The Black Cantabs Project – Uncovering Cambridge University’s diverse past

By Louise Moschetta @LouiseMoschetta

As I began jotting down some ideas for this blog post in a background of clinks and clatter of a coffee shop in Cambridge, I overheard a conversation from two individuals talking at the table behind me. They were referring to what I believed to be a white, wealthy, male individual, with the statement that sums up the entire image, ‘he’s very Cambridge’.

The launch of the Black Cantabs Project last October under the auspice of Black History Month complicates what it exactly means to be Cambridge. The aim of the Black Cantabs Projects is to uncover, or recover, the university’s ‘lost students’. At its core, the project is archival – it is an organised opportunity for ‘current and former students of the University of Cambridge to write the black students of this institution back into its history’ and publish these findings online.

The society itself is an intersection of several projects and movements that had begun long before its launch. Njoki Wamai, a doctoral candidate at Cambridge, and Godfrey Sang, a visiting Kenyan scholar, researched the Kenyan activist and politician, Jean Marie Seroney who visited friends at Cambridge in the 1950s – a task which evolved into questioning why there were so few representations of eminent black alumni at Cambridge. This came also at a time when the first black female Cambridge University Student Union President, Priscilla Mensah, was elected, an important feat that has so far passed with little mention. Dr. Eva Namusoke, the project lead historian, states, “There are so many stories that need to be told – stories of kings, chiefs and politicians who shaped Africa; stories of pioneers who paved the way for generations; and stories of ordinary black men and women who sat in formal hall and went to May Balls with their peers”. Precisely because this perception of Cambridge has been forgotten, it is “our duty now to honour them and place them back in the university’s history”. At the heart of this society is the timely assertion that the lived experience of black students matters.

Indeed, if anyone is asked to imagine the kinds of people that would be part of the University of Cambridge’s alumni community, stereotypes of gallivanting aristocrats, skinny Nobel Laureates, or tweed-clad, port-drinking dons would most likely be mentioned. As a very old institution steeped in bizarre traditions, the tendency is to imagine those who participated as predominantly male and predominantly white. This is problematic, as the Black Cantabs Project are showing, because it does not represent the diversity of Cambridge’s participants both past and present and limits what is deemed to be Cambridge in very restricted terms. To anyone who has experienced the pomp and circumstance of a formal dinner in one of those grand college halls will note that they are supervised by the stern faces of old white men (and sometimes white women), forever immortalised in their gilded portraits. Among the increasingly diverse student population of the University of Cambridge, who do these faces represent?

The first confirmed Black Cantab, although this may change as the project delves deeper into college archives, is Alexander Crummell, a New York-born Episcopalian minister who came to Queens’ College around 1848 at the age of 30. He later became an important activist and educator in Liberia and was one of the first professors at Liberia College, now the University of Liberia. His contributions to education and the intellectual life of Liberia simply cannot be ignored – and yet so far they have been. The president of Queens’ College, a supporter of this project, has ordered a portrait of Crummell to be hung amongst other important alumni. What an important and symbolic addition to the panelled walls at Queens’.

Once enough Black Cantabs have been recovered, the organising committee plan to put together an exhibition, which they hope will diversify the ideas of Cambridge university’s past (perhaps like the wonderful exhibition Black Chronicles II which displayed an often-forgotten black presence in Britain in the nineteenth century). More importantly, the project and its exhibition, in displaying these Black Cantabs, will celebrate this diversity but also normalise it. Ultimately, the aim is to publish a book, the counterpart to Pamela Robert’s Black Oxford: The Untold Stories of Oxford University’s Black Scholars (2013).

The possibilities for this project are simply too immense and exciting. Talking to Dr Namusoke, there is a clear hope to go beyond past. The database, once enough alumni have been recovered from the dusty pages of registration lists and graduation photographs, will have a social purpose for current black students at the university; it will then emerge into something bigger than a testament to the contributions and participations of black students at Cambridge in the past, but as a means for current, prospective, and past members of University, the contemporary Black Cantabs, to form a strong and connected community. In the words of Dr Namusoke, the hope is to form ‘a global Black Cantab network’ of alumni, stretching from Alexander Crummell to the present.

Thank you to Dr. Eva Namusoke for taking the time to answer my questions and emails. For further developments, see the Black Cantabs Project website

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