Interview with Mark Simpson

Black History Studies

Black History Studies is a family run social enterprise that was set up to teach black history from an African perspective. Due to a lack of outlets that offered a range of learning opportunities, husband and wife team Mark and Charmaine Simpson (pictured above) decided to set the business up to educate people and fill the gaps on topics that are not taught at school.

Today Black History Studies offers a range of courses (beginner, advanced and short courses), they organise and deliver events such as, museum tours, their flagship event ‘The Black Market and Film Festival’ and other independent film screenings, which included the UK premiers of Tariq Nasheed’s Hidden colours series. Under sister company Black History Study Tours, Mark and Charmaine organise trips across Europe and Africa, where they highlight the black experience. The trips also give students the opportunity to see and immerse themselves in the environments where some of that history originates. For example, some of the trips have included Andalusia in Spain, Moorish Portugal, Black Netherlands, Black Paris and Egypt.

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Mark Simpson is multi-tasking when my zoom call gets through to him. He asks me to excuse him for a few minutes while he sets up another computer for his daughter to do her school work. This juggling act has become the norm for most parents, something that would have never been thought of until the global pandemic forced us all to spend more time at home. I say to him that his daughter can join us in the interview, to which he replies “No, because she’ll take over”.

Mark wears a red short-sleeved T-shirt with the ‘Black History Studies’ logo printed on the left pocket. He looks like a normal dad. Relaxed with a lock-sock on his head to cover his dreadlocks. There is a lot of African art and sculptures hanging on the wall behind him. It’s clear to me that this is a family that is really involved in the study and understanding of Black History and arts.

“I am ready to start when you are sista” says Mark, once all audio issues are fixed and daughter is happily getting on with her work in the background.

Thanks so much for taking the time to have this interview, especially during home schooling hours.

Mark Simpson: That’s fine sista. My daughter will be fine now that she is busy getting on with her own work.

When did you start Black History Studies and what was your motivation to start it?

We started BHS in 2006 because we felt there was a lack of readily available information on the subject matter. Therefore, we felt that rather than complain, we’d set something up ourselves and be the change that we wanted to see.

“We’d set something up ourselves and be the change that we wanted to see”

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I love that mentality and totally agree with it. Which is why I am doing this interview with you today. So, what were you doing before starting Black History Studies?

I was a civil servant for 20 years and worked in various government departments before being made redundant. When that happened, me and my wife deliberated whether to invest the redundancy pay in bricks and mortar or to pursue our passion of educating people. We chose the latter 😊

Interesting, so had you or your wife worked in education or done some work outside of your day job that prepared you for this business?

We actually used to organise small events, but had also attended a number of educational events. To be honest my wife and I just felt that people deserved better. The people needed a service that was professionally set up. For example, there were times when we’d attend an event but when we got to the venue, there was no one or the venue had not been set up yet or they’d be last minute venue changes.

We got frustrated by the disorganised manner in which these events were being delivered. We felt that a professional set up would encourage more people to attend these courses, which would help to instil confidence in the service they were getting.

Where can people find your courses, tours and books?

Everything can be found on our website. All of our courses are now online although I do miss running our face to face classes. We sell our products through our online shop.  

If people like what we do and what to support us, they can donate via the website as well.

I know people are not interested in travelling at this time, but we do organise tours and details for those can also be found on the website. All tours have been pushed back until 2021 given the situation surrounding Covid-19.

What are your thoughts about black history especially the type that you cover on your courses being included on the school curriculum?

Everything that we teach can be taught on the current school curriculum. It comes down to what the schools want to teach. For example, if schools taught about Egyptian history, they would likely only cover ‘New Kingdom (mid – 17th Century BC)’ and not ‘Old Kingdom (5717 – 4430 BC)’ and ‘Middle Kingdom (3440 – 1674)’.

It is our opinion that the reason for this is that the New Kingdom part of this history is a lot more cosmopolitan and teachers can point to themselves in history and take some of that legacy for themselves.

“The scope is there to teach all these things in the current school curriculum, its what the schools choose to teach”

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The way we look at it at BHS is that rather than petition or lobby and make noise about teaching these things in our schools, there is nothing stopping us from teaching it ourselves. It’s a better use of our time and efforts.

So how long did it take you to build the customer base to make it a viable business for both you and your wife?

To be honest we are still building as there is always room for improvement. It took us 2 years to get established. Luckily for us, we had support from Lorna Campbell and Sonia Scully from PCS – Public & Commercial Services Union. The Public & Commercial Services Union allowed us to use their office space as part of their contribution to Black History Studies. This helped us to establish ourselves because we had a place where people could find us.

Do you have a certain age group that you target for your courses or are they age agnostic?

We focus on adult education therefore our core customers, on average are adults aged 22 – 45. We do deliver programs for children as well but this is not as frequent. Interestingly, we have also found that our classes are usually made up of 80% women. This seems to be the trend in everything we do. 

“Our classes are usually made up of 80% women”

Tell us about some of the challenges you faced while running your business

Surprisingly, one of the challenges we found was generating interest for the classes from the Black community. I think this is potentially due to false stigmatization of Black businesses in the past.

Everyone is welcome to our events and we do not target a specific demographic because we believe that everyone should know this information. However, it was difficult at first to get support and trust from the Black community. For example, people would ask if our courses were approved and accredited by authorities before signing up.

What advice would you give to future entrepreneurs?

The only advice I would give anyone wanting to set up their own business is to:

  1. Make sure that you research the market
  2. Do it for the right reason
  3. Put 100% into what you are doing, otherwise it will fail

Thanks so much for your time Mark. If you have enjoyed this story, share it with everyone and subscribe to our weekly newsletter!