Students uncover the untold histories of Edinburgh University’s BAME alumnae

Over the course of Fresher’s week, eight students read over biographies, blogs and archives to search for the stories of alumni of colour who attended the University of Edinburgh from 1780 to 1980.

UncoverED, funded and supported by Edinburgh Global, is a collaborative project led by PhD researcher Henry Mitchell, which grew out of an earlier project with teaching fellow Tom Cunningham.

Mitchell, based at the Centre for African Studies, commented that “The Centre for African Studies wanted to know more about its African alumni. It was about being more reflexive and recognising people of colour at the university… Edinburgh has a well established history of people color from the start of the 19th century.

“Two years ago, we had a week researching African students, and noted some very interesting individuals at Edinburgh. People who had been previously celebrated [by the university] – by far the most rewarding research was of women, who didn’t fit within archival logics. A lot of them weren’t recognised but  had to face huge institutional barriers, that weren’t just about race, but also gender.”

Mitchell’s finished by saying that “This has since become a bigger project…a decolonial history needs to include different voices”.

Over 161 students applied for research positions after the call for applicants was spread across various online platforms. Ultimately, eight students were chosen; Esme Allman, Laurence Jarlett, Hannah McGurk, Vidhipssa Mohan, Natasha Ruwona, Lea Ventre, Fatima Seck, and Dingjian Xie. The group is a mixture of undergraduate and postgraduate students. 

Hannah McGurk, a second year English Literature and German student, reflected on her time, commenting “I’ve really enjoyed being a part of this project, although the act of going through the student archives took a mental and emotional toll. Seeing how students of colour and issues of Empire were dismissed as nuisances or irritants, and generally being seeped in the white colonial imagination, was really difficult at times but made the discoveries of the individual students more special. I have a newfound respect for my predecessors and hope the university continues to reflect on their stories”.

The research project will culminate in a semi-permanent exhibition at the Chrystal Macmillan Building starting in January, with aims of making these alumnae’s histories and stories visible and accessible to current students, and expanding the historical lexicon of the University of Edinburgh.

However, UncoverED is not a strictly academic endeavour. It is also political and decolonial. Indeed, students have spent the last few days exploring the stories of exceptional people who were part of this university, but also individuals who were completely erased from the university’s collective memory.

Flora Nwapa, for example, attended the University of Edinburgh in 1958. She is known as the mother of anglophone African literature, was a pioneering figure in the African Renaissance, an advocate of African women’s empowerment, and a public servant who almost single-handedly reunited displaced children with their families after the Nigerian Civil War. Grenadian David Pitt, Baron Pitt of Hamstead, attended the university in 1933. He was the second peer of African descent to sit in the House of Lords, the former president of the British Medical Association, and was named one of “100 Great Black Britons”. Neither he nor Nwapa is listed on the university website as “Notable Alumni”. 

This project and its related exhibitions aims to force the university community into confronting broader questions about who gets to be remembered by the University of Edinburgh, and ask why do alumnae of colour seldom receive this treatment?

Cunningham, who like Mitchell is based at the Centre for African Studies, aptly notes the paradoxical element of UncoverED: “There is this fundamental tension in the project, where it’s about celebrating [the university’s] diversity but also about thinking about the more complex ways in which Edinburgh was involved in imperial networks.

“We are excavating these stories of seriously impressive individuals who were part of this community. But then there’s also these other questions — why is it that there are no buildings named after these people, and why is it that they haven’t been remembered? That is probably indicative of the less glamorous aspects of the university’s diverse past. When you start reading into it, you start to see the classist, sexist and racist attitudes that are entrenched in the university.”

UncoverED planned on finishing research after a week, but they have decided to continue the project. This, along with an exhibition at the beginning of January, will help the project receive more attention and make a mark on the university. The originally week-long project was extended by Edinburgh Global, who after the success and popularity of the project, have increased their funding so that students can continue their research throughout the semester part-time. This, along with a semi-permanent exhibition beginning in January, will help the project make a broader mark on the university and beyond.

To hear more about UncoverED, check out their twitter: @UncoverED. 

Image: Fatima Se

Related News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Student Newspaper 2016