‘Powerful’, ‘piercing’, ‘disturbing’, ‘compelling’ and ‘demanding’ — just some of the testimonies about Professor David Olosuga’s key note speech that launched the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation last night on 20 January 2021.
Over 400 people tuned in to hear the talk on the ‘Legacies of Slavery’, something which David said was ‘about having a grown-up approach to history. It’s never simple and it’s certainly never neat, and what it is, is morally complicated’.
The launch of the Foundation was the first step in celebrating the life of Mary Ann McCracken, and to build on her legacy. Although she died over 150 years ago, Mary Ann McCracken is a name that should be well-known in Belfast and beyond. Her story and legacy, however, are still not widely publicised. Living to the ripe old age of 96, she was a fierce proponent of the poor of Belfast, children, women and workers’ rights, as well as having a keen interest in global matters and fighting for the cause of the enslaved and against the slave trade itself.
Professor Olusoga’s address challenged the audience to think about how to liberate the historical lives and reputations of abolitionists like Mary Ann McCracken from the cause they were championing. ‘We need to change the conversation and place less emphasis on the people themselves and more on what they fought for’, he said.
He complimented Belfast Charitable Society on how it has shared its history; the story of Mary Ann and other abolitionists, as well as those who profited directly from the slave trade.
Sir Ronnie Weatherup, Belfast Charitable Society’s President, who hosted the launch event, explained, ‘The Society has not shied away from the fact that its members, back in the late eighteenth century, were a mismatch of those who benefited significantly from the slave trade – either through the ownership of plantations or related business activity – and another group of people who were part of the abolitionist movement and anti-slavery voice of the day. However by focusing too much on these individuals, we too are covering up the real conversations that need to be addressed on the horrors of slavery at that time, and the ongoing legacy that still impacts society today’.
This talk gave the Foundation a freedom to start to look and discuss some of these difficult parts of our history, which are full of moral contradictions. The Foundation will work to guarantee that the challenging conversations that it hosts are well informed and researched, and look in an honest and transparent way at our past. The Mary Ann McCracken Foundation can then look ahead to fight to eradicate some of the legacies of slavery today, including racism.
Sir Ronnie Weatherup concluded, ‘Today, just as there was in Mary Ann’s day, there is a great need to support the most vulnerable in society and address inequality. We hope to continue this fight that Mary Ann herself started almost 250 years ago, and do her ongoing legacy justice’.