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Slavery Remembrance Day: Recognising the Past and Championing Equity

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Every year on the 23rd of August, millions across the globe commemorate the International Slavery Remembrance Day. This poignant date serves as a solemn reminder of the transatlantic slave trade's brutal and inhumane history, while also paying tribute to those who fought relentlessly against it. For it's not just about remembering the brutality, but also honoring the resistance, and undying spirit of the millions of people who were victims of this deplorable episode in human history.

Origins of Slavery Remembrance Day

The 23rd of August was designated by UNESCO as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition in 1997. This date was chosen to commemorate the Haitian revolution in 1791 when enslaved Africans began a revolt that would ultimately lead to their freedom and the establishment of Haiti as the first black republic. The Haitian revolution, led by leaders such as Toussaint L'Ouverture, became a symbolic event in the fight against the slave trade.

Abolitionists advocating for change

Among the myriad of faces and voices that shaped the abolitionist movement, some stood out, changing the trajectory of our history with their profound impact:

Harriet Tubman

Dubbed "Moses" by those she helped, Harriet Tubman’s influence on the abolitionist movement cannot be understated. Born into the brutal chains of slavery in Maryland around 1820, Tubman's early life was filled with hardship, including suffering a serious head injury during adolescence, as a 1kg object was thrown at another slave and hit her by mistake, affecting her health for the remainder of her life. However, her escape from this life in 1849 marked only the beginning of her remarkable journey. Tubman risked her life by returning to the slave-holding states, leading approximately 300 enslaved people to freedom through the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and antislavery activists. Tubman’s actions went beyond these daring rescues; she also served as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War and later championed women’s suffrage.

Frederick Douglass

A force to be reckoned with, Frederick Douglass was the voice that America could neither ignore nor silence. Born into slavery in Maryland around 1818, Douglass escaped at the age of 20. His eloquence and formidable intellect, exemplified in his writings like "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," brought to light the realities of slavery, stirring the consciences of many. He was not only a prolific writer but also a relentless speaker and activist, advocating not only for the end of slavery but also for equal rights for all, irrespective of race or gender.

UK's Role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Its Abolition

The United Kingdom was deeply embedded in the transatlantic slave trade's machinations. Principal cities became hubs of this grim commerce:

The Port Cities

Liverpool, Bristol, and London transformed into major ports engaged in the transatlantic slave trade. The ships that docked and sailed from these ports were responsible for the forced transport of an estimated three million African men, women, and children to plantations in the Americas. This trade was more than just business; it was a foundational element of Britain’s 18th-century economy, with entire cities and sectors benefiting from the inhuman trafficking of enslaved individuals.

Olaudah Equiano

The moral and economic fabric of British society was jolted by abolitionists who worked tirelessly against the slave trade. Key figures included Olaudah Equiano, originally from what is now Nigeria, Equiano's autobiography, "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano," published in 1789, provided a compelling firsthand account of the horrors of enslavement and transportation across the Atlantic. His writings and speeches played a significant role in turning British public opinion against the slave trade.

Despite resistance anti abolitionists in parliament and following abolitionist efforts, in 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act marked a significant watershed moment, leading to the emancipation of nearly 800,000 enslaved Africans throughout the British colonies. Slaves in the colonies (excluding areas ruled by the East India Company) were not freed until 1838 – and slave-owners, rather than the slaves, received compensation, illustrating the continuation of many structural injustices that were still heavily prevalent for formally enslaved people, and their ancestors in society.

Why Remember?

The scars left by the transatlantic slave trade are still palpable. Structural inequities, racism, and socio-economic disparities can all trace their roots back to the slave trade. Commemorating the International Slavery Remembrance Day isn't just about remembering the past but understanding its implications on the present and future.

Acknowledging the atrocities is the first step in understanding current global imbalances and inequities. It reminds us of the realities of oppression and injustice and offers hope for a world that champions equality, and human rights, through advocacy, campaigning and resistance.

Anti-racism Principles

The legacies of colonialism and the slave trade still manifest in today's society. Institutional racism, stereotypes, biases, and systemic discrimination are prevalent, particularly for Black women facing systemic and interpersonal discrimination in relation to both race and gender. Workplaces, as microcosms of society, are not immune.

To truly champion anti-racism principles in the workplace, businesses must first recognise the historical context. It's not about workshops and webinars, but establishing a deeper strategy, understanding and fostering an environment where equity is paramount.

Top Tips to Advocate and Champion Equity for Black People in the Workplace

Educate and Raise Awareness

Understanding and recognising systemic racism is the foundation of creating an inclusive workplace. Employers should prioritize educational programs that explore Black history, the enduring impact of the slave trade, and the modern-day challenges faced by the Black community. The Racism at Work in the UK report (2022) found that 52% of people had witnessed racism at work, and 74% thoughts racism was a problem. Understanding these historical and present challenges is pivotal for shaping a more equitable workplace.

Celebrate Diversity

True inclusivity becomes visible when we seek to understand, respect and celebrate cultures, accomplishments, and backgrounds every individual brings into the workspace. Organizing consistent events, such as workshops, discussions bring people together provides an opportunity for the organisation to share why inclusion is important to them. You can share your diversity efforts, goals, targets, achievements and vision to build trust and awareness of how you are putting policy into practice.

Inclusive Hiring Practices

Representation is a clear indicator of a company's commitment to diversity. It's not just about hiring more Black employees, but about fostering an equitable environment where they can stay and fell like they belong, at any level. According to a McKinsey & Company report (2020), companies with more diverse teams are 35% more likely to have above-average profit margins. This shows that diverse voices aren't just an ethical imperative but also a business one. Hiring panels should also be trained on biases, and held accountable for decisions, to prevent stereotypes and assumptions from influencing recruitment efforts.

Provide Sponsorship

For Black employees, the corporate ladder can sometimes appear more as a barrier and set of obstacles to overcome. Setting up sponsorship programs where experienced professionals showcase and support Black employees, in ways they have done for White employees historically, can be immensely beneficial. Such programs can bolster career trajectories and ensure that Black employees have a clear path to leadership roles, and aim to demolish interpersonal and systemic barriers that a lack of sponsorship for Black people has created over decades.

Open Channels for Reporting Discrimination

Discrimination, unfortunately, is still a stark reality in many workplaces. It's imperative for organisations to have clear, confidential, and non-retaliatory systems in place for reporting racial bias or any discriminatory incidents. Ensuring Black people have safe channels to address these experiences is not just necessary—it's urgent.

Listen, Then Lead with Action

Merely lending an ear isn’t enough; it’s the ensuing actions that truly count. Establishing dedicated forums, such as town hall gatherings or feedback rounds, for Black employees to share their stories, fears, and recommendations is pivotal. What’s even more vital is the commitment to enacting real change based on these discussions, ensuring concerns are followed up by leadership.

Forge Bonds with Black Community Groups

True comprehension arises from collaboration. By aligning with Black community-led organisations, companies can deepen their understanding of the multifaceted challenges the Black community navigates. Moreover, these alliances can guide businesses in implementing meaningful, genuine alterations in their approach to inclusivity and equity in recruitment and relatability.

Final Thoughts

The International Slavery Remembrance Day on the 23rd of August isn't just a date on a calendar—it’s a resonant echo of our collective past. It's more than a moment of reflection; it's a clarion call for decisive action. Our professional environments have the potential to be powerful agents of transformation, upholding principles of fairness, embracing the spectrum of human diversity, and ensuring the past’s teachings steer our current and future actions.

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