NewVIc students embark on research project with Oxford University

Whilst undertaking research for a book they are co-writing on Charlie Hutchinson, Carina Ancell and Alan Kunna, two history teachers at NewVIc, identified the need for a specialist place which led to the opening of the African Studies Centre at the College. The new African Studies Centre, the first of its kind – equips teachers with the skills and knowledge to teach students about the history of Africa, doing away with a tradition of learning about this diverse continent through the lens of European Colonialism.

On this new project students will help to uncover more about the life of Charlie Hutchison, the first black British volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. Charlie had a fascinating life which reflects many wider themes in British history and politics; these include the history of anti-fascist movements and working-class political radicalism in East London; racial identity in the 20th century; black involvement in the World Wars.

All the sessions on the new project will be led by senior Oxford University professors and PhD students delivering lectures on topics related to the life of Charlie Hutchison but reflecting on its wider significance for modern Britain and its relationship with Africa.

What is known of Charlie? Charlie Hutchison was born in Oxfordshire 1918 and died in 1993. His father was from the Gold Coast (Ghana) in West Africa and his mother was an English woman. He was the fourth of five children of this marriage. In 1936, when he was 17 Charlie travelled to Spain to join the International Brigade (IB) which fought on the side of the Republic against General Franco’s Fascist Army. Shortly after he returned to England WWII broke out and he joined the British Army in 1940 and served until 1946.

Until recently little has been known about Charlie apart from a small file held within the Comintern archives (communist international) in Moscow, as details of his time in Spain remained in the public domain.

Thanks to research undertaken on the last project by NewVIc students and staff Carina and Alan in collaboration with the Marx Memorial Library in London, more has been found out about Hutchison. First a photo of him was discovered, and then contact was made with his family. NewVIc students were invited to a special event to discuss their findings and present to seventeen members of Charlie Hutchison’s family. Prior to this project he was known only as the only black British volunteer in the International Brigade that fought against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939.

The innovative programme is set to commence in March 2021 and is designed for any students interested in modern history, politics, the history of their local area, or exploring racial identity. It will also enable students to develop their independent research and critical thinking skills, conduct archival research with Marx Memorial Library and provide an opportunity to prepare students for applying to Oxford or other Russell Group universities.

Noah Enahoro, former project participant and Honours and A Level student, said: “I was honoured to be part of this project, Charlie Hutchison’s story would not have been told if we had not carried out this research into him, and discovered all that he has done throughout his life. I am so glad that we were able to do this, I feel inspired in terms of how Charlie carried himself in what he did and achieved in times of stigma in Britain, he used his experiences of oppression to motivate himself to fight against that in the Spanish Civil War. His story is small yet it has a huge impact because it highlights that there were others fighting besides him whose stories have not been told. This story highlights that there were people of other races in big movements but not as represented to us when we study history in the national curriculum pre-university. I really enjoyed telling his story to his family and reminding them of how great he was and to share this with the wider public.”

Alan Kunna, Programme Team Manager and Teacher of History, added: “This is a fantastic and exciting project for students to get involved in on our super curricular programme. Much of what we consider to be black history in Britain – The history of the African diaspora in Britain and the Americas is undergoing a radical genesis. No longer are people content to study the black America as if it were the only black history. Today’s historians are looking into the experience of people in Great Britain and its Empire. What they are uncovering is a rich and diverse history that turns on its head old assumptions and beliefs. It also shows that much of the contemporary white, black and minority ethnic experience is rooted in the development and history of Empire and Post Imperial developments. Today we are celebrating the life of Charlie Hutchison and his siblings. He and they are no longer hidden from public history but take their place amongst those whose experience will deepen our understanding of the history of the people of these Islands and beyond. People of colour have been in the British Isles since the Romans, and they have played a part in shaping the nation from Cable Street, to Spain, to the Battlegrounds of WWII and beyond”.

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