Sheffield writer's black history search uncovers story of media bias over Malcolm X visit to city

A Sheffield writer looking at the history of black people in Sheffield has been discovering the real story of militant black leader Malcolm X’s visit to the city in the 1960s.

Friday, 15th October 2021, 12:30 pm

Désirée Reynolds is writer in residence at Sheffield Archives, looking at the presence of black people in Sheffield, which is a hidden history.

“I’m reclaiming black British history and there being a presence way before the Windrush,” she said.

"The Archives themselves have been absolutely brilliant,” said Désirée. “Cheryl Bailey has just been by my side, rooting things out for me. The archives are like a really difficult Google and and they are only as good as the questions you can ask them. You could be living there for months!”

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Sheffield writer Désirée Reynolds

Désirée, who lives in Norfolk Park, was thrilled to find Rotherham baptism records for 14-year-old Thomas Pompey. She was unable to find out more but he may have been a slave with a rich family.

There was no such problem with the story of Malcolm X’s visit to Sheffield speak at the university in December 1964 as it was well documented in the press but what she uncovered was a story of media bias.

“The whole thing about Malcolm X coming to Sheffield University is quite interesting. Whilst we accept Sheffield’s connections to the transatlantic slave trade and difficult street names, it also has its leftist socialist past,” said Désirée.

Malcolm X speaking at the University of Sheffield in December 1964

“It once attracted a lot of socialist people concerned with racial justice such as Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass and abolitionists. Malcolm X coming to Sheffield isn’t that big of a stretch but I was still surprised.”

He had been invited by the university Islamic Society. Désirée said: “What I found interesting was that they said in the papers that he was hissed. The language is hilarious, fearing that there would be trouble because obviously it’s Malcolm X and he’s going to bring violence – which he doesn’t do.”

“Go now to your local archives and claim an ancestor”

‘Row feared over Malcolm X visit’ warned The Star, ‘visit likely to cause racial troubles’.

Malcolm X speaking at Sheffield University in December 1964

The Telegraph says on page one that Malcolm X was hissed by 700 people.

Désirée discovered a copy of student publication, Darts, describing his speech. “He actually had a good reception and it was a good chat and nothing happened apart from he said what he wanted to say, being empathetic and thoughtful and responding to their questions, and it went really well.”

Students protested at the Telegraph report and 225 people signed a petition.

Désirée said it made her think about fake news and the assumption that it is something new, linked to social media. “I’m not sure whether the paper retracted it or not – I suspect they didn’t,” she added.

She now wants to find out more about women, LGBTQ+, disabled and working-class people’s stories.

Keen to get the archives out to a wider public, Désirée commissioned designers Peter & Paul to make some posters that will go on display in the city centre and Moor Market from October 25-30.

She also wants more people to do research, saying: “Go now to your local archives and claim an ancestor. They’re waiting.”

Désirée and Cheryl will speak at the Off the Shelf festival of words in the Millennium Gallery on October 21. Tickets: www.offtheshelf.org.uk/tickets