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December 8, 2021

Launch of the African and Caribbean Society

On Wednesday 1 December, in a historic moment in the schools 500+ year history, Paulines gathered in the Library and Archives to officially establish the school’s first African and Caribbean Society (ACS).

The St Paul’s ACS was founded jointly with SPGS and the two school join a host of London Schools and Universities across the country which support thriving African & Caribbean Societies. The society was inaugurated with a Charter was written collaboratively by the pupils of both schools earlier in the term and includes nine clauses, in total, some of which read as follows:

  1. To be a safe social space for pupils of African and Caribbean heritage to meet and to be a support to one another
  2. To promote inclusion and visibility of pupils of African and Caribbean heritage in the school
  3. To promote a wider knowledge, understanding, and celebration of the history and culture of the African diaspora
  4. To welcome pupils and staff of all ethnicities and to share with them the celebration of African and Caribbean culture in the school, the nation, and globally
  5. To educate one another and the wider school on Black History and to establish and promote a record of Black presence and achievement in the school through the school archives
  6. To champion a culture of respect and tolerance for all and to be powerful Allies to all minoritized groups
  7. To foster an active Speaker Programme to support our educational aims and to model excellence in the African and Caribbean community
  8. To seek links with other African and Caribbean Societies across London Schools and at universities
  9. To remain sensitive to the diversity of our community and to ensure equitable access for all our members to all events, trips, and excursions, g. through fundraising

The Charter will be deposited in the archives. It was signed by the society’s Founding pupils who include, from the Upper 8th, Malachi, the first President of the ACS of St Paul’s, Kelechi (Secretary), Assad (Member) and the three Lower 8th members – Felix, Royal, and Cole. Following some of the talks and presentations in Black History Month this year, the Founding Members decided they wanted a space where they could gather to discuss and celebrate African & Caribbean Culture and where they could join with their peers in productive discussion and celebration of the history and culture of people of African and Caribbean across London schools and beyond . The ACS is open to all Paulines of all ages and will be a pupil-led organisation with help and advice from supporting staff.

As the President said, “It’s important to us that there a supportive, visible, community for all Paulines of African and Caribbean heritage. But the society is also very much open to everyone in the school, in part because the history and experiences of African and Caribbean pupils is part of shared history and culture in the school. We hope everyone will feel welcome at our meetings.”

In entrusting their charter with the school archives they are continuing the long history of school societies, but most importantly they are marking their place, as students of African and Caribbean heritage, in the history of the school.

After the charter had been signed the students were shown items from the archives that their society’s records will sit alongside, before being introduced to St Paul’s earliest known Black students – Joseph and John Symes.

Joseph and John Symes entered St Paul’s on 13 October 1794. The only details associated with their entry was the name of their father, his occupation, and “Mr Taylor’s at Harper Street” which is who they were presumably staying with in England.

Joseph was born 10 February 1780 and John was born 7 April 1787, both in Kingston Jamaica, to Elizabeth Bradshaw Bonnie (sometimes spelled Bonny or Bonney) and John Symes. Elizabeth is described on Joseph and John’s baptism entries as being a “free mulatto woman”, but we don’t know her age, nationality, occupation or marriage status. Elizabeth’s ethnicity, and categorisation by the state, would certainly have meant her children were treated differently. John and Joseph were born at a time when Jamaica and Barbados, both Britain’s dominant Caribbean possessions, had legislated apartheid against their communities of colour.

Their father, John, was the son of Robert Symes, owner of a Jamaican plantation known as the Oxford Estate which produced rum, sugar, and molasses. On Robert Symes death the estate passed to his sons William and John. It seems as though William was responsible for the commercial aspects of the plantation, whilst John instead supported the colonial infrastructure of the island. At the time of Joseph and John Symes’ admission to St Paul’s, their father is listed as an attorney but by 1804 John Symes had progressed to being the Assistant Judge of the Supreme Court in Kingston.

We can learn more about John Symes life from the will he wrote in 1808/9. In this will he leaves his personal property, which included three enslaved persons named Lydia, Charles and Fanny, to a Mary Duff. Fanny, and indeed any of her children, was then further promised to an entirely different person upon the future death of Mary Duff. In the same sentence Fanny, Charles and Lydia are placed alongside John Symes’ furniture and the harness for his horse.

We do not know how long either of them stayed at the school, and details of their later lives are patchy. John completely disappears from the records, although it seems likely that Joseph went into the army.

When David Olusoga spoke at St Paul’s at the start of Black History Month he explained how Black people are told they have no history, that Black people are systematically erased from, and denied a place in, history. Reflecting on Olusoga’s comments the school archives explained how people of colour have been systematically denied a voice and visibility in the school’s records, using a poster titled ‘Error 404: Black History Not Found’.

Were there other Black Paulines before Joseph and John? What was the experience of Black Paulines? How do we identify and learn about Black Paulines? The ever-increasing distance of time separates us from being able to find sources that could adequately answer this question. Currently the only references to being Black, or Black identity, in the school’s history are not from a black perspective. Historically we do not hear from the black staff, students and community we know exists, instead we hear of enslaved people, of “foreigners”, and of ‘others’.

It is with a desire to counter the narrative of invisibility and silence that members of African and Caribbean Society have launched the two schools’ Black Archives Project which will research and identify Black Paulinas and Paulines and record their stories.

Malachi Cohen, from the U8th, will be the first Pauline to be added to this collection. Malachi is the first Pauline of Jewish African and Caribbean heritage to represent SPS at the nationals and internationals swimming competitions as well as being the first Pauline ever to represent St Paul’s at Olympic Trials. He is Malachi is currently the President of A&C Society, The Chair of REACH SOC  (Race, Ethnicity And Culture Heritage). He is ranked 4th in Great Britain for his age at 100m free and first in London region for 100, 200 and 400metre freestyle.

“Throughout my time at St Paul’s, it has always been hard to find ways to express my black culture, and, at times, I felt underrepresented and isolated. I have immense pride in being a founding member of the African and Caribbean Society, knowing that new students will have the ability to find a safe space where they feel represented and that I have left the school slightly better than I found it.” Malachi Cohen, Upper Eighth Form

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