Sandwell Community History and Archives Service

‘How d’you know that?’

Summary of the project

Heritage Lottery funding enabled Sandwell Community History and Archives Service (CHAS) to commission a play for Black History Month, written for secondary pupils and performed  in the search room with archives as props.

The play ‘How d’you know that?’ was based on Malcolm X’s visit to Smethwick’s Marshall Street in 1965, during a period of community tension over immigration and housing. Professional actors of Afro-Caribbean and Asian descent played an archivist, a witness to Malcolm’s visit and two angry young men; in the play the latter are spellbound and calmed by a moving local history lesson.

The performances were followed by workshops, with pupils handling and using CHAS’s archives to find out more, led by CHAS staff with help from teachers. Two performances were filmed by a professional film company; the DVD will be premiered in March 2013; free copies will be supplied to all Sandwell secondary schools as teaching aids.

The project launched two longer term service objectives: improved engagement with black and minority ethnic (BME) communities and local schools.

How did you work in a partnership?

The project was funded by Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and delivered in partnership with Sandwell MBC’s education service’s advisers, local schools, Sandwell Library & Information Service’s Chief Librarian, a professional playwright, director and four actors.

What were the challenges?

  • The initial bid was rejected by HLF after the Borough Archivist who had written it had left post. The archive service was advised to re-submit the bid so the original bid was revised
  • Delivering the programme without the original Borough Archivist being present to interpret and flesh out the original plans
  • Releasing and supporting the project manager from other CHAS duties to have sufficient time to manage and deliver the project
  • Schools cancelling bookings at short notice; staff in schools not responding or replying to communications; rapid staff turnover in schools
  • Working successfully with people who were unused to the constraints of local government environment
  • Presenting history as it was, confronting difficult events and issues from the relatively recent past head on, but with tact, sensitivity and balance

How were these addressed?

  • Developing a practical plan based on the bid, and using all avenues to engage with schools and communities
  • All staff at CHAS worked hard to support the project manager by taking on extra duties
  • Working with staff in the Education department to raise awareness of the project with head teachers and teachers in schools
  • Working with the actors, director and dramatist in conjunction with library staff to support their needs wherever possible

What were the opportunities?

  • To redress CHAS’s low level of engagement with minority ethnic groups and re-engage with younger people and schools
  • To get secondary school pupils enthused about their area, and their history using original sources
  • To advertise and promote the service through an innovative approach, and demonstrate that a historically small and modestly staffed and funded service can still be cutting edge
  • To showcase CHAS as the place in Sandwell to discover and understand local history

What were the outcomes?

  • 193 people watched the 16 performances. These included secondary school pupils and teachers, community groups, local history groups and general members of the public
  • Positive comments from school staff and students, who praised the drama and the way it was presented in the archives. This enabled students to gain an insight into the rich source of materials about the history of Sandwell at the archives
  • Raising the profile of Sandwell Community History and Archive Service within the council and senior staff who have then talked about the project to arts groups and within other local authorities
  • Staff developed their planning skills and increased their confidence in dealing with different community groups, students and staff
  • The majority of the audiences had never visited an archives service before, or were unaware that CHAS existed. Many teachers and pupils stated they had previously known nothing or very little of the local history of 1960s racial tensions, or that Malcolm X had visited Smethwick. Quote from feedback form: ‘I didn’t think a little place like Smethwick could have so many famous things happen here.’

What did you learn from the project?

  • The project went better than the archives service expected
  • Working with members of management within the Education department greatly helped gain support from schools
  • The subject matter did not seem to interest some community groups and it was felt speaking directly to the groups might have been more successful
  • Need to involve representatives from schools, schools advisers and community groups through a steering group formed at the very beginning of the project

Will there be any future developments?

  • Working with schools advisers and schools, the archive service are going to develop a programme of themed visits to the archives, to include workshops, and programmes relating to aspects of curriculum
  • Engaging with BME communities at their clubs and meeting places to raise awareness of the history of their area, and how the archive service can work with them, as well as using development work with schools to engage with these communities

More information

For further information about the project please contact