Why we still need a memorial to the ordeal of David Oluwale

In 1969, the death of a Nigerian immigrant shook a Yorkshire police force to its core. Forty years on, Max Farrar makes the case for a permanent memorial to David Oluwale.

The life and death of David Oluwale is a story which demands re-telling.

Three decades before the phrase "institutional racism" had been coined, the Nigerian immigrant became a target of two Leeds police officers who, by intimidation and violence, turned an already vulnerable man into a hopeless victim.

In 1959, after arriving in England as a stowaway, Oluwale's search for a better life soon floundered. Moving between prison, the infamous psychiatric hospital, High Royds, where he was subject to electric shock therapy, and sleeping rough on the streets of Leeds, Oluwale was an outsider. Even the other homeless people seeking refuge at the city's St George's Crypt made him feel unwelcome.

When his body was pulled from the River Aire, on May 4, 1969, there was no family to attend his funeral and it seemed a suitably tragic end to what had been a pitifully lonely existence.

Oluwale would have been as anonymous in death as he had been in life, had a young police officer not decided to speak up. After overhearing how Insp Geoffery Ellerker and Sgt Kenneth Kitching had carried out their brutal campaign against Oluwale, Gary Galvin risked alienation by informing senior offices and forcing a full investigation.

When they came before Leeds Crown Court, in November 1971, charges of manslaughter were thrown out because of a lack of direct evidence, but the pair were convicted of a series of assaults on the mentally-ill Oluwale and the grim details which emerged cast a dark shadow over the force.

We will never know for sure if Ellerker and Kitching were the uniformed men seen chasing a badly dressed black man down the bank of the river Aire a week or so before his sodden body was found, and as the two officers were led down to the cells, many questions remained unanswered.

In the immediate aftermath of the case, there was a desire to move on, a feeling that looking back would help nobody. Forty years on, it is time there was an official memorial to David Oluwale.

A play, based on the book by Kester Aspden, will bring the story to a wider audience when it premieres later this month at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, and for many of us, it will afford a time for reflection.

Much has changed in West Yorkshire police. Gary Galvin's son is a serving police officer. He's intensely proud of his late father's stance, and is proud to be working in a force which has committed itself to equal and fair treatment for all.

Much has also changed for the black and Asian communities of Leeds who were rocked to the core by the death. I learned much of what I know today through talking with their leaders during their struggles for justice throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

"If they can kill Oluwale, what might happen to the rest of us?" was the question most often asked.

At the recent wedding of a young black woman who is our daughter's friend, from Scott Hall Middle School, another shaft of light appeared. She had married a white man, and the gathering was a multi-cultural as you can find.

As I walked across the car park, I heard the bride's dad talking with his friends. They had all arrived in Leeds from the Caribbean in the 1960s.

"Well, a day like this makes it all worthwhile," said the proud father. "We had it tough for the early years, but look how good it is now." His friends agreed enthusiastically.

However, none of us should be complacent about the current situation. Racism still exists, and the rise in support for the British National Party is a major cause for concern.

Homeless people in general, and rough sleepers in particular, still have a terrible time in our glittering city.

A permanent memorial to David Oluwale would be a way to help ensure that we learn the lessons of our past. The committee behind the initiative includes representatives from the Catholic and Church of England diocese of Leeds, the West Indian Centre, the Nigerian Welfare Association, Stop Hate UK , St Gemma's Hospice and St George's Crypt. It is also supported by Leeds Metropolitan University.

The idea came originally from Caryl Phillips, who was born in the Caribbean but brought up in Leeds. He is now an acclaimed writer, a Professor at Yale University (and a fanatical supporter of Leeds United). His version of Oluwale's life and death appears in his recent book, Foreigners – Three English Lives.

Phillips experienced racism at first hand in Leeds, but he urges us to set a tone of reconciliation. We want a memorial which helps us all to understand the grim past of this great city, to acknowledge the plight of all those who are still suffering rejection, and to burn a path towards social justice and equality.

Max Farrar is Professor for Community Engagement at Leeds Metropolitan University. To support the David Oluwale Memorial Committee, email him.

The Hounding of David Oluwale runs at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, from January 31 to February 21.