Dorset's Hidden History revealed in Red House Museum Black History Month exhibition

By Culture24 Reporter | 24 October 2011
Thomas Lewis Johnson, a missionary, writer and former slave from Virginia who settled in Bournemouth
Exhibition: Dorset's Hidden History, Red House Museum, Christchurch, until November 19 2011

"Most people think that Dorset is the epitome of Englishness, with tea in the afternoon and cricket on the village green," says curator Louisa Adjoa Parker.

"But there's actually a rich and detailed history of black people in the county, and many links between Dorset and 'non-white' people overseas."

Part of Black History Month, this revealing insight into largely untold stories traces the lives of people of African and Caribbean heritage who have lived in or travelled through Dorset over the past 300 years.

They include Belle Davis, a flamboyant African-American entertainer who sang, danced and choreographed her way around Europe between 1901 and 1929 with only her Pickchicks – a group of mostly-orphaned children who she was noted for treating fairly, in contrast to many board-treaders of the day – for company. She paid a visit to Jubilee Hall in Weymouth on an August day almost a century ago.

The incredible story of Thomas L Johnson, who settled in Bournemouth in the 1890s after publishing his Twenty Eight Years a Slave, is also recounted and celebrated.

Johnson gained familiarity around the town for being the first black person many locals had seen, and is said to have decorated his house in items from the slave trade, testifying to his freedom.

The spirit of his triumph over bigotry lives on as the history becomes progressively less hidden.

  • Open 10am-5pm (4pm Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday). Admission free.

More pictures from the show:

A black and white photo of a woman and two young boys entertaining on stage during the early 20th century
African-American entertainer Belle Davis© Rainer E Lotz. Image reproduced courtesy of Rainer E Lotz, from Black People: Entertainers of African Descent in Europe and Germany (1997) for Dorset Hidden History Project
A black and white photo of a group of young men playing football in the early 20th century
The display is part of the Dorset Hidden History Project© George Forty. Image reproduced courtesy of George Forty from Frontline Dorset, 1939-1945 (1994) for Dorset Hidden History Project
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