When persons reflect on the history and achievements of individuals of African ethnicity the name Pastor G Daniel Ekarte is hardly ever mentioned. But his is an inspiring story that touched the lives of thousands, especially children, in early and mid-twentieth century England
Born in 1896 in Calabar, Nigeria, Ekarte became a Christian under the tutelage of Scottish Presbyterian missionaries named Arthur Wilkie and Mary Slessor. He was a promising student and at one time missionaries considered sending him to Edinburgh for further education, but the plan was never realized.
Ekarte ran away to sea for a period, but he eventually tired of this lifestyle and longed somehow to become a “holy man”. He believed that possibly he could change his life by going to the “holy country” of Britain. Ekarte arrived in Liverpool from Nigeria around 1915 but his expectations were soon dashed when he encountered, what he thought to be, the shocking state of immorality in Liverpool. Neither was he prepared for the racism that was a conspicuous part of the life in Britain. Ekarte actually arrived during a period of heightened racial tensions when increasing economic competition among the working class drew attention to the presence of the migrant community.
Riots broke out in 1919 and as many as ten thousand people from the white community took to the streets in protest. Throughout the 1920s, Africans continued to experience discrimination. Naturally, disillusionment set in and Ekarte briefly renounced his faith, determined to return to Nigeria and denounce the missionaries. But in time, his faith was rekindled and his mission reborn in the desire to minister to the needs of Africans in the diaspora.
Ekarte began his ministry near the Liverpool docks in 1922. The crowds that gathered about him congested the streets and brought him into conflict with the police on a number of occasions. To avert future clashes Ekarte moved his meetings indoors by renting a hall from two sympathetic vicars. In 1931 an anonymous white British donor enabled him to rent a larger hall at 122/124 Hill Street, Toxteth, Liverpool. This building became the headquarters of the African Churches Mission (ACM).
Ekarte was dismayed at the many injustices that ethnic minorities in the area experienced: poverty, unemployment and the rejection of mixed-race children, and he determined to fight to bring about change. Ekarte became a voice for the poor and marginalised in society, speaking out in their defence. He fought for racial equality, campaigning for equal payment for black seamen who received lesser wages than their white colleagues, though this brought him into direct opposition with the local government.
But Ekarte did not just advocate for the oppressed, he began to organise services in the slums, private rooms and open-air fields for the ethnic minorities of Liverpool. Ekarte’s church building became a community centre for both black and white people in the community. He also visited people in prisons, hospitals and gave free meals to the poor.
The children born to African American soldiers and English women after the Second World War were often rejected by society. Ekarte acted again, transforming the ACM into an orphanage for these children and a rehabilitation centre for their mothers. He faced severe opposition and sadly this community project for vulnerable children was later ordered to close – partly due to hostility from the local authorities who were against an African campaigning for racial equality and openly rebuking British colonialism.
Despite Ekarte’s strenuous attempts to improve the financial condition of the mission, economic difficulties doggedly followed him through the years resulting in the gradual decline of the Hill Street premises. The struggle to raise support was a challenge faced by many organizations during the Great Depression and WWII. The ACM may have fared worse than some missions, but its experience was in keeping with many others. Locally in Liverpool, authorities were also beginning to press for urban renewal and this may have influenced their decision to close the orphanage, a task callously performed by the Children’s Department
On 3 June 1949, officials came to collect the children. Ekarte described the episode in a statement. “At about 7:30 a.m. . . . representatives of the Children’s Department and a squad of police constables came to the Home and demanded the removal of the children. The sergeant shouted me to silence when I asked the Children’s Officers to read the correspondence I have had with the Home Office. He then lifted a baton to hit me on the head and absurdly exclaimed ‘we have more power than the Home Office. Then, with force, I was carried and locked up in my office by three constables. The children who were then in bed were removed and . . . they cried bitterly.”
Ekarte continued other aspects of the mission until the building was finally condemned in 1964 and he moved to council housing. By this time, Ekarte was an elderly man and lived only a few more weeks. He was remembered fondly, having achieved a great deal in his life, despite the obstacles. Besides being an important example of the life of an African in the diaspora during the colonial period, Ekarte was a pioneer of reverse missions.
He remained a hero in the sight of Africans and other marginalised people for the great things he achieved in Liverpool, but was a controversial figure to some. Ekarte’s story is an important one to remember. He did not receive any medals or public honour during his life and his story is not well known – even within the black Christian community. This lack of recognition reminds us that we don’t all receive recognition for our social activism and the good that we do. But the reason for advocating for others and tackling social injustice is not to get personal recognition.
Ekarte may not have had an OBE or a Pride of Britain Award, but his remarkable story deserves to be told because it has theological implications for how we can be prophetic, advocate for the marginalised and take necessary action. (Adapted)