Slavery history claim

Thursday February 25th 2021

Midlothian House


Written by Local Democracy Reporter, Marie Sharp

A councillor spoke of his shock at realising he could have been “born from slaves” after researching his family history in Midlothian.

SNP councillor Joe Wallace made the comment as Midlothian Council debated calls for a working group to be established to ensure that issues of racism and sectarianism were being tackled in the county’s schools along with local history.

Councillors supported a call for Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor and honorary freeman of Midlothian, to be invited to join the council’s cross-party education working group to advise on the issues.

And Mr Wallace pointed to his own research into the county’s history and the enslavement of miners in the 18th century.

At the start of the 17th century, coal miners and ‘salters’ were placed in permanent bondage of their employers by a law which was not repealed until the 1790s.

Mr Wallace told the virtual meeting of the council: “I come from mining family and traced them back to the 1800s. I could have been born of slaves.

“The use of human beings as beast of burden is an abomination.”

Councillor Dianne Alexander, SNP, brought a motion to council to have a working group established to ensure “young people and their families are aware of our local history and how it has the power, even here and now, to divide communities. To ensure that from an early age, pupils understand how the British Empire affected the lives of Scots, and those of many other nations in the past: and manifests itself today in the form of racism and sectarianism and other forms of discrimination”.

Fiona Robertson, the council’s head of education, assured councillors that the current Curriculum for Excellence guidance for social history allowed these areas to be explored and ensure “all our children learn how to be part of the community”.

Councillor Jim Muirhead, Labour, suggested that the tasks of reviewing teaching of the issues and history be given to the education cross-party working group, which was agreed by fellow members.

He said: “It is important we recognise our history, not erase it. I want to understand more about what happens in schools regarding these issues.”

And Councillor Russell Imrie, Labour, told the council that he had held discussion with Sir Geoff, who had agreed to offer support to any working group.

Mr Imrie said: “He brings a wealth of experience and understanding of the history of Midlothian.”

Councillors agreed to approach Sir Geoff about taking part in the discussions.

During the meeting, Councillor Janet Lay-Douglas, Conservative, raised concerns about “anti-English” experiences of her children, who were born in Scotland to an English mother.

She was accused of making the debate political by suggesting that the SNP were “anti-English”, a claim she refuted, adding: “I am not politicising it, I am speaking as a mum of two boys.

“It is important all discrimination is addressed.”

Councillor Kelly Parry, SNP, expressed disappointment that the discussion had “gone down this route”, adding: “We are a group of white people talking about how to fix racism.

“I would encourage the working group to talk to people with lived experience.”

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