When considering what it means to build solidarities, particularly in the context of discussions around ‘decolonising’ universities today, there is much to learn from lessons of the past. My research is funded by a Bloomsbury Studentship and explores the day-to-day experiences of Black students on university campuses from 1956-1981, with a focus on SOAS, UCL and IOE (then a separate college of the University of London). In this period students in London were active in a range of anti-imperialist and anti-racist struggles, including the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the fight against the National Front. At the same time, however, Black students faced isolation, loneliness, racism, and discrimination on campus. Why do Black students’ day-to-day experiences of discrimination so rarely inform our writing of student histories? And what can these experiences tell us about the struggles students face today, especially in the context of institutional co-option of radical demands?

A group protesting in a rally organised by the West Indian Student Centre, May 1970. Courtesy of Black Cultural Archives, ref no: PHOTOS/173, photographer unknown.

Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of student solidarity activities at University of London campuses relates to the British Anti-Apartheid Movement. UCL students attended the 1956 International Student Conference in Peradeniya, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). This was the first world-student conference to be held in Asia and, for the first time in student politics, the bulk of the representation was from outside Europe and North America. Of the countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (c. 59 in total at the time), 40 were represented. The Conference reiterated its firm support of students in ‘colonial and totalitarian areas’, asserting that ‘peoples should be free to develop their educational systems in keeping with their own culture and traditions’.

Eleven ‘gruelling’ days of debate followed, leading to an outcome which included strong condemnation of Apartheid policies in South African universities. The Union of South African Students was commended for its ‘courageous’ stand against these policies and national unions were called upon to help non-European students in South Africa by endeavouring to provide scholarships for them abroad, inspiring schemes such as UCL students’ union’s South African Scholarship Scheme. London students also demonstrated in support of South African political prisoners in November 1964 when four hundred students took part in a demonstration march and all-night vigil outside the South African Embassy.

As well as organising against Apartheid, IOE’s students’ union passed a motion in February 1978 denying a platform to fascist organisations such as the National Front. It was felt important to raise the issue of the National Front at a time when the growth of such organisations was apparent in many schools. The motion urged students to monitor this activity and report any cases to the External Affairs Committee of the Union.

National Front demonstrators standing outside Charing Cross station, Autumn 1968. Courtesy of Black Cultural Archives, ref no: PHOTOS/173, photographer unknown.

IOE students’ union also affiliated to the Camden Committee Against Racism and Fascism, supported All London Teachers Against Racism and Fascism, and pressed students to take part in an NUS-organised ‘Racism in Education’ rally. Two thousand students marched through London on 22 February 1978 in opposition to attempts by the Inner London Education Authority to cut the numbers of overseas students through imposing restrictive quotas. These quotas were seen as racist by active members of the SU, but IOE’s Director at the time, William Taylor, refused to take a public stand against implementing them. Using tactics that are still deployed today by students responding to university management, Thames Polytechnic Students’ Union (now the University of Greenwich) and LSE student occupied their campuses in support.

Whilst these examples show that London students were active in anti-imperialist and anti-racist struggles, there are also many silences in these accounts of student protest, as well as questions left unasked. For example, why did London student unions often frame Apartheid in both South Africa and Israel as extensions of Nazi ideology rather than problems of settler colonialism? Why did a large section of the student population favour the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 which restricted immigration and increased overseas student fees? Why did a cartoon depicting a ‘prancing Hottentot hurling spears at a pith-helmeted white man’ appear on an advertisement card in UCLU’s 1964 diary, angering many African students? Why is there silence (at least in the college archives) on racist murders of students in London, such as that of Emmanuel Alombah, a 21-year-old electronics student from the Cameroons? Why were University of London campuses so segregated – something that SOAS, IOE and UCL students continuously commented on in newspapers of the time? In December 1960, a former SOAS SU president reflected:

…that which pains me most – is that we have still no real sense of comradeship and ‘SOASosity’, no corporate spirit. We still keep to our old custom of withdrawing into little national or departmental groups, and rarely, if ever, speaking to anyone outside our own group… When we look back on our time at SOAS, what will matter most will be the friendships we made, the people we met, the greater understanding of other peoples and their points of view which we attained. How many can truthfully say that they will leave the School with a more informed and understanding attitude toward the peoples of other lands? How many pay lip-service to Anti-Apartheid and yet practice Segregation of one sort or another in the J.C.R.?

During the early 1960s, the SOAS students’ union committee was continuously ‘dominated by Europeans’ despite ‘the majority of our students [being] foreign’. Similarly, during the 1970s, a common complaint from overseas students at IOE was that they found home students ‘not too friendly and generally keeping a distance’.

Issue no. 170 of Pi Magazine, 2 February 1961.A headline about a UCLU fund to help during the Congo Crisis is depicted underneath a picture of fascist leader Oswald Mosley speaking at UCL. Courtesy of UCL Records.

To help make sense of these tensions, my PhD research is now moving to collect oral history interviews from SOAS, IOE and UCL alumni about their experiences of campus life from 1956 to 1982. I am interested in hearing from anyone racialised as Black (from Africa and Afro-diasporic communities, including Afro-descendants and mixed-race backgrounds) who either studied at or was involved in the campus politics of these three colleges. Interviews can be conducted in person or via Zoom.

For an informal discussion about taking part, please contact me, Uduma, at [email protected]

Uduma Ogenyi is a PhD student based at SOAS and IOE, supervised by Dr Eleanor Newbigin ([email protected]), Professor Georgina Brewis ([email protected]), and Dr Althea Rivas ([email protected]). This project has received ethical approval from SOAS. If you would like further information, please contact the supervisors.