“The struggle against racism thus continues, in different ways and at different times.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has once again put anti-racism high on the international agenda. With this in mind, it is important to remember that Teesside has its own place in history when it comes to tales of oppression and resistance. 

Stockton, for example, has a tradition of political activism stretching back centuries. During the 18th century, the town’s economy benefited from slavery when millions of bags’ worth of sugar passed through its port; as local researchers have documented, Stockton Sugar House stood on what is now a car park by Thistle Green, overlooking the River Tees. Sugar was known as the ‘white gold’ of slavery, and in 1791-2 abolitionists called for a boycott of the slave-grown sugar which many English people used to sweeten their tea. In 1792, a petition for abolition of the slave trade was presented to Parliament signed by 181 ‘principal inhabitants’ of Stockton-on-Tees. These included Robert Jackson, a local doctor who had witnessed the brutality of slavery in Jamaica first-hand.

Yet while anti-slavery narratives are often focused on figures like Jackson and other ‘white saviours’ like William Wilberforce, it is important to emphasise that slaves themselves played a leading role in abolition. 

One of the most famous was Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who toured Britain in the early 1790s to promote his autobiography. Equiano was a member of the London Corresponding Society, a radical organisation established to agitate for universal suffrage. Having visited coal mines in Newcastle, Equiano visited Stockton in 1792, and as one historian comments, Equiano’s book tour “generated significant support from working class readers”.

Racism survived the end of colonialism and slavery, however, because its ideas are constantly adaptable to new conditions and situations. In Britain it is often targeted at groups of migrants, and though not always based on skin colour, racism is surprisingly consistent in its themes, with ‘racialised’ groups often tarred as lazy, devious, promiscuous or burdensome. 

These were some of the claims made against Jewish people in the early 20th century, for example, and taken up by the British Union of Fascists – a group whose supporters were famously chased out of the High Street during the ‘Battle of Stockton’ in 1933. Enoch Powell later drew on such sentiments in his tirades against the Windrush generation and their children, which drew condemnation from organisations like Stockton and Thornaby Trades Council. More recently, similar accusations have been levelled against Muslims and refugees, and again people in Stockton have fought back.  

2020 has seen Stockton activists join global protests in solidarity with George Floyd, just as they did in the 1980s in organisations like Teesside Anti-Apartheid.  The struggle against racism thus continues, in different ways and at different times. As the abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said:

“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

David Bates is a lecturer in Media, Culture & Heritage at Newcastle University. He lives in Stockton-on-Tees.