Kathleen Wrasama - dedicated her life to helping the Black community in Britain

Updated: Oct 30

Black History Month UK 2022 'Sharing Journeys' campaign - exploring the lives of Britons with East African heritage



Kathleen Wrasama (also known as Kathleen Wrsama) was born in Ethiopia and brought to England by missionaries in the early 1900s. Little is known about her early life, but her birth was registered in England as the 15th May 1904.


In an interview with Kathleen about her life, she described her time with the missionaries as “They weren’t very physically cruel to me, they were mentally cruel to me. I was [on] exhibition [as] one of the heathen children from Africa. Anything like Sunday School, I used to be put on the table as a representative of one of the heathens, this is a representative of what we’re trying to do in this dark continent.” [1]


The Kingdom of Aksum in present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea was one of the first Christian countries in the world, having officially adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (called Tewahdo in Ethiopia) is one of the oldest organized Christian bodies in the world. Despite this, it wasn’t immune to the missionaries who flooded the African continent from the middle of the 18th century to spread western Christianity and education – paving the way for the colonisation of Africa. Although Ethiopia was the only African country to not be colonised by the Europeans apart from a 5-year occupation by Italy.


During the early 1900s, it wasn’t unusual for missionaries to adopt children from overseas and bring them back to the UK. Kathleen was one of those children. Not much is known about their lives and little written evidence exist to tell us how they felt about living in a foreign land away from their homelands. Kathleen’s story is one of the few accounts of these children.


Kathleen describes her early life in England as: “I stayed with [the missionaries] until I was about 8 [years, and] when they died, I was sent to a [children’s] home [where] I was ostracised. I wasn’t allowed to mix with any of the [other] girls, I was like somebody from Mars… I was stoned in the village.” [1]


The only information available about her children’s home is its location in Yorkshire. She described her time there: “… there was no black people at all [not one where I was raised]… when I used to walk around [sometimes round] the streets, they’d come running out, they would say, ‘Mum, mum, there’s that funny girl’, and they couldn’t make me out. They didn’t know who I belonged to and when I was in the home, I wasn’t allowed to mix with any of the girls, I use[d] to wonder why, I use[d] to wonder why can’t I eat with them, why can’t I sleep with them. I use[d] to have to go upstairs and sleep in the attic right at the top of the stairs, or I was down in the cellar, down in hell, picking the coal up for the fires.” [1]


Kathleen ran away several times from the children’s home to escape the abuse. When she was 13 years old, she found a labouring job on a farm. She recalled: “I got a job… on Mr Bagshots’ farm. I never had any money, [I’d] never been in a shop, I didn’t know what it was to talk to people, I didn’t dream to ask for wages… I worked there for some time in Mr Bagshot farm. When his wife took asthma, the doctors said she had to go somewhere warm, so I had to uproot, and I went to work [on] another farm.” [1]


Whilst working on this new farm, she became friendly with the Norwegian owners, who taught her to read. Kathleen moved to Wales to find work after the owners left the UK and moved back to Norway. She said: “I thought that I was a heathen, I thought being a heathen was a different race, [a] race of people... I was looking and seeking who I am, surely, I must belong to somebody. Even in Wales I didn’t see a black person, even then I was on a farm, I was right away out of it. So, I decided I’d come to London, and see what [it] was like.” [1]


Kathleen’s life turned around when she went to London. She found a community and slowly discovered and reconnected with her East African roots and one hopes, banishing memories of her traumatic childhood. She initially found a job working in an Italian coffee house in central London and whilst working there she met some people who helped her find work as a film extra. She explained: “I didn’t know what films were. [A customer in the coffee store] said I could get work as a film extra. And she got me on the films. It was through the films I met some Ethiopians there and going to the Ethiopian embassy, I met my husband.”


After the actor, singer and political activist Paul Robeson and his wife Eslanda moved to London in 1930. His artistic residence caused a boom in demand for black extras to appear in his films. Many working-class black men and women like Kathleen found well-paid work with some earning up to 21 shillings (or £1.05 in modern currency) a day.


In 1945, she married former Somali seaman, Sulaban Wrsama in Stepney, East London. Embraced by the Somali community she finally found a home and no longer saw herself as a ‘heathen’. She said about her husband: “He was Somali, he was a wonderful man. He’s African, he was the first person that really to say ‘I love you and really mean it’ to me”.


