Social Justice

Black History Month: 12 forgotten Black heroes who defined and redefined modern Britain

For Black History Month, Patrick Vernon offers 12 Black Britons from history who deserve our attention

The statue of Mary Seacole outside St Thomas's Hospital in London is the first statue of a named Black woman in Britain. Image:

The role of Black men and women in the United Kingdom is often overlooked in the history books. As recently as 2001, the BBC commissioned a poll of the greatest Briton ever, spawning a television series and the votes of more than 1.5 million people for the final list of 100. There was not one Black or Asian face among them.

The arrival of people from the Caribbean to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948 has been mythologised as the defining moment that changed Britain from an exclusively white population into a racially diverse one; the beginning of a constant Black British presence in this country.

Yet there is substantial evidence of an African presence in Britain since the Roman period, and a constant presence since the sixteenth century, living far more integrated lives in British communities than previously understood.

Black History Month, from 1 October, has become an important event in the UK calendar to recognise the economic, cultural and political contributions of people of African heritage.

Patrick Vernon, who co-authored 2020’s 100 Great Black Britons with Angeline Osborne, picks out 12 Black Britons from his book who everyone should know about.

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Queen Charlotte – wife and consort of George III (1744–1818)

Jamaican American historian JA Rogers dedicated his life to challenging racist European and American scholarship which denied that people of African descent had a history worth writing about.

His books made the assertion that Charlotte Sophia Mecklenburg-Strelitz, queen consort of George III, had African ancestry. Rogers said this could be explained by the significant numbers of Black people in German nobility, “some of them with crowns and others as cardinals and bishops”, and as indicated in their coats of arms and family names such as Mohr and Moringer, derivatives of the word Moor.

Born in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a northern German duchy in the Holy Roman Empire, Charlotte married George III aged 17 and bore him 15 children, 13 of whom survived. The city of Charlotte in North Carolina is named after her, she is credited with founding Kew Gardens, and she won public affection for her loyalty and devotion to the king as he struggled with mental illness.

Historian and genealogist Mario de Valdes y Cocom thinks it’s probable that Charlotte had Black ancestors, given her connections to the Portuguese royal family. She was directly descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a fifteenth-century noblewoman nine generations removed, who traced her ancestry from the thirteenth-century King Alfonso III and his mistress Madragana, reported to be a Moor, a term used to describe people of African descent. 

John La Rose – poet, writer, publisher, political and cultural activist (1927–2006)

John La Rose was one of Britain’s leading Black British public intellectuals; Linton Kwesi Johnson called him the “elder statesman of Britain’s Black communities’”. For 40 years, through education, culture and politics, La Rose fought to change the world .

La Rose was born in Arima, Trinidad, the son of a teacher and cocoa trader, He was an executive member of the Youth Council of Trinidad and, by the age of 30, had helped found the Workers Freedom Movement and West Indian Independence Party.

He arrived in Britain in 1961, at a time when Black communities were beginning to organise politically in defence of their interests. In 1966 he founded New Beacon Books, the UK’s first specialist Caribbean publisher, bookseller and international book service, and co-founded the Caribbean Arts Movement, a forum for artists and writers living in England. Through talks, discussions, conferences, recitals and art exhibitions, the movement provided an opportunity to explore new directions in Caribbean arts and culture, and had a major impact on Caribbean cultural identity in Britain.

La Rose was a prime mover in the Black education movement of the 1960s and 1970s, campaigning against the practice of placing disproportionate numbers of Black children in schools for the educationally subnormal (ESN), and establishing the George Padmore supplementary school, the first of its kind. He was a co-founder of the Caribbean Education and Community Workers’ Association, which drew national attention to the ESN school crisis by publishing Bernard Coard’s influential and ground-breaking book How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Subnormal by the British School System.

