Within their halls, the thirty-one colleges at the University of Cambridge contain portraits, sculptures, and texts memorializing notable Cantabs. Among these, however, alumni of African descent are markedly absent. Launched in October 2015, the Black Cantabs Project is combing the archives and rewriting Black alumni into the history of this centuries-old institution. Ayiba’s Debbie Onuoha spoke to the project’s co-founders about recovering the often lost or forgotten stories of Cambridge’s Black graduates, from 1849 to the present.
Njoki Wamai is a final-year Kenyan PhD student reading politics at Queen’s College and Nnenda Chinda is a Nigerian-Italian who recently graduated with a BA in classics from Downing College.
How and why did both of you end up at Cambridge?
Nnenda: It’s not something I’d always thought of. I knew there was a university called Cambridge but I didn’t know it was attainable. Then my cousin got in for theology. That was the first time I heard the buzz around Cambridge and then I thought, if someone like me can get in then maybe it’s attainable after all! I felt I deserved a shot at Cambridge, and also knowing that I wanted to switch from engineering to classics, I found that it was the best uni for my course. I already had my grades for A-levels so I knew that I was already meeting the main criteria so I thought, let me just give it a go, and I did. That’s how I ended up here.
Njoki: Like Nnenda, I never thought about Cambridge [laughs] until you meet somebody, a real person who’s been to Cambridge. In 2009, I climbed Mount Kenya and I met a Kenyan who was studying in Cambridge and she was talking about it and I said, “Oh interesting, so there are real people?” and after that we became friends. I visited and met many other Kenyans here, so I thought ,Wait a minute, if these guys are here, why not me? I’m just as intelligent! I did my masters at Kings College where a friend sent me information about the Gates-Cambridge scholarship, saying, “This looks like you.” I was lucky, I applied and I got it, so I am very grateful to people who have been on my road to Cambridge. I hope through me many other people find inspiration that it’s possible.
What inspired you to begin this project?
Njoki: The Black Cantabs is a meeting point of different people. After Priscilla Mensah won the election as the first Black female president of CUSU (Cambridge University Student Union), Nnenda and Sienna Bangura felt inspired. They started saying, “We need to start documenting our histories, what happens when we are gone?” And then somebody else said, “Wait a minute, I think there’s Njoki, and Godfrey Sang already doing this!” We had started researching into the Kenyans, and then the Africans who had been to Cambridge in those early years. So it’s a confluence of two different initiatives that were going on. Eva Namusoke joined the team later as a historian.
Practically speaking, what tasks, people, and places does this involve?
Nnenda: It’s mainly getting current students from as many colleges as possible to contact their senior tutors, their development officers, their college archivist, to try and collate as much material as possible. We also search Google and Alumni Cantabrigienses, the database for pre-1950 students. We hope to instil a sense of the significance of what we’re trying to do to get people excited. Many Cantabs want to show that their college is welcoming to this kind of initiative and has been diverse.
What kind of support do you have for this already, and then on the other hand, what kind of support do you need?
Njoki: We’ve had a number of major events to raise awareness. We had the initial launch of the project on October thirtieth at Queens. It was very significant because the first matriculated and graduated Black Cantab, Alexander Crummell, studied at Queens in 1849, and later became a leading moral philosopher at Howard University. We also had a dinner in February at Downing with current Black Cantabs. Through those events we encourage students to go to their colleges and do the research. Because its a lot of work, we’re now looking into finding funding for a full-time employee to do this research and then put it together in the form of a database. We’d also like support from the greater British history societies that work on preservation, for them to see this as part of the greater history of Black Britain and the kind of people who informed it.
Can tell us about any Black Cantab women that you’ve found?
Njoki: Gloria Claire Carpenter was probably the first black woman at Cambridge. She was from Jamaica and studied law at Girton College in 1945. She became a prominent social reformer and was instrumental in the foundation of the University of West Indies in Jamaica. Then Efua Sutherland, from Ghana, studied at Homerton College in 1947. She was a playwright and filmmaker, who contributed a lot in developing theatre in Ghana. There was Olugbolahan Abisogun-Alo, a leading educationist in Nigeria, at Girton College in 1957. We also had Lulu Coker a Sierra Leonean around the same time, as well as Princess Elizabeth Bagaya who studied law at Girton in 1959. Bagaya was the first East African woman to join the English bar in early 1960s. And then she became a minister, sadly, in Idi Amin’s government.
As you compile this database, how do you hope to share this with other people?