She and her husband opened a boarding house for black seaman in Stepney, East London which had become a settling spot for several ex-seaman from the commonwealth who fought for Britain in the 2WW. Kathleen described the area: “I could take you around the world [here].” The black seaman faced discrimination in accessing housing, were refused entry in bomb shelters during air raids and endured racial attacks. Kathleen tried to help them and complained often to the colonial office about their treatment.


She even reached out to Lapido Solanke’s WASU for help “I use to go and ask them [to] come and talk to your men, you know your language, speak to them and tell them where they can go and get help with the housing cos we’re not strong enough… we haven’t got the power… your educated, give us some support at least… No, they didn’t come, they want to come past the east end…”


So, in 1951 she founded the Stepney Coloured People’s Association (SCPA), which was committed to improving community relations, as well as education and housing for black people. The committee would meet at 84 Cable Street, now known as Burlington Court, which is where Wrasama would contribute to changing British history forever.

The Stepney Coloured People’s Association (SCPA) ran for eight years. Although its formation was significant, it wasn’t the first local group to support black rights in the East End; the United African Brotherhood Society was formed in Stepney in 1919 and the 1930s saw the formation of The Coloured Seamen’s Association which sought to protest against the employment crisis afflicting black seamen at the time. All were short-lived organisations that effectively served their purpose and then dissolved.


The SCPA sought to campaign for better rights for all ‘coloured’ people in Stepney and this broad coalition built on the premise that despite distinct ethnic, tribal and national identities, that they were united in their fight against racism and discrimination. Kathleen said: “[On the committee] we had Hindus, Ghanaians, Yoruba, Somali.” The formation of Association linked the black community in East London with other grass-roots organisations working to represent people from the colonies in all sorts of capacities. Academic Laura Tabili observed, these groups were central to the emergence of a ‘multicultural Black political identity’ which ‘coexisted with but transcended religious, cultural and linguistic diversity’ up until the beginning of the 21st century.


The Association sought to establish its own housing bureau, capable of recommending responsible ‘coloured’ people as prospective tenants to those landlords that did not hold a colour prejudice. It petitioned Stepney Borough Council and the London County Council (LCC) to extend their hostel and social provision, and looked to the Clifton Institute for Coloured Peoples in Birmingham as a model for the LCC to follow in Stepney, suggesting a new building was not entirely necessary but greater support was. The Clifton was one of a number of newly established social and educational centres funded by municipal authorities. The model was clear, but no action was taken and the SCPA was itself wound up in 1959 on account of a substantial decline in the size of the area’s black community.


Kathleen Wrasama died in February 1996 in Tower Hamlets. She lived a remarkable life that spanned a century of change in Britain. She overcame the racial abuse of her childhood to find love and a place within the black community of East London.


When I see my people together, I’m on heaven… It’s like drinking wine to refresh your soul, when you meet all your people together. It’s like a drink that comes inside you and it uplifts you. You can go out and you can face the world again. You got your strengthen from your own people… I know I belong at last.

Kathleen took the trauma of her youth and used it to power her commitment to improving the lives of her fellow black people. In 1982, she told of her life in London’s East End in an interview for the BBC documentary Surviving: Experience of Migration and Exile, and was later invited to visit a school, where she spoke about her early years and her experiences of racism.


She was an influential figure as a British community organiser. In her quest to help house members of the Black community, she formed an organisation that led to the creation of the social services we know today.


Sources:

[1] Kathleen Wrasama words are taken from a transcript of an interview now held by the Black Cultural Archives (BCA). The transcript is part of a folder that includes letters from children to Wrsama as part of a school project. LWT guidelines on interviewing and regarding a competition titled "The Making of Modern London 1914-1939", entered by the BCA. Also includes, report on investigation into conditions of the coloured population in the Stepney area.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathleen_Wrasama

https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/SwFzXeSzSVUR5Q?hl=en&childassetid=_QHexQH0hyANNA&ms=%7B%22x%22%3A0.5%2C%22y%22%3A0.24659561870929592%2C%22z%22%3A10%2C%22size%22%3A%7B%22width%22%3A1.0490033222591362%2C%22height%22%3A0.33688573120189463%7D%7D

https://twitter.com/bcaheritage/status/1278010536446263296

https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10062039/3/Milne_This%20House%20is%20Africa_IRIS.pdf




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