Why was the 1945 Pan-African Congress held in Manchester?

We’re delighted to publish this blog by renowned historian Marika Sherwood. Currently Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Marika is recognised not only for her detailed knowledge of the Pan-African Congress, but also for her commitment to advocating for Pan-Africanism to be better researched and documented.  

Marika’s blog explores why Manchester was chosen as the location for the 1945 Congress, pointing to a sizeable and active Black community – sadly insufficiently researched or documented – and the support of the then Lord Mayor. 

Marika Sherwood – photograph copyright AIU Centre

In his book Pan-Africanism Hakim Adi argues that ‘the Manchester Congress was able to give a voice, especially to those in Britain’s African and Caribbean colonies, and to articulate their demands for an end to colonial rule and the ushering in of a new world’. (p.127) Kwame Nkrumah, who on his return to the Gold Coast led the struggle for independence, helped organise and contributed to the Congress. He reports in his Autobiography (1957) that the ‘Congress was a tremendous success….  (it) advised Africans and those of African descent to organise themselves into political parties, trade unions,  co-operative societies and farmers’ organisations in support of their struggle for political freedom and economic advancement…’ (pp.52-3) Jomo Kenyatta, who on his return home led Kenya’s struggle for independence, states that ‘the Congress was a landmark in the history of African people’s struggle for unity and freedom’.[1]

Every report you read about the colonials’ struggle for independence notes the importance of this Congress. But it should also be mentioned in reports on the struggles for equality in the UK. After all, ‘although the emphasis of the Congress was upon African affairs, the problems facing peoples of African descent in the Western Hemisphere were also considered’.[2]

Why was the Congress held in Manchester and not in London? Was there a Black population in the city? Were struggles for equality embedded there?

Manchester’s Black population – from the 18th century

My first glimpse of this history is from slave-trade abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. In 1787 he was in Liverpool collecting information on slave traders. Manchester’s anti-slave trade activists asked him to give a talk at the Collegiate Church, now the Cathedral. He accepted, and noted in his diary: “I was surprised also to find a great crowd of black people standing round the pulpit. There might be forty or fifty of them.”[3]

By Creator:W DentCreator:D Orme – This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections.Catalogue entry., CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31451583

As slaves would certainly not have been permitted to attend a talk by Clarkson, we must presume that they were free men (and women?)  In 1790 how many were able to attend Olaudah Equiano’s talk about his book The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, The African?  Were they among the 10,639 people who signed Manchester’s petition to Parliament in 1788 for the abolition of the trade in enslaved Africans? Anti-slavery activism was rife in the city, despite its wealth deriving mainly from slave-grown cotton – and some from slave-worked plantations. [4]

Statue of Frederick Douglass at Frederick Douglass Circle in Manhattan. Jay DobkinCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International 

African American campaigners against slavery and against lynching also visited the city.  Among these visitors were Frederick Douglass, was invited by the Anti-Slavery League in 1846 to give a talk at the Free Trade Hall, and stayed for several months in St Ann’s Square.[5]  Henry Box Brown toured Britain for almost twenty years; interestingly, a second edition of his autobiography was ‘printed by Lee and Glynn’ in Manchester in 1851.  Ida B Wells gave 12 talks in her ten days in Manchester in 1894.[6]

So was Manchester split between pro-and anti-slavery campaigners?

Were there any/many enslaved Africans in the Manchester area? One way to show off your wealth was to have a ‘Negro’ servant – in some paintings they wear ‘slave collars’. How many free Africans lived or sought work in the city?  After all, there were many African seamen discharged from merchant vessels in Liverpool and some might have sought work in the Manchester area.

There were at least two Black professionals in Manchester prior to Dr Milliard. African American George Rice qualified as a doctor in Edinburgh and worked as a House Physician at the Manchester Royal Infirmary and then the Chorlton Infirmary 1874-1878.[7]  British Guiana–born Edward Theophilus Nelson, graduated from St. John’s College, Oxford in 1902 and qualified as a barrister in London in 1904.  He moved to Bowdon and then Hale; his legal office was at 78 King Street in central Manchester; he was registered to appear in the Cheshire and Lancashire county courts. He was elected to Hale Urban District Council 1913-1940, the year of his death, and was a founding member of the League of Coloured People in 1931.[8]

