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Rachel Hawadi, Hidden Figures of Plymouth Project

Rachel Hawadi, Project Manager at WonderZoo, discusses her passion for The Hidden Figures of Plymouth Project, highlighting the stories of people of colour who have made an impact on the city’s history. 

Rachel Hawadi, a project manager at WonderZoo, meets with Made in Plymouth Content Director, Bracken Jelier, and discusses her background and passion for organising the Hidden Figures of Plymouth Project, highlighting the stories of people of colour who have made an impact on the city’s history. 

She mentions individuals like Jimmy Peters and Jack Leslie, whose stories have been overlooked and are slowly eroding away, emphasising the importance of celebrating the spirit of inclusion and fighting for the underdog in Plymouth. She also reflects on the positive reception the project has received, with people expressing support and a desire to learn more.

I moved to Plymouth in 1985 from Southern Africa and I grew up in Plymouth. I went to Plymouth High School for girls and studied chemistry at university level and lived in London for a while. I actually went to Brunel University because when I was studying history I did the industrial revolution, and Brunel obviously is a big part of that. So I felt this affinity to Brunel because of the West Country connection. It’s a technical college and I studied chemistry. I did a masters degree, a joint masters between Aberdeen University and Spain. So I lived in Spain for a while. 

When I left Spain I was part of the dot com revolution and was part of the team that launched America Online. And then I was the first web developer for Amazon and was part of the team that launched Amazon in the UK.

After that, even though I was working in tech, I didn’t feel like I was a natural technician. I could get by. I thought I’d be a better project manager so I moved into project management in 2002 and came back to Plymouth in 2002, and have lived back in Plymouth ever since. 

Plymouth is my hometown. I love Plymouth.

There are just so many beautiful things about Plymouth that I feel the world needs to know! There’s a spirit about Plymouth that I feel the world needs to understand: it’s not just discovery – there’s a humanity above that. 

Working on the Hidden Figures of Plymouth Project is the first passion project that I’ve done. It’s something that I care about and understand as a person of colour myself. 

Essentially the project is more than just a celebration. It’s about telling the stories of people of colour whose footprints are within the historical fabric of Plymouth. Their stories are slowly eroding away. People don’t know who they are, that they lived here and they had an impact. And that Plymouth cared enough for them that they stayed here. This project will do something about that and bring their faces back in to the present day.

At the moment I’m really focusing on Jimmy Peters because of the Rugby World Cup this year. I’ve really got to know about Jimmy Peters’ story. I’ve deep dived into his life and his life moved me to tears. His story moved me to tears. He’s a great man. 

There’s also Jack Leslie as well. Matt Teller has done a great job to let his name be known. And for me, people like Matt Teller and Greg Foxsmith, who are the people behind The Jack Leslie Campaign, embody the spirit of Plymouth. Where else do we have two Plymouth boys fighting for the story of a Black man to be known? Where else do we have Mary Seacole being commemorated? When Mary Seacole’s story was originally being told, there was a campaign to say she shouldn’t be remembered in the same way. But in Plymouth we have a building named after her. It’s important that people living here – and people living outside the city too, know about these people, what they did and who they are.

A lot of people don’t know that we had a Lord Mayor that was Black, that we have a street called Miller Way that’s named after Bill Miller, William Ernest Miller, who did so much to build Plymouth in the Second World War. 

The fact that these Black people, people of colour who were here were able to thrive in Plymouth, is why I want the stories to be an integral part of Plymouth and for the people in Plymouth to really know these figures that helped shape our history. 

This is a two-year project that I’m working on and it was all serendipity meeting WonderZoo. This project is their brainchild and it’s important for me to acknowledge that. I’m also now a director with them and we all felt that it was really important that this project was fronted by people of colour. They wanted us to be the voice behind the stories and they’re very adept and very good at giving a voice to people who don’t have a one; if those people are whispering, that they give them a microphone to speak. 

WonderZoo has given Jackie Watcher and myself, who is the deputy project manager, an opportunity to carve the path and make it happen and they’re supporting us with it. 

I remember the moment I was first introduced to these hidden figures. I saw their pictures, painted by Chi Bennett and I was talking to Lillian at Jambulani and I said, “Who are these people?” And then she said, “Oh well, the two guys wearing white, well that’s Jack Leslie and Jimmy Peters.” Then there was Anne Wilkinson who was the woman who started the Plymouth Respect Festival in 1998. here were also pictures of Bill and Claude Miller obviously.

That was my first introduction to the fact that there were people of colour in Plymouth. From there I bumped into Chi in town and she said to me, “We’re looking for a Project Manager.” I left my job as a program manager in Plymouth Science Park in vaccinology – completely different world! Now I’m doing something that I’m truly passionate about.

Through this role I have been able to meet the most incredible people. Only today I met the great-great-granddaughters of Jimmy Peters. And was witness to seeing his great great-great-grandson doing a speech about him talking about his tragic life and how he remained a gentleman in spite of the horrendous racism. Then this Saturday, I was watching England play the Springboks and I was reminded of the time back in 1906 when the Springboks toured England to play at county level and they refused to play with Jimmy Peters because he was Black. They would rather fight and kill him than play with him. 

But what’s important to note is that it was the players in Devon, notably in Plymouth, and the journalists in the city – the spirit of Plymouth that fought against it. It was only a few years after the Boer War, so apartheid was at its peak. The funny thing was that the guy who wanted to ‘kill’ Jimmy Peters was actually a Christian. So you can see how entrenched in their psyche the idea of apartheid and racism was in their country. Whereas in our country we have people saying, “No, he is going to play otherwise we’re all not going to play.” And for me that’s what I want us to celebrate. The fact that in Plymouth there is the spirit of inclusion that I think outweighs the racism that is obviously underneath. We don’t ignore it but we also want to celebrate, give a louder microphone to the fact that as a city, as a people, we are more inclined to be welcoming, more inclined to fight for the underdog. And that’s what I’m trying to do with this project. It’s not just to celebrate these people but to celebrate also the spirit of Plymouth.

Being a part of The Hidden Figures of Plymouth Project has been a real eye-opener. During Black History Month (October) we’ve had a pop-up at Drake Circus. And in that pop-up we were able to interact with people face to face, mano a mano. And people were writing comments in reaction. I’ve been blown away to hear how much people are behind the idea of this project within Plymouth. We’ve got tons and tons of comments of people encouraging us, praising us, saying, “This is such a great project. We didn’t know this. We want to know more.” And it’s been so life-affirming. It’s been unbelievable. 

When we had our one-day film festival at the Plymouth Arts Cinema (as covered by Made in Plymouth) we had about six Plymouth City Councillors there. We’ve talked to Tudor Evans, the head of Plymouth City Council. He’s so behind the project. He’s so behind the idea of having a statue for Jimmy Peters. And I’ve been blown away. It’s confirmed what I’ve always thought about people in Plymouth. I don’t want to be overly repetitive, but the support has been tremendous. It really has been truly tremendous.

One of the things that really stood out is that people want to be involved. So, first of all we would absolutely welcome more help. We’re looking for volunteers to help us as we go on this journey. For more information own it, we have our website www.hidden-figures.co.uk. We’re on social media, Facebook, Twitter. We are on Instagram as well. 

We are wanting to raise a statue for Jimmy Peters. Jimmy Peters was picked to play for England. And we want public support in raising funds for that – so watch this space for a future campaign. 

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