This month sees the UK celebrate Black History Month. This year feels particularly poignant following the tragic events surrounding George Floyd in the US, resulting in the increased visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement across the globe.
Black History Month was first recognised in the country in 1987, thanks to the efforts of Akyaaba Addai-Sebo. This came over a decade after the US had first marked this event, with Black History Month also being celebrated across Canada, and more recently since 2014, Ireland.
Despite the great strides we have made, 2020 has sadly highlighted the many inequalities which still exist for black people today. Whilst this is a month-long celebration which gives rise to individuals who would often be otherwise understated, it is vital to remember the importance of these influential people all-year around.
Here are a few examples of important figures from UK black history.
Back in the Tudor era, John Blanke was a trumpeter for both Henry VII and Henry VIII. He struck up a good relationship with the latter, who offered him a promotion. While historical records do not present full details, he would have played a role in many royal ceremonies. It is not known what became of his life, as the last recorded trace of his life was a wedding gift he received from Henry VIII in 1512.
In 1773, Phillis Wheatley became the first African-American author of a poetry book, with her writing being published in London. She went on to achieve international success. Having spent most of her life being enslaved, she regularly spoke out against slavery at public events. Sadly, her life was cut short at 31, however her numerous poems continue to leave a great legacy behind.
During the 1800s, Mary Seacole cared for the ill and vulnerable. During the Crimean War, she self-funded a trip to the scene of the fighting, where she set up the ‘British Hotel’, to tend to wounded soldiers. She became referred to as ‘Mother Seacole’. Over time, her legacy had been lost, until 100 years after her death. In 2016, a statue was put up to recognise her achievements, and it can be found outside St Thomas’s Hospital at the London Southbank.
A multi-talented person whose career spanned poetry, writing plays, feminist activism, journalism and broadcasting. Una Marson became the BBC’s black female reporter between 1941 and 1946. She launched the radio programme, ‘Caribbean Voices’, which became a great platform for West Indian writers to showcase their creativity.
Claudia was born in Trinidad, and spent some time in New York before moving to London after the Second World War. In 1958, she founded the West Indian Gazette. During that summer, violent racial protests broke out in Notting Hill, so Claudia decided to balance this out by holding a festival to celebrate Caribbean culture. Initially, this celebration was known as ‘Claudia’s Caribbean Carnival’. It took place in 1959 took place at St Pancras Town Hall, and it was televised. It went on to become a yearly event, and as its popularity increased, the event started to be held outdoors in West London, and it has now become known as the Notting Hill carnival, which is still a prominent event today.
Frank Bailey is thought to have been the UK’s first black firefighter in 1955. Originally born in Guyana, he moved to the UK during the 1950s. He managed to prove himself despite having heard at a trade union conference that black men lacked the education or strength to become a fireman. He proved the critics completely wrong. He left his position 10 years later after he had been overlooked for promotion. He went on to become a social worker, and also a legal advisor.
In 1963, Roy Hackett helped to lead a boycott of buses in the city of Bristol, after he encountered a man who was in tears after he was not given the chance of a job interview because he was black. This incident spurred him on to lead people to boycott the city’s buses. In the end, thanks to Roy, the man had an interview with the bus company and he went on to work for them. After the incident, Roy continued his activism, and went onto found what would be the ‘St Paul’s Carnival.’
These are just a small selection of the many great people who have played a significant role among UK history. It is important that their stories, which have shaped this country, will always be remembered.