Original transcripts can be accessed by contacting The University of Northampton Archives. A collection of the transcripts will also be published shortly. Watch this space! In the meantime, a sample of a transcript is below.
Stephanie Harris Oral History Interview
Abstract: Stephanie Harris describes herself as a ‘young, Jamaican British Lady.’ Her father was a miner in Yorkshire and moved their family of eight to Wellingborough in the early 1970’s. Stephanie highlights incidents of racism when her children were young and a more recent episode in a local supermarket. She has worked at Wellingborough Afro-Caribbean Association (WACA) for about 19 years and manages the Elderly Day Centre. She gives examples of generational perceptions of diversity in the town today and how she challenges racist ‘mindsets’. Actively promoting her activities to the whole community, she remains committed to the progress of WACA and is optimistic about the community working together.
JL: This is Stephanie Harris. My name is Jenny Labbon and it is the 17th of February 2017. So, Stephanie, can you tell me about your own background? What year were you born?
JL: OK. And how do you identify yourself ethnically?
SH: A young, Jamaican British lady, yeah. Uh huh.
JL: How long have you been in Wellingborough?
SH: Wow. ’Bout since senior [Pause to think] school, really. I’d say, probably…oh, 35, 36, probably 40 years. I would say. Yeah.
JL: OK. This project is specific to the experience of Black people in Wellingborough. Can you remember anything about your childhood in relation to your ethnic background?
SH: It’s vague, but, you know, I can probably pick things out. Going to school. Yeah. Pretty routine.
JL: Was it a happy childhood?
SH: I would say so. On the whole, yeah,
JL: Yeah? So can you tell me a little bit about your family? The makeup of your family? Did you have brothers and sisters?
SH: Ooh, there are four boys and two girls. So we are a family of eight including parents. We moved here from Nottingham, because of work, in relation to my father really. He was a miner. He used to work down the pits up Yorkshire. And, well when the pit closures and all that he came to this end. I think he knew because he’s a man of God. He goes to church and he knew the congregation down here, The New Testament Church of God. And so we moved in this area and he found work. Until he, well, reach his retirement again. He moved back up to Yorkshire and the majority of children stayed here. So, yeah, I came here, some of us at Junior School, some of us at senior level and joined the community here.
JL: I’m really interested that you said your father was a miner. Did he talk about that at all?
SH: Talk? He didn’t have time to talk, he was busy working. Um, he’s been through a lot, he was always working. And in those days, you know what – they go down the pits and, and coalface. They go down looking different and come up looking the same. Don’t they? [Laughs] Everybody’s looking the same because of the coal. But yeah, he worked hard. It was a dangerous job, you know. I don’t think I could do it – I – these days.
JL: You couldn’t if you wanted to anyway.
SH: No. No. I’m sure some of the pits are still open. But, probably just Museum. Yeah.
JL: Well he must have been content because if he went back….
SH: Well it was not to the pit. Because the family – our family settled up north. And so they were there. So that’s why he went back there. He, he – I think he was a nomad. He liked to move up and down. Whereas, I just stay in one place. [Chuckle]
JL: So before we approached you, had you heard of the Race Relations Act (1976)?
SH: Yeah. I’ve heard of it.
JL: OK. And what was your perception of what it means?
SH: Well, to be honest, I haven’t sort of read deeply into it. But, it’s about equality as well isn’t it, of the individual. No matter what race they are, to be treated fairly. As far as I’m aware. In all aspects, whether it be employment, yeah, day to day life. So, yeah.
JL: Have there been any racist incidents that you’ve personally experienced, Steph?
SH: I can recall a – Sometimes if you – I always say to my children, if you feel an offence has been done to you – ‘Cos you always sense things – It’s been done to you. Right? And most of the time I tend to deal with it at the time and then forget it. Because you’ve got to move on, we’ve got to try and live together.
But yeah, I can recall a couple of incidents really. There was one where my children were growing up, living in Wellingborough. I moved into an area which they thought, well, you know, I’ve got status. But I don’t think it was status. I could afford the property. Anyway, there weren’t any black people living in that area as far as I was aware. But my neighbours, I couldn’t get on with. And I don’t know if it reflected on the children because the children would react differently when we came out on the drive and my son would probably drive, ride up and down on his little bike and go onto their pavement and their path and they would come out and say, “Go on,” you know, “Go on to your side! Don’t come over here! Ride down that bit!” You know. But it was, it was disheartening because kids need to be free. Why should I keep him inside? You know. So I would be always out there guarding. Let him ride up and down. Make sure you don’t go on the neighbour’s path. And, and the children – their kids would be out looking and watching to see if they’re going on [the path] as well.
