Shades of Black Community Family Project by Eunice McGhie-Belgrave MBE
A plant does not ask permission to grow, it just will in the right conditions.
Whether Eunice McGhie-Belgrave MBE cultivated her own conditions to be of service, or being of service to others conditioned her, could be compared to a cycle found in nature. As crucial as biodiversity is to maintain the balance of an ecosystem, a person such as Mrs. McGhie is to the growth and harmony of her local community, by uniting what is fractured with compassion, integrity, and laughter.
Mrs. McGhie is a multi-award winning activist and pioneer of the Shades of Black Community Family Project in Birmingham, where she’s lived since 1957. It is a multifaceted project aimed at enhancing life skills through various social activities for the young and old. Created in 1989 as a response to racial tension and restlessness following the Handsworth riots in 1985, Shades of Black began as an allotments project for children and teenagers to learn how to grow their own produce, bringing people together with the fruit - and vegetables - of their labour.
Everything flourishes under the influence of Mrs. McGhie. Her first job in the UK was in the mental health sector; over the years she’s worked across social and probation services, in addition to various other independent community projects she’s either spearheaded or participated in. From teaching, sewing to community banking, all build bridges to progress and overcoming loneliness. I spoke with Mrs. McGhie the day before her birthday; she tells me her house is full of cards, no doubt sent by the truckload from people touched by her efforts over the years, “If you can help, simply help a person in a very small way, you will be surprised how they take it and remember it for the rest of their lives,” she says.
Born in the Parish of St James Maldon District in Jamaica in 1934, Mrs. McGhie recalls her upbringing with equal parts of warmth and candour, “We had our own plot, that's what we had to give us cash to buy the things we wanted, so we had to do our own cultivation. We had the land. We were quite lucky because grandma was a white woman, she was married to an African. So, I lived racism in Jamaica before I came here.” Leah Finlayson (Mrs. McGhie’s grandmother) was the daughter of white plantation owner. She worked as a local midwife for the Maldon District and was given her inheritance, a substantial plot of land, by her parents who disowned her for marrying a black man, “We planted fruit, vegetables, everything to go to the markets in Montego Bay or Trelawny, so I was a little bit better off than many,” Mrs. MGhie explains.
These conditions, created as result of prejudice, exploitation and racism, were viewed as lucky. For many reasons Mrs. McGhie describes her life as a lucky one, mainly because of the opportunities afforded to her for learning and serving. By the age of eight, she was reading newspapers to adults who weren't able to read competently for themselves. To be educated, and to educate others came naturally to her. By the time she moved to England as a newlywed, Eunice had grown a strength of character that met the racism she faced - like many others of the Windrush generation - head on.
'As crucial as biodiversity is to maintain the balance of an ecosystem, a person such as Mrs. McGhie is to the growth and harmony of her local community, by uniting what is fractured with compassion, integrity, and laughter.'
Not every member of the natural world is embraced by Mrs. McGhie, who halts our interview to tell me about an Australian snake that found its way into her house earlier this year, “I got a picture of it! I had to show it to everybody, for them to believe... This thing stretched out, ready to collar me around the neck,” she exclaims over my hysterics, “I had to chuck it outside in the back.” We finish our digression (the snake later disappeared, thanks likely to a bird or cat) and I realise how easy it is to feel lifted by her famous charm. But make no mistake, Mrs. McGhie runs a tight ship. Children from as young as four and teenagers alike are welcomed to her outdoor classroom with a simple premise, “I'm doing what I have to do to better your life standard. So, I want the same from you,” she says matter-of-factly. But why gardening, why not another art or craft, since so many locals don’t have green spaces of their own? “They [the children] learn quite a lot about conservation, putting the seed into the ground to see how it grows. When it’s growing up, I say, you see how this seed grows? Look how you grow! You were a baby, mama held you in her arms. Look at the seed! The seed is coming up, it’s growing leaves. If you tend and care to it, as much as mum cares for you, you’ll soon have the crops that the seeds produce.”
As a young woman getting used to her new life in England, and well before forming Shades of Black with four others, Mrs. McGhie regularly bought bread and milk for the older generation living alone because she ‘didn’t like to see how they go’. We call them small acts of kindness, but these practical efforts filled her life and the lives of others in a big way. She went on to receive numerous accolades, including a Pride of Britain award and The Queen’s Golden Jubilee Award for Voluntary Service, and make plenty of media appearances as a result.
Now 86, she runs ‘The Back Garden’ project from her home in Stechford; little visitors arrive in small groups to get stuck into the soil and she’s still making sure they write what they’ve learned in their booklets afterwards. “When I get children in to learn something, I make sure I have the time to do it; I make sure I explain to them, this is learning is not only for you, is for you and your family, and your parents. You have got to be honest. You’ve got to be kind and loving and you have to listen carefully to what you are being taught, for one of these days, I won't be here and you will need it,” she says solemnly, “You will call my name, definitely,” she finishes, before collapsing into a fit of giggles.
Whatever the conditions Mrs. McGhie finds herself in, she will be cultivating them with good humour and self-respect.
Words by Reeme Idris for Graen
Discover more about Mrs McGhie and her garden project in Episode 33 (19:40) of BBC's Gardeners' World.