Facing the Past: The Three Sophia’s – Responding – Disrupting – Making space to acknowledge the unacknowledged - 30/11/23

In 2020 Lancaster Priory was one focal point for local Black Lives Matter protests, when a memorial was sprayed with the words ‘Slave Trader.’ This began a process of bringing to light the crimes against humanity that were perpetrated as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade by individuals associated with Lancaster Priory.

to The Black Lives Matter movement in Lancaster focused on the city’s deep complicity in the transatlantic trade in enslaved people and how little this history was known. A key demand was to make this history visible to all and embedded into education and the heritage experience.

Facing the Past, an arts and research programme to reflect, reveal and redress omissions in the way Lancaster has commemorated its role as the fourth largest slavery port in the UK, was developed in response to this, and Lancaster Priory is one of the partners.

Facing the Past commissioned research by Melinda Elder, which is helping us to better understand the ways in which Lancaster Priory benefited from slavery, and the way individuals whose names are carved in stone in and around the building are connected to it. This research reveals the stories of 76 Black Africans entered into the church registers, 58 of whom were baptised in the font that stands at the back of the church today. These lives are not remembered, their stories not told, and their names not written in stone. One of those individuals was Sophia Fileen, baptised in Lancaster Priory on 15 February 1799, recorded as ‘a negro aged 11 years of Lancaster’.

Lancaster Priory has had a longstanding partnership with EducAid, working in Sierra Leone. The Facing the Past team asked a group of school pupils there to step across the centuries and continents to imagine Sophia’s life. Working with movement practitioners, the girls responded to Sophia as a real person, not a victim, as a young girl with agency, strength, beauty and joy. The installation of the three figures (picture below) in Lancaster Priory is a result of this co-created work.

Reverend Leah Vasey Saunders, Vicar of Lancaster:

‘We continue to respond to the disruptive act of protest in our churchyard by seeking to disrupt the inside of the church, making space for Black history and presence and encouraging dialogue, to enable us to develop future resources to face the past truthfully. We also want to remember and make visible the 76 Black Africans named in our registers. Sophia is the first step towards this. Her name means ‘wisdom.’ Our prayer is that she will inspire us as we step into a future that makes space for those exploited and unacknowledged in the past’.

The installation will be in place in Lancaster Priory until 7 December, 2023. We would like to know what you think about it. Please go to bit.ly/3QvS1Kl to feed back.  The installation will return January 4th -31st.

To find out more about the Facing the Past project, access its living digital archive here: www.facingthepast.org. You can both explore and share, making the city’s diverse history accessible for all. Facing the Past is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

To donate to EducAid visit: www.educaid.org.uk

Read Melinda’s Research here

Read more on Visit Lancaster here

Read more at the Lancaster Guardian here

Photography by Rob Battersby.