And that was a bit stressful for my children as well as myself. Because they didn’t want us -you know neighbourly? You try to get on with your neighbours for whatever reason. Whether you want to take a parcel in or just to say good morning. And anyway eventually they moved away within – Oh, I can’t really recall the time span but they moved out. And I think it was because of that [Being a Black family]. Well, I feel it was because we moved next door to them. Yeah
JL: Only you know how you feel.
SH: Well that’s it. You always go with feelings. You know. They say actions speak louder than words, but you know. You can sense when something has been done to you. And if you feel offended, you have been offended because you felt it.
Er, there was another occasion, more recently. Shopping. And you know you’re going about – I like to have a chat with customers. But it wasn’t a customer. It was a member of staff in a supermarket. And um, chatting away, you know, picking up your veg, the customers saying, “Oh, how do you cook that?” I’m glad they’re saying how do you cook that? So I’m explaining – “Ooh, I’ll have one”, just looking in my basket just seeing what I’ve got in there. “How do you cook that?”
Get to the deli counter now, and I’m waiting my turn in the queue. There was nobody there except me for a while. The member of staff washing hands, whatever they’re doing wiping, not seeing me. I thought I won’t disturb because he’s gonna turn round and see me. I’m still choosing anyway. And then more people kept coming up. And he turned around and he thought, “Oh, there’s a queue now.” and instead of coming to me, he’s gone to the next person, that’s just queued, and there are others queuing up. I was there from time.
So my partner came up to me and said, “How come he’s gone to serve that person and not you?” I said I don’t know. Probably he can’t see me? Well, I didn’t stop. I thought I don’t want that again. I just walked away. I suppose I could have taken it further but what’s the point, really? I could have complained or say, “Eh, what about me? I was standing here. Don’t you want my money?” Or, you know. But half the time, I just shake it off. It’s not worth it. Yeah?
So they’re the two recollections I can talk about. I can’t – I’ve been trying to rack my brain to look in the past, more or less during school days. Typical with children, you know, you get [racist] name-calling and what have you. But, it doesn’t really stick in my brain, so it wasn’t important to me. [Laugh] I’ve overlooked it.
JL: Yeah. So that’s your personal experience. Now tell me about your work with WACA. How long have you been here working with the elderly?
SH: Wow. I used to say 17 years but it’s counting. It must be about 19 years now. Yeah. With a bit of a break.
JL: Uh huh. And what has that experience been like working for a specific Black organisation?
SH: Um, well I found I have to promote things and involve the community. And we’ve got a wide community. We’ve got a mixed bunch. And I don’t see colour. Yes, this is an Afro-Caribbean community, but I don’t see colour and we need to all work together and live together. So whatever activities I put on is for everybody out there. But I find that because the word African-Caribbean is on the flyers, people think they’re not invited or not allowed to come in. Why? You know.
JL: Why do you think that is then?
SH: I think the ‘old school’, elderly or community are set in their ways. They’re used to certain things. They never used to mix. And now it’s hard to. They try to. I can see them coming out, they’re trying. There are – I’ll say now, some of my customers are of white background. Some of my member of staff and volunteers are of white background. And they don’t see colour. We don’t see colour. We’ve got a job to do. We come in and we just execute the job. But, I’m saying some of those that I’ve gone out to outreach to, they’re saying, “Oh, it’s not for me,” not giving me a chance to explain what we’re doing. And they’re saying “It’s not for me” or “I already go to one.” Or, yeah, “is it alright if we come?” Why not?
JL: I guess they feel that they need to get permission?
SH: Yeah, yeah. Asking permission. Yeah, that gets me. I don’t – in this day in age – I don’t see why people are still doing that. But like I said the ‘old school’ generation, they’re stuck in their ways and it’s hard to change them. And like I say, going back to one of my personal experience of taking the children to school – Um, the kids – Not – You can tell how the parents have brought them up. Because the children pointing and say, ‘Look at them. Look at their colour, dark,’ or whatever. And the parents try to – It’s too late now. You’ve already set that standard. And they know – they’re gonna to bring it [racist comments] outside. They don’t see that we’re all the same under the skin and we should all get along.
Yeah, but in my day centre, here – Even at WACA on the whole, we’ve got Whites and Irish, Icelandic, Ooh, various cultures here. So – and when I go and do a presentation whatever, I bring them along with me. We’re a mixed bunch. And in the displays that we have, it shows that it’s not just for Afro-Caribbean. And try to encourage them, just to change their mindset. But I think it’s still a work in progress. Yeah.
JL: You’re working with a particular age group. Do you think it’s perhaps a generation attitude?
SH: [Pause] More often than not, yeah, yeah. You’ll still find some of the young ones will act that way but I think it’s a generation thing.
