Like his father before him Michael's father, Joseph (seen here on his marriage to Rachel in 1942),was a merchant seaman who once recalled how in 1966, after the National Seaman’s Strike, he had visited the Cunard shipping company’s offices in Liverpool looking for a job, only to be told that they did not employ “black fellers”. The company’s explanation was : “They have to avoid upsetting their American passengers on board their ships”. The fact that he worked in the engine room, where no passengers would ever see him, made no difference.
Michael said : 'My great-grandparents came here in the 1800s. Too few people realise the UK’s black history began long before the Windrush'. He referred to himself as a 'fourth-generation black British man', yet, four years ago in September 2017, when he was 69, he said : 'I had just landed at Manchester airport after a visit to New York. At passport control I was asked where was I born? I replied, "Liverpool", and joked “Doesn’t my accent give me away ?”. To which the officer replied aggressively : “That’s no guarantee you were born there”'. Michael said that despite the fact that his forefathers 'had lived here since the 1800s. Yet still I have to face passport officers who doubt my nationality'.
Michael's maternal grandparents, Edward and Rachel Rigby, seen here with Michael's mother, Rachel sitting on her father's lap.
Michael said : 'I was lucky enough to have been able to discuss with both sets of grandparents what life was like for mixed-race couples in 19th-century Britain. Both my grandparents, and my own parents, who met in the 1930s, faced one ugly, ever-present reality. They all spoke graphically of the degree of racial prejudice shown to them throughout their lives as mixed-race couples. I remember my mother’s mother recalling how some of her neighbours organised a petition to “Get the black woman out of Tagus Street” in Liverpool’s Toxteth area'.
'At the time the area was predominantly white and my grandmother was the only black woman living in the street. She talked about how she was alone in the house while my grandfather, Chief Petty officer Edward Rigby, was away in the Royal Navy fighting at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. On another occasion she recalled how a Catholic priest at her parish church tried to have her removed from the Women’s Confraternity because she was black'.
'Black people's presence in Britain is often seen as a fairly recent phenomenon. This historical amnesia has resulted in marginalising the contribution black citizens have made to Britain’s social and economic landscape. Yes, people can be forgiven for thinking that the black presence in Britain began with the docking of the Empire Windrush in June 1948, bringing British Caribbean citizens to the UK. But the passengers who disembarked were not Britain’s first black settlers. Our history can be traced back to the Roman occupation, which witnessed black soldiers as part of the Roman army, and even an African-born Emperor, Septimius Severus'.
Michael said :
'A fourth-generation black man in his 70s living in the UK can still, sadly, lack any sense of belonging. I can only hope that my two children will witness a groundbreaking social change that sees Britain become a more equal society. For if we fail in our quest for racial justice, the question will be : How many more generations will have to suffer the obscenity that is racism?'