Download our full Black History Month Report as a pdf here.
When the African-American historian and sociologist Carter G. Woodson first proposed the idea of a Negro history week (later to become black history month) in 1926, he aim was to showcase the achievements of the African diaspora.
This makes me wonder how he would feel about the focus of our black history month project.
We’ve chosen to examine the influence of the abolitionist sermons of Peter Peckard, an 18th-century white man and Vice-Chancellor of the University, who preached at Great St Mary’s before an (almost totally) all-white academic audience.
In some respects this goes against the ethos of black history month. We don’t want to present black people as victims, acted upon by evil or benevolent white forces, but our emphasis is nonetheless on the Slave Trade and not on black agency.
Perhaps this is why black history month can sometimes seem like a cause for anxiety, as the difficulty of finding local black subjects reminds us of the nation’s complicated past with race, and of previous failings to preserve black history for the present. Yet it also represents an opportunity to draw attention to how the experience of black people has shaped the Church and the city in ways we didn’t know.
Peter Peckard was amongst the earliest known Anglican churchmen to speak out against the Atlantic Slave Trade and a friend and mentor to the famous freed slave Olaudah Equiano.
Four of Peckard’s sermons preached at Great St Mary’s explicitly condemned the Atlantic Slave Trade and its practitioners.
The first, in 1784, directly inspired the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, who would found the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in London three years later.
Peckard’s influence was also significant in affording Cambridge the reputation of an abolitionist centre, greatly admired by subsequent visiting African-American scholars such as Alexander Crummell.
Crummell studied at Queens’ College from 1894-53, and would go on to be regarded as one of the most significant black thinkers of the 19th century, esteemed by the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass.
We are very grateful to Dr Sarah Meer, of Selwyn College, for sharing her research on Crummell in a series of posters which are currently on display at Great St Mary’s.
However, we felt it was important not just to celebrate Peckard’s contributions, but to recognise the history of which we are less proud.
That’s why we have been looking into former slave-holders amongst our congregation over the centuries.
Using University College London’s innovative new slave-ownership database – the same one which identified the ancestors of David Cameron and Benedict Cumberbatch among many others as slave-holders – we are now working to match the burial records of parishioners with slave-owners in the database.
Initial research has revealed that Henry Richards Luard, vicar of Great St Mary’s from 1860-87, was from a family of slave-holders. Luard inherited significant wealth from his father, which included compensation for 328 slaves owned by the family when slavery was abolished in the British colonies in 1833.
We hope that further research into sermons preached at Great St Mary’s will reveal more about the attitudes of clergy and congregation to the Slave Trade.
The sheer diversity of parishioners makes research difficult – the parish of St Mary’s includes townspeople of all backgrounds and social classes, as well as members of the University. But we hope it will help to show that black history is not a topic that can be restricted to a single calendar month – in one way or another it affects us all, and certainly includes Great St Mary’s.