In 1975, La Rose co-founded the Black Parents Movement after a Black schoolboy was assaulted by police outside his school in Haringey, with the aim of combating the brutalisation and criminalisation of young Blacks and campaigning for decent education. The Black Parents Movement’s alliance with the Race Today Collective and the Black Youth Movement put La Rose at the forefront of the most powerful cultural and political movement organised by Black people in Britain, which campaigned for better state education, against police oppression and supported the Black working-class struggle.

La Rose was chair of the George Padmore Institute, established in 1991 as an archive and library that could house materials relating to the Black community of Caribbean, African and Asian descent in Britain and Europe. Many talks and presentations were given at the institute, featuring prominent Black figures, postgraduate students and early career researchers. Often, they were presented and chaired by La Rose himself.

John La Rose saw culture as an essential tool to be put to use for enlightened engagement. He once said: “At the heart of my own experience is the struggle for cultural and social change in Britain, across Europe, and in the Caribbean, Africa and the Third World.”

Ira Aldridge – actor (1807-67)

Ira Aldridge was the first major Black Shakespearean actor in Europe, and one of the greatest actors of his day. No other performer travelled as widely, enacting the plays of Shakespeare throughout Europe and as far as Moscow, Kiev and St Petersburg. 

Aldridge’s life and career are remarkable in ways that today are still not fully appreciated. Of his own volition, he transcended the roles that, as a Black man, he would have been expected to play. He was the first Black man to play white roles in Shakespeare’s plays – roles that are considered the ultimate test for an actor – and performed bilingual productions when he toured Europe and Russia.

Aldridge was an African in a race-conscious society, who was not expected to attain excellence in artistic interpretation, but did. 

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Winifred Atwell – musician, entertainer, broadcaster (1914-83)

In the 1950s and 1960s, Winifred Atwell was known as ‘The Queen of the Ivories’, one of Britain’s most popular entertainers, with a string of boogie-woogie and ragtime hits. 

After studying with celebrated concert pianist and teacher Alexander Borovsky she gained a place at the Royal Academy of Music, London, where she was the first female pianist to be awarded the highest grade in musicianship. She went on to sell more than 20 million records, was the first artist to have three million-selling records, and; she had eleven top-ten hits in the UK singles charts between 1952 and 1960.

She was the first Black artist to have a number one hit, one of the first African Caribbeans to become a television star, and at the height of her fame her hands were insured for £40,000 as she made numerous television appearances with her own shows on BBC and ITV.

Although she became famous for playing popular music, classical music was her first love. The advent of rock and roll contributed to the decline of her popularity in Britain, but she remained extremely popular in Australia and undertook her first tour there in 1958. She eventually made Australia her home, where she died in 1983. 

John Blanke – trumpeter (16th century)

John Blanke’s presence in history is now quite well known but his life remains a mystery. His last name is an ironic joke, his first name an English one; did he have an African name? The documents tell us he was one of eight royal trumpeters who played at the funeral of Henry VII in May 1509 and at the coronation of Henry VIII in June that same year. In 1511 he played at the special tournament in Westminster to celebrate the birth of Henry’s first son.

While Blanke’s presence aligns with the trend for European royalty to employ Africans as musicians, entertainers and servants, Africans were not only living in Tudor England as immigrants. Many were born here, occupying positions varying from household servants to dignitaries for overseas territories. They lived and were baptised, married and buried here. Africans were locals, part of their communities, buried alongside white residents with their information duly recorded by officials in the same way.

The documents also suggest Blanke had agency – he petitioned the king to permit him to take the position of a deceased trumpeter and to double his wages from 8 to 16d per day. He complained his current wage was ‘not sufficient to mayntaigne to doo your grace lyke service as other your trompeters doo’, and asked that his ‘true and faithfull service’ be considered. 

He was the first African recorded to have his wages doubled; and when he married in 1512, Henry presented him with gifts: a gown of violet cloth, a bonnet and a hat. The glimpses into Blanke’s life are part of the fascinating stories of people of African descent; that he was one of many who made a life and a place for himself in 16th century England.