 Black activists – Makonnen and Milliard, 1920s – 30s

British-Guiana-born Dr Peter Milliard opened a ‘surgery’ in Salford in 1924 and then one in Manchester. In those days there was no NHS – you paid to see a doctor. It seems likely that most white people at that period would not have wanted to be seen by a Black doctor and that therefore there must have been a sizeable Black population. In 1935 Milliard had joined the campaign against the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy and set up the International Brotherhood of Ethiopia in Manchester.[9] He apparently gave regular talks at St. Peter’s Square. Makonnen notes that Milliard ‘had for a number of years maintained the idea of Pan-Africanism without fearing for his position as a medical man’.[10] George Padmore refers to him consistently in his book Pan-Africanism or Communism (London: Dobson Books, 1956).

Another man from British Guiana became even more important in Manchester. T Ras Makonnen, born George Thomas Griffiths, arrived in London in 1937 and worked with George Padmore; he moved to Manchester in 1939, accepting the offer of a room from Dr Milliard, a fellow member of the Pan-African Federation – as was Jomo Kenyatta.[11]

Map showing Important sites for the Black Community in Manchester, 1945


Probably initially with some financial help from Dr Milliard, Makonnen opened one café/restaurant after another: the Ethiopian Teashop; the Cosmopolitan, the Orient, the Belle Etoile and then a club called the Forum. These catered for students from the colonies, African American troops based there during WWII and local Black people, some of whom ‘Milliard or Martinson ferried back and forward’.[12] He also owned a number of houses, which he rented out to students.

In 1943 ‘Mak’ (as he was generally known) was among those setting up the Manchester branch of the Negro Welfare Centre, established in Liverpool in 1942.  Its aim was ‘to assist and cater for the needs of the coloured population’.  In the Manchester section of the 1942-44  NWC Report, ‘ the Lord Mayor of Manchester…expressed the view that such a Social Centre was of great value in fostering unity among the various sections of the Negro Race. When the Centre was opened, there were about 250 Negroes associated with it…. The Centre organised parties for children. At the party in October 1943, no fewer than 150 children were present…’[13]

Makonnen’s Cosmopolitan restaurant at 58 Oxford Road (whose walls were covered in murals by ‘Jean…an Austrian Jew’) became the local office of the Pan-African Federation[14]. Mak reports that Jomo Kenyatta was ‘at one time in charge of this restaurant.[15] The Congress’ Publicity Department was housed there, as was the journal Pan-Africa, which Mak began to publish in January 1947. In the August issue Dr Milliard is listed among the ‘Associate and Contributing Editors’, as are Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah.

So, given the racial discrimination in hotels, bars/restaurants, Makonnen could offer safety. ‘We had all the conveniences… by the time of the conference we had built up a network of strategic committees for the welfare and defence of coloured people’.[16] Not only places to eat and sleep, but also, as Makonnen and Milliard had had some previous contact with him, the mayor agreed to give space for the conference, and to attend and speak at the Congress.  Dr Milliard was among the Congress’ organisers, as were Makonnen and Jomo Kenyatta. [17]

Milliard was president of the Negro Welfare Association in Manchester and George Padmore reports that he ‘took an active interest in all matters pertaining to the Negro communities throughout the British Isles…. A generous giver and a loyal friend…. His death occurred shortly after the Fifth Pan-African Congress… a great loss to the Negro race.’[18]

When I began to consider organising a 1995 commemorative conference, I searched for information on the Black population of Manchester.[19] Found very little – only one book:  Never Counted Out! The Story of Len Johnson, Manchester’s Black Boxing Hero and Communist, by Michael Herbert, published by Dropped Aitches Press in 1992.  I also found Rude Awakening: African/Caribbean settlers in Manchester: An Account, compiled by the Roots Oral History Project in 1992. But this gives no dates, so not much use. So I began to search for people who might have attended, who could tell me about the Congress and life in Manchester. Unfunded, I would not have been able to do this without the bed always given to me by Coca Clarke. She died not that long ago. (Thank you again, dear Coca!)  I published all my findings as Manchester and the 1945 Pan-African Congress (Savannah Press, 1995).

Very sadly, no-one followed up on my findings. So we know almost nothing about what I think might have been quite a sizeable – and politically active – Black population in Manchester from the 19th century.

