‘The Negroes in Britain Industry’: Race-Relations Studies at Edinburgh University in the 1950s

Cross posted from UncoverED – blog by Fatima Seck

In the 1940s, Britain was confronted with race in a way it had never been before: World War Two, fuelled by racial ideologies, started and came to an end; decolonisation was happening across British former colonies, with India’s independence in 1947 being especially reverberant in the metropolitan public; and the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Dox in Essex in the summer of 1948. Scholarship on race, not as a biological category but a facet of society, emerged rigorously at this time.

The Colonial Office and then-Conservative British government engaged extensively in race-relations scholarship, at once to combat the racial ideologies that had fuelled much of the Second World War, and to redefine British national unity as the war ended and the British empire fell. Perhaps most notably, the Colonial Office in 1951 commissioned a survey on ‘Public Attitudes Towards Coloured Colonials’, which found that only half of those interviewed could actually name a colony, and that at least one third of the British population openly felt antipathy towards ‘coloured’ people.

This was the historical moment in which white English Kenneth Little began his career as an academic. Not much is known about his early years, but Little began his life in academia as a physical anthropologist. His PhD, however, supervised by Raymond Firth, was a study on Black and minority ethnic people in Cardiff that came to be known as the 1947 book Negroes in Britain. Kenneth Little made a notable disciplinary change – moving from the well-established domain of comparative morphology, eugenics and physical anthropology to the study of race-relations, which in the domestic British context was relatively new and uncharted.

There are several possible causes for Little’s political and intellectual shift: he was a visiting scholar at Fisk University in Tennessee, an institution that was especially involved in the American Civil Rights Movement; Little was deeply moved by Oliver Cromwell Cox’s Caste, Class and Race; he also had a mixed-race family and friends of African descent through his research on race.

When Little arrived at the University of Edinburgh in 1950, he was intent on using anthropology to understand and theorise the turbulent social dynamics in Britain at the time. Michael Banton, an anthropologist who worked with Little at the University, notes that the anthropology department was unkindly called the ‘Negroes in Britain Industry’ – a nomination that can be perhaps ascribed to the intensely organised and prolific nature of the department. In 1954, the University of Edinburgh’s anthropology department was conducting a program on race relations across the UK, with all of the anthropologists in the department producing great amounts of scholarship on Black-white relations in the UK.

Indeed, while Little was an enthusiastic scholar and department head, his colleagues were equally committed to the study of race, race-relations, equality and anti-racism. Michael Banton, aforementioned, was a white English anthropologist who under Little’s supervision published three books: The Coloured Quarter in 1955, West African City in 1957, and White and Coloured in 1959.

Sydney Collins was a Black Jamaican who completed his thesis in Edinburgh in 1952 on Black and Muslim groups in Tyneside, and remained there as a lecturer. Eyo Ndem was a Nigerian anthropologist who from 1951 to 1953 undertook a research project titled Negro Immigrants in Manchester. Other members of the department, all of whom were doing research on race relations, Africa, and the Caribbean include Violaine Junod, A.T. Carey, Tanya Baker, J. Little John and Ruth Landes.

Gender, and specifically gendered inequality is noticeably absent from the profuse work of the Edinburgh anthropologists. Furthermore, Michael Banton and Kenneth Little, throughout their work on race-relations, still believed to varying extents in the validity of eugenics, with Little in particular often ascribing racial inequality not to structural violence but to genetics and culture. Perhaps, had the ‘Negroes in Britain Industry’ developed over time it would have moved away from these problems ­– but race-studies in Edinburgh dissipated as quickly as they had emerged.

There are several reasons for the fall of the ‘Industry’: some scholars note that British academia is rife with intense disciplinary demarcations, and race-relations studies were simply pushed out of anthropology and became the domain of sociology. The Edinburgh anthropologists of their time were in fact quite resistant towards ‘classical’ anthropological methods, an academic ethos which won them no favours in the obstinate world of British academia politics. There was additionally a lack of funding and institutional support for these studies of race – they relied primarily on the personal interest and enthusiasm of individuals. Kenneth Little, Michael Banton, Eyon Ndem, Sydney Collins and all the other anthropologists of the ‘Negroes in Britain Industry’ left Edinburgh by the mid-1960s to take on posts in the UK, the US, Nigeria and South Africa; and today, meaningful and widespread studies of race are decidedly absent.

The ‘Negroes in Britain Industry’ was neither perfect nor permanent. Still, much can be learnt from its rise and fall as universities make promises of diversity, equality, and a more progressive academia.