Nnenda: The database is readily accessible to everyone, but we would like to have a section on the website, which we’ll be launching soon, where people can access each Black Cantab either by college, subject, or year. A book is also something we would like to do at some point. Obviously we would need more funding but the idea is to write a counterpart to the one Pamela Roberts had already done for Oxford. I suppose whatever Oxford does Cambridge has to do better [laughs]. About paintings, I don’t think it’s impossible, I just think it takes the right person in the right position to want to push for something like that.
Njoki: Data is good, but we need the story behind it. Recently Haroun Mahmud, a student-researcher unearthed the data of the people who studied in Kings College between the early 1900s to the early 1960s, and you can see there’s a story around these people. Most of them are children of rich people: the Oba of Benin for instance studied lLaw’ at Kings in the mid 1940s. Joseph Ephraim Casely-Hayford studied law at Peterhouse College in 1893 and Arthur Boi Quartey-Papafio the son of the chief of Osu in Accra also studied law at Christ’s College in 1894. So the first Cantabs who came to study here were from not just rich but prominent families: sons of chiefs, and many of them also were Ghanaian and Nigerian. Many of them went to Furabay College in Sierra Leone. So for me what is important is how do we use the information that is within the database to start understanding what was happening as historians would, so that we can disseminate by writing short media articles about the lives of these people?
What was the one thing you were most worried about when you were starting this project and did it hold up?
Nnenda: I didn’t want it to sound like a militant group because I realised that the word “Black” is tricky. When anything starts with Black or has Black in it, it’s immediately very threatening. It’s like, “Oh! You’re trying to do something subversive!” I’d have friends asking, “So are you doing any more political stuff this year?” I didn’t know I was doing anything political. This is not political; it’s a historical research society. I even invited some of my friends to the launch and they said, “But I’m not Black.” No. We’re opening it to the University; we’re not just directing it at Black students. So for me it was that how would Cambridge perceive it? Because activism is great but you can be very easily misinterpreted here especially in a quite homogenous society like Cambridge. How do we interpret the word “Black?”
Njoki That’s a major thing we struggled with, what to call it, because not everyone identifies as “Black.” Some would say, “no, no I am an African.” Blackness especially in this context is more of a consciousness. Many people do not want to be part of that politics of Blackness. So we had a conversation about what are we calling this.
Nnenda: But I think our rationale was that it’s not just Africans because we are also targeting Afro-Asians, Afro-Latinas, African-Americans, Afro-Europeans, so Black was the only obvious way to bring everyone together.
How has working on this project informed your own personal experiences so far?
Nnenda: It was the inspiration behind my final year thesis. I wanted to see where I fit in terms of what I was studying at Cambridge: trying to find out past classicists of Nigerian or African descent. I wanted to connect what I’m doing right now, to where I come from, to Black Cantabs. For me that made my Cambridge experience: I’ve been able to do a piece of research and leave it behind so it’s been great for my academic maturity.
Njoki: Before I came to Cambridge I didn’t necessarily see myself as Black, I probably thought of myself more as an African. Coming to Cambridge and being the only Black girl in the room or standing out in a way that I have never done before made me feel, “oh I am Black,” and not just “I am Black,” but “I need to do something for other people.” I don’t want other people feeling as lonely as I did or even if they are going to be lonely at least they can feel that there is a movement around. Like the African Society that I helped cofound or this Black Cantabs research that says, “there are people like you who have been here before and they have done exemplary things that you can look up to.”
This year marks a departure from Cambridge for both of you. What will happen to Black Cantabs?
Nnenda: As co-founders we’ve put in so much effort and time. Even though we’re not going to be physically here, we’ll make sure it maintains the vision that we have for the project. We will still give our input and just monitor its progress but ideally we would like to give it to current students that are here who also know what the vision is and who can really take it on enthusiastically and build on from what we have.
Fifty years down the line what impact would you most like the Black Cantabs project to have?
Nnenda: For many people Cambridge and Oxford still remain quite inaccessible. What struck me when we did the launch was that the president of Queens said it’s all very well that we say to people to apply but you do need to provide the pathways, you need to make it accessible. Not that you lower their expectations, but just show that it’s possible. That’s what the Black Cantabs Project is trying to do. I want to live in a society where people see a group of Black faces and associate that with Cambridge, rather than seeing the usual Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton. I want these Black faces to also invoke great institutions like Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard. As ambitious as this sounds, fifty years down the line I want a child in whichever African country to be able to look and say, “This is a person at Cambridge, I can do it, too.”
Njoki: And also in terms of a continuity: once we have the database, it’s for alumni to also form this Black Cantabs Alumni Society and have a space not only to articulate their concerns but also influence the university. We hope that the Black Cantabs themselves will use this to encourage themselves to start doing more for the Black students here and also start owning Cambridge.