Marika has also recorded this talk, which you can access here: https://mmutube.mmu.ac.uk/media/1_fpebqm06

[1] Kenyatta in the 1963 republication of George Padmore (editor), Colonial and Coloured Unity: A programme of Action. History of the Pan-African Congress (London Hammersmith Bookshop, 1967) p.iii.
[2] George Padmore Pan-Africanism or Communism? (London: Dennis Dobson, 1956, p.169.
[3] “What evidence is there of a black presence in Britain and north west England?”. Revealing Histories. Archived from the original on 27 November 2016; Ellen Gibson Wilson, Thomas Clarkson (London: Macmillan, 1989) pp.378.
[4] James Walvin, England Slaves and Freedom, 1776-1838  (University Press of Mississippi, 1986) p.110. In 1833 the British government decided to free all the slaves held in in its colonies. The owners were paid compensation for the loss of their unpaid labourers, who got nothing.  I searched the Compensation records for ‘Manchester’ and found four recipients: Eleanora Etherton, 23 Quay St: 726 slaves £13,638 ; John Diggles Bayley &  Samuel Bayley, Manchester, Lancashire, 240  slaves, £4,860; Isabella Pallmer Massy-Dawson, 461 slaves, £6,524; J.W. Warren, 51 Windmill St, Manchester: 10 slaves, £170. (Total £19,192  is c. £2 million today) Noted as ‘unuccessful claimant’: Edward Moore, ‘of Manchester’:  245 slaves, £3719.
Of course, it is quite possible that there were Mancunians who owned plantations and slaves prior to 1833.
[5] ‘Manchester, Abolitionism, and Frederick Douglass’:  https://citiesmcr.wordpress.com/2011/10/24/manchester-abolitionism-and-frederick-douglass He gave c. 300 lectures during his years in the UK 1845-47.
[6] On Brown, see eg Jeffrey Green, Black Americans in Victorian Britain, Pen & Sword Books, 2018, p.15. Wells gives an account of her visit in Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography if Ida B. Wells, Edited by Alfreda M. Duster, University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp.146-151.
[7] Green (n.6), p.97; see https://whitehallmuseum.wordpress.com/2018/10/05/object-of-the-month-october/
[8] Jeffrey Green, Black Edwardians, London: Frank Cass, 1998, pp.199-202 and also his  ‘Edward T. Nelson, New Community, 12/1, 1984-5, pp.149-54.
[9] Milliard was vice-chair of the International Friends of Abyssinia set up in London in 1935; Kenyatta was ‘Hon. Sec.’.
[10] Ras Makonnen, Pan-Africanism from Within, (recorded and edited by Kenneth King, OUP 1973, p149, fn 18); Dr King omitted much from the transcripts in the published book; this is from the full transcript of p.163.The officials were G. Fiagbenu and P.O.Jackson; I have not been able to find any information on these men. See also the entry on ‘Mak’ in Hakim Adi & Marika Sherwood, Pan-African History, Political figures from Africa and the Diaspora since 1787  (London: Routledge, 2003, pp.117-122) .
[11] In London George Padmore began to organise what became the Pan-African Federation in the early 1940s. the letterheads of some PAF letters give the names of major officers:  Kenyatta as vice-president and Griffiths as secretary on a 1936 letter; Milliard is on a letter for a 1945, as president.
[12] Makonnen (n.10, pp.135-138) . I have not been able to discover who ‘Martinson’ was.
[13] Report of the Negro Welfare Centres of Great Britain and Ireland, 1942-1944, p.9. The photograph on p.8 (copied from the Daily Dispatch) of the opening of the Centre includes the Bishop of Manchester and the Lord Mayor. Letter from NWC to Church Missionary Society, 13/6/1945 (Both are held at the Church of England Records Centre.)
[14] 58 Oxford Road also became the home of ‘Panaf Service’ which imported and exported books; then also a bookshop.  Pan-Africa was soon banned in most colonies.  (Adi & Sherwood (n.10), p.121)
[15] Makonnen (n.10), p.138, there’s more on Kenyatta on p.162 and also in the transcripts.
[16] Makonnen (n.10), p.163, 164.
[17] Padmore (n.2), pp.152-161.
[18] Padmore (n.2), section headed ‘Tribute to a Negro Leader, pp159-161. Hakim Adi and I included a full copy of the original report on the Congress in our book, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited (London: New Beacon Books, 1995).
[19] There are mentions in Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The history of black people in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1984). I think this is still the very best comprehensive book on this history.