An Edinburgh Global funded project uncovers the history of some of Edinburgh’s forgotten graduates from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Americas.
By Samantha Allan
Rediscovering the past
The project, UncoverED, headed by PhD student Henry Mitchell and teaching fellow Tom Cunningham, is currently exploring the University’s global alumni between 1780s-1980s.
The pair originally started working together two years ago at the Centre for African Studies, looking at the University’s African alumni. Connections these alumni made with students from the Caribbean and Asia created the inspiration to expand on their findings and uncover the stories of more University of Edinburgh graduates from around the world.
Henry’s PhD research focuses on the work of Clements Kadalie, South Africa’s first major black trade union leader. Referring to his PhD research he said:
“It’s really nice to break out of 1920s Southern African politics to this project which really covers 200 years and looks at people from across the globe.”
With the help of eight students, from various degree backgrounds, the UncoverED project has found numerous notable BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) alumni who have not been celebrated or recognised by the University. The intention is for these alumni whose stories have been rediscovered to be publicised in an exhibition, a website and added to the list of notable alumni online, which currently includes only three graduates of colour.
What the student researchers think
A number of students were drawn to the project as they feel that there is an underrepresentation of the number of BAME graduates.
Esme Allman, a fourth-year history student said:
“When I saw that there was research being carried out into notable BAME alumni, I thought it was fantastic because we see the list has many white, upper class males. As a black female student that’s not something that I connect with and I think it reinforces archaic ideas of what a university student looks like and what a successful one does.”
The students are hoping that the research will help bring to light some of the University’s previous students who have been forgotten.
Laurence Jarlett, who has just finished studying for a Master’s in contemporary history said:
“We’ve illuminated some really incredible people who have done really significant things both at the University and afterwards, but it’s disheartening that even though many were prominent in their field we didn’t know anything about them until now.”
Fatima Seck emphasized the lack of recognition for women of colour:
“Like Flora Nwapa, who I’m researching and who worked to reunite all these children with their families after the Nigerian civil war. She’s also the mother of African literature.”
Natasha Ruwona explained why the project appealed to her, she said:
“I’m really interested in the concept of black Scottishness and I’ve started a collective about understanding Scotland’s blackness and really delving into the research of it, so I thought this was a really good way to supplement that.”
Reflecting on the time spent on the first week of the project, Lea Ventre said:
“I think it’s unprecedented to have a project like this, looking at the imperial history of the University, and it’s been amazing working with Henry and Tom who have guided us through the archives, something that I’ve never done before, and working with other students to uncover the hidden history of the University.”
What has been uncovered?
Although the students enjoyed working on the project, many were shocked by some of the struggles faced by previous students.
Hannah McGurk a second-year English literature and German student said:
“The hardest part for me has been reading old editions of The Student which were written from such a colonial point of view, by probably the most elite of the students at the University at the time. It was quite difficult to be surrounded by that view.”
Talking about what the project had discovered in the first week, Vidhipssa Mohan who is doing a PhD in creative writing said:
“There were so many women and people of colour we found, so now we’re looking to redress the balance, so their achievements are recognised.”
Some of the prominent alumni who have been rediscovered include Yuan Changyin, who studied in Edinburgh between 1917-1921 and was the first Chinese female graduate at the University.
Dingjain Xie, who is starting a PhD in World Christianity and looked into the life of Yuan Changyin, said:
“After graduation she returned to China and became a professor in a university, a writer and a playwright. She’s quite famous for her drama which focuses on female status in the traditional Chinese family. She’s one of the earliest feminists in China, and played an important role in that period in Chinese society.”
The project highlighted to the researchers that although some aspects have progressed there are still some parallels faced by today’s students. Tom Cunningham said:
“We’re driven more by a thematic interest in the University’s global history. And you find that there are certain sort of patterns or similarities that just keep recurring, like students from Africa being faced with similar dilemmas when they were coming here in the 1850s and the 1950s and the 2000s.”
Response from the public
The project has also reached out to the families of some of the graduates in order to find out more about their life and their achievements after leaving the University. Talking about the response that they have received so far, Henry said:
“I think they really appreciate that their relatives are being acknowledged and they’ve been providing letters and photographs which you otherwise you just wouldn’t find. Especially looking at the gendered aspect, the big men of history are always commemorated in any universities’ history or in newspapers of the day, but a lot of important women are not recorded or ignored, so the families have been really great in helping us excavate those histories.”
The team have also had a great response from the general public through social media with previous students who had stories published in The Student reminiscing about their articles.
After tweeting about some of the articles they had found during their research Henry said:
“Some of the people who have written articles 40 years ago got in touch with us.”
James Smith, the Vice Principal International, who has funded the project reflected on the importance of the project:
“Last year we awarded an honorary degree to Chimamanda Adichie. One of her most powerful texts refers to the danger of the single story: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”. With this project we wanted to unearth stories, be they lost, forgotten, or never told. In doing so we can make a connection between Flora Nwapa and Adichie, celebrate some of the huge achievements of our BAME and female alumni, and reflect on how we tell a story of our university that better reflects its diversity, global reach and impact.”
The project will host an exhibition in the Chrystal Macmillan building between January and June 2019, which will culminate in an exhibition for the European Conference of African Studies in June. The exhibition will feature a rotating display and focus on different alumni and alternating themes throughout the six months. It is hoped that by focussing on biographies of key alumni, the themes of the exhibition will be more accessible.
Samantha is the digital communications assistant, she writes features for online and is always looking for the perfect instagram shot