Activism and Racism: cataloguing the Romany Collections

On 21 March, the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination our Romany archivist, Caroline Bolton, reflects on the content of our Romany CollectionsTo date, the Romany Collections that have been catalogued have mainly offered a more celebratory, sometimes romanticised view of life for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma. In contrast as cataloguing continues the Collections are starting to show glimpses of the reality that has faced many of these communities.

Henry VIII’s ‘Egyptian Act’ (1530) which sought to expel from the country those ‘outlandish people calling themselves Egyptians’ is an early example of Gypsies and Travellers being criminalised and made stateless because of their ethnicity. Egyptian meant ‘Gypsies and Travellers’.  The word ‘Gypsy’ derives from them being wrongly identified as Egyptian.  Alongside this in the Angus Fraser Collection are over 150 official 17th and 18th century Spanish documents some of which contain early references to such discriminatory attitudes.

Fast forward to the 20th century and a sign from a public house in 1951 reading ‘No Gipsies Served Here’ offers a more recent example from the Collections.  This is accompanied by an account of how the neighbouring businesses then followed suit.  There are a wealth of 20th century press cuttings referencing Gypsies, Travellers and Roma.

However the Collections offer a counterpoint to this narrative of discrimination. The files relating to the business of the National Gypsy Council including its activities in the United Nations Year of Human Rights (1968), and the 1st Romani World Congress (1971) show the efforts of Gypsies, Traveller and Roma to assert their identity and defend their rights. Key Council members such as Grattan Puxon were involved in international efforts to gather evidence of the Gypsy/Roma genocide in Europe during the Nazi period.  Puxon later co-wrote a book ‘Gypsies under the Swastika‘ (1995).  It is not surprising that the national and international Gypsy/Traveller/Roma rights movement became so active and visible in light of the reality of extreme racial discrimination.

It is against this background of more general social activism in the 1960s and 1970s that the Collections capture the involvement of non-Gypsies and Travellers. Such people include screenwriter, Jeremy Sandford, editor of the Gypsy Council’s ‘Romano Drom‘ publication and solicitor Diana Allen.  Allen’s Collection tells the story of her involvement in campaigning for Gypsy/Traveller sites in the UK up to the early 2000s. Jenny Smith’s Collection continues this theme but broadens to reference wider protest movements of the 1980s and 1990s.

The Collections offer a wealth of material for the study of racism and activism. When there are global events run in support of the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today 21 March, they also offer a wider appeal in the insight they provide to the stories of the past and the ability to inspire change for the future.

 

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