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Whose history? Communities telling their own stories of activism

By Vanessa Cardui |  February 17, 2016 |


A landmark eviction case, Connors v. United Kingdom, which went to the European Court of Human Rights in 2004 and was an eventual victory for Travellers, attracts the TV cameras

As the new Archives and Heritage person at Leeds GATE, I’ve been spending lots of time digging through the material that will eventually become GATE’s Archive of Gypsy and Traveller history. And I’ve noticed that some of the most interesting items we’ve got are about the struggles for Gypsies’ and Travellers’ rights. There’s photos of Travellers speaking at public events; minutes of 1980s Council meetings debating policy on Gypsies; collections of newspaper cuttings going back to the 60s about Traveller issues; videos of Travellers discussing how they are treated and what needs to change; and lots more. It's all really interesting - and it's important too, and that's why we're asking everyone who knows Leeds GATE to help us collect more of it. Read on to find out why and how!

These objects grab the attention because many of us don’t expect to see them in an archive. Traditionally, archives and museums collected the history of powerful people – kings, bosses, politicians. If they collected the history of Travellers and Gypsies at all, they did it from the outside; it was all romantic images of camp-fires, not recording what Gypsies and Travellers had to say.

That’s changed a lot these days. Most archives and museums agree that struggles for justice are an important part of history; and people in every community want to be inspired by the courage of those who have gone before. But it seems to me that often, we hear more about people outside a community – in this case, non-Gypsies and non-Travellers – fighting for Travellers’ rights, than about Travellers and Gypsies advocating for themselves.

It all reminds me a bit of what happened in 2007, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. That year, we heard a lot about the history of the White politicians who fought against slavery, like William Wilberforce (remember that film, “Amazing Grace”?) - but Black activists of the period, like Robert Wedderburn, Mary Prince, Olaudah Equiano, or William Cuffay, were not so much mentioned.

 I hope that doesn’t happen when we record the history of Travellers’ rights. When people look back in 200 years, I hope the names and voices of the Gypsies and Travellers who fought for justice are as well-known as the non-Travellers who fought alongside them. Because these days, it's possible for that to happen - people can take charge of how their own history is recorded, and nobody has to rely only on what the mainstream media want to record. The technology to take photos and make films is cheaper than it’s ever been, so we can all record our own histories in our own voices, and look after it ourselves and use it in the ways we want. That’s what the Leeds GATE Archive is hoping to do.

But the thing is - if those names and voices are going to be preserved for posterity, then the people involved have to record them! And it’s best to do it at the time it’s all happening – because if you leave it too late, you’ve forgotten the details, some of the people who took part have passed away, the posters and videos you made have gone missing, and the immediacy has gone.

So that’s why we want YOUR material to add to the Leeds GATE Archive. If you’ve been involved in fighting for your rights as a Traveller, can you tell us about it? Give us photos or videos, letters or press cuttings? And if you’re campaigning about something now, can you send us copies of the information about it? Don’t let that history disappear – it’s important. And if Travellers and Gypsies don't collect it and make sure it's saved for posterity - who will?

If you have got any information like this that you'd like to add to the Archives, contact vanessa@leedsgate.co.uk.

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