molly’ may have only lived less than a month in the UK which led me to ponder whether she became ill during the journey to Lancaster, whether she became ill when she arrived (after all it was winter) or whether in fact she had lived here for several years and somebody had cared enough for her arrange for her to be baptised when she became gravely ill and then went onto ensure she was buried on consecrated ground. With all these thoughts whizzing around my head and being unable to find any other documentation relating to her life I decided to try and find out what happened in Lancaster during 1764 when ‘Molly’ is documented as living in Lancaster. It turns out that the Customs House now Lancaster Maritime Museum was built and designed by Richard Gillow whose furniture is proudly displayed within the Judges’ Lodges Museum. This was a big moment for me as despite having such little information to go off ‘Molly’ suddenly became inextricably connected to Lancaster’s past, present, and future and really highlighted for me the importance of using historical imagination and art to celebrate the life of someone who was for all essential purposes forgotten by history.

A photograph of Lela Harris.
Lela Harris, image courtesy of Darren Andrews.

What do you think it is about art that draws people into historical topics?

I think people are really fascinated about learning about our collective past because it helps to connect us to our own origins, our own stories. For me personally working on this commission made me want to find out about my own heritage and whether I had any historical links to the transatlantic slave trade, so I ordered a DNA test to find out. Having grown up not knowing who my biological father is has always been something that both scared and fascinated me and I found that during my work on this project, getting to know these historical individuals, gave me the courage to find out more about myself. The results have been a massive eye opener for me as I now know my paternal side originates from Ghana which has been a revelation.

How does this exhibition fit into your broader portfolio of work?

Throughout my work I am always driven by a desire to uncover the stories of those forgotten by history and marginalised by society. It’s something I come back to time and time again as I am fascinated by the challenge of uncovering hidden narratives. Going forward I would really like to continue to explore the link between historical research, imagination, and art to further our understanding of the day to day lives, hopes, dreams and fears of ordinary people in a bid to close the gap between past and present; and shine a light on the everyday.


It is only when you visit the exhibition and see the six portraits now on permanent display, that you can grasp the importance and significance of the incredible intervention that Lela’s work has made both in the space of the Judge’s Lodging Museum, but also more widely in retelling the history of the city.

I am now working with Lela and Geraldine Onek to write and design a 2nd Key-Stage teaching pack, which will focus on the lives of the Black Lancastrian’s whom Lela brought to live in her portraits, this will be published and made freely available online for schools in July 2023

- Professor Imogen Tyler, Sociology Department, Lancaster University.


EPOCH would like to thank Lela Harris for her generosity in discussing her work, and Professor Imogen Tyler who kindly collaborated on this article on behalf of the Lancaster Black History Group.


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