In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests coming to Stevenage, the Comet has interviewed two famous faces who remember growing up as Black children in the town during the 1970s and 80s.

The Comet: Olivier Award winning actor and filmmaker Giles Terera. Picture: Darren BellOlivier Award winning actor and filmmaker Giles Terera. Picture: Darren Bell (Image: Archant)

We spoke with journalist and author Gary Younge and West End star and filmmaker Giles Terera, who both proudly call Stevenage home.

Gary was born and raised in Stevenage 1969, before he left the town in 1986. He said: “There were very very few black people in Stevenage when I grew up.

“What was complicated was that there were plenty of instances of racist abuse. It was quite common. This would have been true for most Black people in Britain at the time.

“Quite often the people giving you the abuse would be people you knew. There was no saying when or where. Other times they would be quite friendly.

“But something would happen, the dog accidently goes in a neighbours’ garden or they were having a bad day, and it would quickly descend into ‘You should go back to where you came from’ and all that.

“Next time you spoke to them, it would be fine again.

“It was everywhere, including among those who you got along quite well with.”

But Gary does raise an important caveat when discussing his formative years in the town.

“I still, through all of that, have very fond memories of Stevenage. It gave me a very good start in life.

“There were always good people there.

“I think it says something that the most famous people to come out of Stevenage are Lewis Hamilton and Ashley Young.

“There’s Roland Butcher (first Black cricketer to represent England), there’s Giles Terera.

“It’s a small black population, and I don’t know what that says about the town, but it’s intriguing.”

Giles Terera’s family, his mother and four children in all, moved to Stevenage in 1977.

He said: “The whole idea behind Stevenage was that it was the first new town built after the war. That idealistic sentiment, I guess, made it open to people from all backgrounds.

“There was a little community there. There were three of four black families in Broadwater and we all knew each other.

“I remember being called names at school. Sometimes they were of a racist nature. Other times they were not. Kids call each other names about whatever is different.

“On the other side of that, you have the systemic side of racism.

“I remember a time when my mother was going for a promotion at work – she was a staff nurse. She was rejected for the position twice over a number of years.

“I often think back at that and think what a massive moment that was. She was absolutely qualified, she should have got that promotion and for some reason she wasn’t permitted to have that.

“I think that subtle obstruction is something that so many people of colour have to experience.”

Gary’s mother, Reba Younge, was an active member of Stevenage’s community – whether she was teaching pupils at Bedwell school, running Shephalbury Park’s play scheme or organising discos at St Peter’s Church.

He recalls one story of when Reba’s pupils carved racist insults into her desk – with her complaints being met with indifference by seniors members of the school.

“None of this is particularly remarkable I think, ” Gary adds.

Giles has nothing but praise for Reba’s work in the community, describing her as a “massive presence” in the town.

Giles said: “Reba was an activist who was always doing something. We all knew her as kids from her work on the play scheme.

“It was the most perfect thing, and she did that for us for years. Ask anyone who grew up in Stevenage in the 80s, they will know the name Reba Younge.”

Fast forward to 2020, and both are keen to share their thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement and its presence in Stevenage.

Gary said: “It was heartwarming to see there was a political constituency for anti-racism. I think my mother would have been heartened and impressed.

“Stevenage has always had a contingent of decent, political active, engaged people.

“It’s great to see people come out and make their voices heard in a moment like this.”

Giles attended the protest himself, and added: “What was so great about the vigil was that there were so many young people and white people there.

“I think that’s a significant thing. If this moment is going to be capitalised on, it’s going to have to be done so by all of us.

“This showed me that there is a really good opportunity here and I think that’s a really positive thing.”