VSThe commemorative plaques on the facades of British buildings are an unlikely source of joy. Especially during the pandemic, when city dwellers were more than usual dependent on the power of the feet to get around, a flash of ceramic sky blue – the color favored by English Heritage, which manages the most plaque pattern. bossy and best known on the streets of London – can mean a momentary invitation to contemplate distant lives. Walking past his house in Holland Park, for example, one can imagine Radclyffe Hall going through the scandal over the publication of The Well of Loneliness, his lesbian novel (deleted). Gay filmmaker and activist Derek Jarman is commemorated with a plaque erected by Islington City Council to mark his home in the late 1960s. He however has his English Heritage Blue plaque in Shad Thames, Southwark, London, where he lived and worked in the 1970s – and, incidentally, won the first Alternative Miss World pageant, judged by a jury including David Hockney.
Or take Ira Aldridge, the African-American actor who settled in the south London suburb of Upper Norwood, we learn from his blue license plate, in the 1860s. What would he have to say to the great composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who later lived nearby in South Norwood? The composer of The Song of Hiawatha was the first black person to receive a plaque under the English Heritage program in 1975.
The commemoration of history is more than ever a controversial issue. A recent analysis by the Guardian’s data team found that only 2% of the blue plaques in the English Heritage program commemorate black people. This rather pitiful figure, however, may somewhat obscure the fact that the charity, which took over the then 120-year-old project in 1986 after the abolition of the Greater London Council, has made significant strides in changing the balance. A working group, set up in 2016, notably encouraged applications for plaques commemorating black and Asian historical figures, as well as women and people from working-class backgrounds. The result is that in the last two years, a quarter of the plaques unveiled have commemorated notable black and Asian personalities. The era of the exclusive focus on dead white males is over.
Part of the nature of the process is that progress seems hopelessly slow: after nomination by a member of the public, there will be rigorous historical research to confirm a person’s association with a building or buildings; the presentation of the proposed plaque to a selection jury; the significant task of obtaining permits from landowners and councils; then the work of designing and manufacturing the beautiful ceramic cockades. It may take three years. Historian David Olusoga (who sits on the Scott Trust, which owns this newspaper) has made some sound suggestions on the possibility of adjusting the criteria to facilitate the commemoration of blacks with plaques, marking significant places for meetings or events rather than mere places of habitation. These ideas need to be taken seriously and the association encouraged to redouble their efforts – so that those who beat the streets have even more invitations to pause, marvel and imagine.