Daniels Ekarté was from Calabar, Nigeria and around 1915 he worked his way into Liverpool as a seaman. The ethnic minorities in Liverpool suffered from the effects of institutional racism such as poverty, unemployment, rejection of mixed-race children and social deprivation. Ekarté founded The African Churches Mission (ACM) in 1931 in Toxteth, Liverpool to combat some of these social ills. As a preacher, Ekarté used every public opportunity he had to speak out against the injustices of his time. During World War II, he started an orphanage home to accommodate mixed-race children who were discriminated against by the society. The African Churches Mission was one of the first Black churches in Britain.
The history of African Churches Mission begins with the history of its founder, Daniels Ekarte, who was born in Calabar, Nigeria c. 1890s. As a boy Daniels was influenced by the Scottish missionary Mary Slessor (1848-1915) who worked amongst the Calabar people in Nigeria. Mary influenced Daniels as a result of her warming to the African culture. This sympathy towards African culture also helped Mary to stop the killing of twins in Calabar (as having twins was a taboo in that part of Nigeria in those days). Ekarte became a seaman and came to Liverpool, probably around 1915. He became a Christian in 1922 and began the African Churches Mission (ACM hereafter) in Toxteth, Liverpool in 1931. Liverpool’s prosperity in the mid-nineteenth century depended largely on the slave economy. The Black population increased during and after the First World War in places such as Liverpool, Bristol and London. One of the impacts of the war on Liverpool was the increase in unemployment and poor living conditions. This was coupled with racial discrimination. For example, inter-marriages between black men and white women were a major tension in Liverpool and the children of such marriages were termed ‘half-caste’ children (today known as mixed-race or dual heritage) and were rejected by many people in the society. These children were actually labelled as ‘mongrels’. This was the socio-economic milieu into which ACM was born.
Ekarte began to organise services in the slums, private rooms and open-air fields for the ethnic minority of Liverpool and through generous giving he later acquired a permanent place to meet. Ekarte’s church 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. He became a voice for the poor and marginalised in society by defending them in his sermons and public speaking. Ekarte believed and fought for racial equality. For example, he campaigned for equal payment for black seamen because their white colleagues were receiving higher wages than them. This brought him in direct opposition with the local government and had negative effects on the ACM.
Post-Second World War brought about the birth of half-caste children resulting from the union between African American soldiers and English women. Ekarte decided to transform the ACM into an orphanage for these children and a rehabilitation centre for their mothers. He achieved this, but later this community project was ordered to close and the children transferred to the city’s children home. Ekarte was barred from any further contact with the children. The local authorities did this because they could not tolerate an African campaigning for racial equality and openly rebuking the British government for plundering the resources of Africa through colonialism. In addition, financial constraints worsened the case. After this event the life of the Mission continued but it struggled to survive. Finally in 1964 the local authorities demolished the building housing the Mission. The blow of the Mission closing was too much for Ekarte and not long after he died in 1964. Ekarte was and 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 in the eyes of others.
The achievements of ACM have implications for churches today in engaging with the social ills in our community: The first challenge of ACM is the fact that Ekarte condemned publicly the inequalities that he witnessed. Ekarte used every public opportunity he had to speak against the ill-treatment of the ethnic minority of his time. It is interesting to observe that Ekarte advocated for equal payments of black and white seamen and that he campaigned against institutional racism. In this he predates the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in the United States which campaigned against racial discrimination. This point makes Ekarte a prophetic witness in his generation. We need church leaders today who will be bold to challenge some government policies and media stereotypes. One example will be the current stigmatization of immigrants, especially immigrants from Eastern Europe.
Secondly, Ekarte did not just advocate for the oppressed; he actually did something to remedy the situation. He used the resources at his disposal to feed the poor, and open an orphanage home and rehabilitation centre. A concern at the moment is that the Church in Britain has become either too middle class or professional to reach an average working class. It appears we are distant from people’s reality as we worship in our comfortable mega churches or big Christian festival and events. The church in the UK must surely find ways to connect with the working class.
In conclusion, the legacy of Daniels Ekarte is found in his recognition that God is in the business of liberating the oppressed. This propelled him, like the Old Testament prophets before him, to speak out against inequalities such as institutional racism. In addition to his public denunciation of injustice, he also became an agent of social change through acting on his convictions by starting ACM which became a centre for the community. Our churches must be challenged in the light of ACM’s legacy and the role of Daniels Ekarte as a public leader.