The Manchester town hall meeting that shaped Africa: remembering the Fifth Pan-African Congress

In October 1945, as European powers have retreated within themselves, decimated, disfigured and shellshocked by the tide of death that had swept over the continent for the last six years87 delegates representing 50 organisations met in a town hall in Manchester.

They came together for the Fifth Pan-African Congress, all with a singular, righteous purpose: the liberation of hundreds of millions of Africans living under colonial rule.

Seventy years have passed since the Fifth Pan-African Congress, an event which, in hindsight, was one of the most significant happenings of African organisation ever to have occurred in Britain, perhaps the world.

To commemorate, Autograph ABP are, for the first time, exhibiting photographs taken at the event. 

The exhibition features over thirty photographs, a selection of rare ephemera and materials associated with the Congress and will be accompanied by a Pan-African Film Lounge, screening a programme of films exploring Pan-African history.

“It’s an interesting chapter in history in many ways,” says Mark Sealy, director of Autograph ABP. “It’s significant in terms of who was there and why they were there — Jomo Kenyatta [the first leader of Kenya after independence], Kwame Nkrumah [who later led anti-colonial resistance in Ghana] and W.E.B. Du Bois, who at the time is probably the most significant black man on the planet.

“It turns out John Deakin [famed for photographing Soho nightlife] was the photographer on his only assignment for [pioneering British photojournalism magazine] Picture Post, who were also acute enough to get one of the few female war correspondents Hilde Marchant up there [to report].”

While the impulse to form a sense of ‘pan-African’ unity encompassing regional and ethnic diversities is centuries old, it began to truly take shape in the late 19th and early 20th century, with religious leaders and intellectuals such as Alexander Walters, Henry Sylvester Williams and Marcus Garvey leading the charge.

The Trinidadian journalist and writer George Padmore became an influential figure at the congress, playing a crucial role in organising the 1945 conference alongside Kwame Nkrumah.

“Here at long last was a philosophy evolved by Black thinkers which peoples of African descent could claim and use as their own,” he wrote in his 1965 book Pan-Africanism or Communism. 

What is striking from the photos is the sense of sheer potential of the time. While post-war Europe reckoned with existential crisis, Africa and Africans were looking forward; contemplating a future where they held their destiny in their own hands. As Du Bois remarked, the Congress made 1945 “a decisive year in determining the freedom of Africa”.

This context for the images, just weeks after the end of the war, is potent: existing in a bubble of time between European colonialism and the destabilised regimes of the Cold War.

Colonised nations were striving for self-determination, to, as the ‘Challenge to the Colonial Powers’ reads, ‘make the world listen to the facts of our condition”. 

With representatives spanning Africa, the Caribbean, the United States and Britain, the Congress was demonstrative of a burgeoning black solidarity that spanned the entire diaspora. 

This progressivism extended even further; delegates from South Asia (such as Surat Alley and T. Subasingha) also attended.

Signs at the event read “Freedom for all subject people”, “Oppressed Peoples of the World Unite”, and “Arabs and Jews Unite against British Imperialism”.

“There’s a massive sense of hope in that space,” says Sealy. “The war had just finished; it was a new world, there was a new contract on the table, new rights to be had. This was the place people were saying ‘we’ve made a contribution, we’ve just fought the Nazis and the Fascists for you — can we have our freedom now?’” 

What photographers need to do is encourage us to take responsibility,” says Sealy. This notion of accountability of the collective, expounded in French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas’ post-war writing, is a strong influence on his curation. 

“I don’t think photographs inherently change anything. I think what they can do is they can generate a conversation about the time and place they refer to, and help us historically rethink the present.  

“The images don’t change the world, it’s what we do with them that changes the world. It’s what we think about, whether they resonate — whether you and I act differently after we see them.”

The Fifth Pan-African Congress is on show until 12 September at Autograph ABP. Details here.