Welcome to our new blog series Tropic Takes on Racism.
In honour of Black History Month we’ll be looking at Black British icons throughout history, and exploring their fantastic contributions to British society.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t need a Black History Month, because we would all be celebrated equally. Instead, typically it’s more common for us to celebrate the achievements and historical contributions of white people than any other ethnic or racial group.
Black Africans have been present in Britain since Roman times and there has been a constant Black presence in Britain since the sixteenth century. For many generations of British people today, black history was merely a footnote in our history books, or omitted altogether, erasing the role of generations of Black people in shaping modern Britain.
That’s why the argument for a white history month is unjustified – we’re more than aware of white contributions to not only British history, but global history. It’s helpful for us to have specific days and months which focus on all of the rich variety of ethnic groups who live in Britain and beyond – groups who have historically been marginalised or oppressed – and their incredible historical contributions.
Mary Seacole was a pioneering nurse in the Crimean War. Mary was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805 to a Scottish soldier father and a Creole mother. In 1853, when war broke out in Crimea, she traveled to England to volunteer her services to Florence Nightingale. When she applied to the War Department in London to join, however, she was refused.
Undeterred, she traveled and set up her own hospital near the battlefield for sick and wounded officers called the ‘British Hotel’. She also attended the battlefield itself (under fire) to nurse the wounded, and became known as ‘Mother Seacole’. Her reputation ultimately rivaled that of Florence Nightingale’s.
After the war she returned to Britain, ill and in debt. The press ran a campaign to celebrate her contribution to the war effort and her plight.
Seacole died on 14 May 1881. In 2016, a memorial statue was unveiled of her opposite the Houses of Parliament. It was the UK’s first to honour a named black woman.
Tessa Sanderson is the first black British woman to have won an Olympic gold medal.
Born in 1956, she moved to Britain when she was nine years old. She quickly made Wolverhampton her home and joined a local sporting club. By the age of 16 she had already won her first javelin championship. By 1976 she had earned her spot in her first Olympics Games.
Tessa’s biggest moment came in 1984 when she won a gold medal for Great Britain at the Olympics in LA. Her groundbreaking achievement was also Great Britain’s first Olympic win in a throwing event ever!
Even as an established international athlete of many years, Tessa had still been working full time while training for the event that won her gold. Her fierce rival – Fatima Whitbread – who won silver at the Olympics, was paid more than 10 times what Tessa was by British Athletics.
Today Tessa campaigns for better representation on British sporting governing bodies.
“I think it’s a total disgrace that so many black sportsmen have achieved so much for this country and we’re still fighting to be in the boardroom. Why is that? I don’t understand that because we have the ability […] if you have the ability and you know what you’re doing, the opportunity should be there.” – Tessa Sanderson
Lilian Bader was one of the first black women to serve in Britain’s Armed Forces. Born in Liverpool in 1917, she worked briefly in the Navy and Army canteen in 1939, but was forced to leave because her father was born outside of the UK.
Two years later, an opportunity to join the army surfaced. She volunteered to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as an Instrument Repairer. She passed her course ‘First Class’, becoming one of the first women in the Air Force to qualify in that trade. Working long hours checking for faults in parts of the aircraft, she was promoted to Corporal and Leading Aircraftwoman.
By the end of the 20th century, three generations of her family had served in the British Armed Services.
“Father served in the First World War, his three children served in the Second World War. I married a coloured man who was in the Second World War, as was his brother who was decorated for bravery in Burma. Their father also served in the First World War. Our son was a helicopter pilot, he served in Northern Ireland. So all in all, I think we’ve given back more to this country more than we’ve received.” – Lilian Bader
Bristol bus station wouldn’t be somewhere you’d necessarily mark as a venue of historical significance in the UK. However, it was home to the nation’s first black-led campaign against racial discrimination, marking a new chapter in the struggle for racial equality in Bristol and the UK.
In the early 1960s the company that operated Bristols buses – the Bristol Omnibus Company – had a policy preventing non-white people from working as drivers and conductors.
In 1963, then 18-year old Guy Bailey (pictured above, centre) had a job interview with the company, assumed white on the basis of his Anglo name. The moment they realised he was black, he was denied any chance of a job.
At the time, this was entirely legal. A campaigning group emerged to oppose this discrimination. Owen Henry, Roy Hackett (pictured above, right), Audley Evans and Prince Brown, together with Paul Stephenson (pictured above, left), Britain’s Black Youth Officer, brought the company’s racist policy to public attention, urging a boycott until the discriminatory policy was overturned. Roy Hackett organised sit-in protests and blockades, preventing buses from getting through Bristol, with students and the local MP galvanising support.
On the 28th of August 1963, the same day Martin Luther King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, the Bristol Omnibus Company dropped its racist policy with Sikh graduate Raghbir Singh as Bristol’s first bus conductor of colour. The significance of this boycott paved the way for the UK’s crucial Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1968, making it illegal to discriminate based on race.
In this short video, the BBC explores the untold story of a black regiment in the First World War, who fought for Britian in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. 185 men from the British West Indies Regiment had been killed in action, and 1,071 had died of sickness.
The Imperial War Museum explains that “they had fought in a war that was not of their own making, yet played their part in the eventual defeat of Germany and its allies. But they had still faced discrimination for their colour.”
Tap here to watch A Forgotten Regiment – BBC Stories to learn more.
We’ve only scratched the surface of influential Black Britons. Here are some websites below if you’d like to read more about famous figures you may not have heard about.
These are all fantastic resources to read, during Black History Month and beyond.
All that matters is kindness and the capacity to recognise the existence of people other than you. – Zadie Smith