Ever heard of Cecil Rogers? What about Bill Miller? Perhaps, if you are a rugby fan, the name Jimmy Peters is familiar? If you have no idea who I am talking about, don’t fret. A two-year project from the arts collective Wonderzoo called Hidden Figures of Plymouth is determined to make all of these people household names – and even wants to see a statue erected of one of them in Central Park.
Hidden Figures of Plymouth aims to share the untold stories of how people from the global majority contributed to the city. It takes the view that history – the stories we tell ourselves as a society about what happened in the past – is incomplete. There are a lot of rich, dead, white guys in the history books, mainly because history was written by rich, dead, white guys. Correcting this injustice is central to the Hidden Figures project. Work will be focused on raising awareness of around a dozen Plymothians forgotten or erased from our collective consciousness.
At a ceremony at Plymouth Arts Cinema, on a day where Wonderzoo staged a ‘take over’ of the building, including programming three films, putting up information panels, and inviting local dignitaries, Rachel Hawadi, the project lead said, ‘We will know we will have succeeded, if by the end people know who Bill Miller is. We have hidden figures in this city – we have our own Malcolm Xs and our own Martin Luthers. I am surprised more people don’t know who Jimmy Peters was. I cried when I heard about his story.’
Plymouth Arts Cinema is a wonderful venue to celebrate such an ambitious project. Anna Navas, director of the Cinema said, ‘It is a privilege to be part of this project. We wanted to celebrate black figures in cinema, and we tried to choose some films that touch different bases.’ Her vision for the cinema is of a place in the community that everyone can see themselves reflected in.
Deputy Lord Mayor, Kathy Watkin said, ‘Plymouth City Council welcomes diversity and supports events that celebrate inclusion. I hope this project will create a memorial for people of colour that made their name in Plymouth.’
So, who are Cecil Rogers, Bill Miller and Jimmy Peters?
Cecil Rogers was Devon’s first black special constable. Of Jamaican heritage, Cecil, who lived at 8 Essex Street, was a Special Constable with the D sub-division of the Plymouth City Police. During the war he was part of the team that helped people in the city evacuate from German bombing.
Bill Miller was a colossus in the civic life of the city during the twentieth century. He served on many crucial committees with Plymouth City Council, including rehousing projects after the war. He turned down the offer of being Lord Mayor of Plymouth in 1947, since it would take his attention away from housing. He was awarded the British Empire Medal, the CBE and the OBE.
And Jimmy Peters? He was England’s first black rugby player. A great Plymouth and Devon fly-half, who played internationals against Scotland and France, it was discovered in 2014 that he was lying in an unmarked grave in Ford Park Cemetery. How a man of his considerable pioneering talent could end up in such an undignified place is one reason this project is so important. When I spoke to Rachel Hawadi after the ceremony, at the top of her wish list would be a statue in Central Park of Jimmy Peters.
After the ceremony I stayed to watch the Hollywood film Hidden Figures (2016). The story illuminates the lives of a group of women of colour employed at Nasa in 1961 who were responsible for calculating orbital trajectories for the nascent manned space flight programme. The world it presents – of segregated toilets, drinking fountains, bus seats, even coffee pots – is morally unpleasant. I kept reminding myself that 1961 was in living memory of many of us watching the film. In lots of ways we live in a more progressive society. But the fact that stories like this can be forgotten shows that history must continue to be mined for its hidden figures.
By James Banyard
Twitter/ X: @jamesbanyard2