JL: OK. [Pause] Have you ever felt the need – and I know you’ve stated what your opinion is, you’re setting a good example for other communities as well that it can work. Have you observed incidents of particular racial discrimination that hasn’t happened to you directly?
SH: Umm, [pause] I can’t recall. At the moment.
JL: That’s OK. Sometimes things happen and you said you deal with it straight away, It’s done and you move on…
SH: I try to.
JL: I understand that, understand that. Do you think the Race Relations Act has made a difference to how communities work together?
SH: I think, yes. There needs to be something in place. A guideline. There it is in black and white. Um yeah. I think it has. I’m sorry I can’t go into…
JL: That’s alright. I wonder what you think could be improved about it?
SH: About the Act?
SH: [Pause] Mmm. Do you want to mention areas that you’re – that are part of the Act or…
JL: OK. You’re working in social and healthcare for instance. How could the Act improve Black people’s access to services, for instance?
SH: Well I think that everybody – It should be a generic thing, all round. Everybody, whether Black, Asian, white should get the same standard of treatment. And, and all the responses should be in the same timeline as, you know, they do for others.
JL: Yeah. You just want fairness?
SH: Yeah. You know, a fair, a fair procedure.
JL: How do you think issues of race are perceived in Wellingborough as a whole?
SH: What do I think? Mmm [Pause]. We’re a diverse community – and – well let me start here. I think sometimes people think that it’s just Jamaicans that are here in WACA. No, there’s not just Jamaicans! I think as an individual or is it culturally, people tend to put islands or cultures in boxes. And I think that’s what’s going on. Everybody’s in their own little corner. We’ve got the African community, we’ve got the Asian community. Oh, I’ve tried to link and they do to some extent. But, they won’t let you get in [Chuckle] and share their culture. We’ve got Polish community, they expanded recently. And I’m sure there are others that I haven’t mentioned but we’re all duplicating the same sort of thing. I suppose – It’s like churches. Some, they are Catholic, Church of England, New Testament Church of God. Yeah, you worship. It’s the same. It’s from the same Bible. We can come together and I think we do come together sometimes, but not enough. In the right place and fight for the same rights.
JL: Do you find that people come together more often when it’s crisis?
SH: Oh yeah. Goes without saying. Yeah. Which is a shame?
JL: You talked about there being so many different groups in Wellingborough, particularly the national news, there has been lots of political unrest. How do you think, like Brexit for example, do you think that has had an impact on racial equality?
SH: Well yeah. I think it has. All you’ve been hearing is about Brexit and what’s gonna happen next. Are we going to rise up from this Phoenix? Um, because I think we rely on certain countries for certain things. And, because we’ve got this Brexit, we’re not going to get certain produce or alliances from the countries that we’ve broken away from. I’m not political. That’s politics is around us. And yeah, I think it’s gonna affect us financially, through taxes, I think, will increase. And the working people that are there trying to keep a job are gonna be affected. And we’ve had, like, these new communities come in that do the menial work that some of our people don’t want to do. I say some of our people, I mean British people. Are they [new communities] going to be asked to – They’ve set up businesses and, you know, is the economy gonna grow or is it gonna flop and then we’re gonna have closures of businesses and things like that?
It, it’s a work in progress. It’s early days. But yeah. I’m watching this space. I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic that we’re going to survive.
JL: So how do you see the future of Wellingborough? The people of Wellingborough with all our diversities?
SH: I’m optimistic about that as well. We’ve got new buildings coming up. I’m sure more people are gonna come in and there are more cultures joining us. It’s just getting to know them. Some of them still working so you don’t see them during the daytime or even at the weekend. They need to – I met a postman the other day. He knocked on the door, instead of putting a letter through the letterbox in my office, and he said, “Oh, I’ve just moved into the area. This is my job and I’ve heard about your Association. I’d like to come here.” Membership. Flyer. So that’s nice, isn’t it? So it’s just getting that link with that if they’re willing to come forward and find out what’s here, yeah, I think will grow. I talk to anybody really. If you’re not going to say hello to me – I say hello once, and if you don’t – I won’t pressure you. You don’t have to, yeah?
SH: Back in the day, that’s what used to happen, everybody saying, “Good morning.” There’s not much of that anymore. So I’m trying to push it out of there now. Yeah.
JL: OK. That’s brilliant. Is there anything else you’d like to add, Steph?
SH: Erm. I’d just love my organisation [WACA] to grow. Yeah. This funding thing is changing. And yes, that’s gonna affect us and we want to offer a lot to the community. And half the time it’s because of the lack of funding and the lack of people coming forward offering their skills. I think if we work together like that, you get a better sense of belonging. It doesn’t always have to mean monetary rewards. But, you know, there are rewards, aren’t there? Yeah, that’s it.
JL: Thank you.