Betty Campbell MBE – community activist, headteacher (1934-2017)

Betty Campbell was a Welsh community activist and race education champion who put Black history in the Cardiff curriculum. 

In 1971, Bernard Coard’s polemical book How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System was published. Caribbean students were being mistreated and placed in educationally subnormal environments based on culturally biased IQ tests. Coard recommended that schools employed more Black teachers, that Black Studies should be taught in school to make the curriculum more inclusive, and that the ill treatment of Black pupils needed to be addressed by the local education authorities. 

Campbell made it her mission to develop a curriculum that included the histories of Black people, reflecting the diverse histories of the students of Mount Stuart Primary in Llanrumney, where she held her first teaching post. Inspired by the history of civil rights activism during a trip to the United States, particularly by the extraordinary life of the nineteenth-century abolitionist Harriet Tubman, she was determined to “enhance the Black spirit and Black culture as much as I could”.

A statue has been unveiled in honour of Betty Campbell, Wales’s first Black headteacher. Image: Cardiff Council

She introduced the history of the Caribbean, enslavement and its legacies to her pupils, and taught about the ways Black people contributed to British society. She ensured that subjects such as apartheid in South Africa were included in the curriculum. When it was suggested to her that it might be a difficult topic for children, she responded with “Go ask the Black kids in South Africa if it’s too difficult”.

Her school became a template for multicultural education, and as an expert on race in education Campbell was invited to be a member of the Home Office’s race advisory committee and the Commission of Racial Equality. Campbell also served as councillor for Butetown and advocated fiercely for its residents. She became known outside of her community as a leading academic and education specialist, and taught workshops on the history of Butetown’s diverse communities. Campbell’s commitment to care for her students through education inspired many of them to rise to achieve great things, proving many people wrong, as she had.

John Edmonstone – taxidermist (1793?-1833?)

Like all great scientists, Charles Darwin relied on sources of inspiration from people often overlooked and uncredited for their contribution. John Edmonstone, brought to Scotland as a slave from what is now Guyana, is one such individual, almost lost to history, who was hugely influential on Darwin’s thinking regarding the fixity of species.

John Edmonstone was ‘owned’ by the Scottish slave owner and wood merchant Charles Edmonstone, who had a timber-cutting estate at Mbiri Creek, on the west side of the Demerara River. In 1817, John accompanied Charles and his family back to Scotland and by 1823, he was living as a free man in Edinburgh, where records indicate he lived until at least 1833.

He earned his living stuffing birds, a skill he had picked up accompanying expeditions in Guyana, at the National Museum and teaching taxidermy to the university students. Charles Darwin, who was living with his brother Erasmus at 11 Lothian Street, came to Edinburgh to study medicine, which he hated, in 1825. More interested in the natural world, he hired John to give him lessons on bird taxidermy, paying him one guinea per lesson. 

Darwin had hours of conversations with John about Guyana and its tropical rainforests, plants and animals, firing his imagination and his growing interest in tropical regions. 

“I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man,” Darwin wrote to his sister.

In 1831, Darwin secured a position as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle on its voyage to chart the South American coastline. Tasked with investigating the geology of the region and making natural history collections, he undoubtedly utilised the techniques he learned from John Edmonstone when he preserved the Galápagos finches.

Edmonstone’s mentorship and teaching had a profound impact on Darwin and, in 2009, a small plaque was mounted on Lothian Street to commemorate John Edmonstone’s contribution.

Olaudah Equiano – abolitionist, writer (1745-97)

When Equiano wrote his Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, he presented the story of the life of a truly remarkable man. Published during the emergence of a national campaign to abolish the British slave trade, it provided British readers with an insight into slavery in the Americas, revealing the horrors of what was taking place on the plantations and on slave ships. The book helped shift public opinion on slavery and made Equiano the most famous and wealthiest Black man in Britain. 

The Narrative recounts the life of a man who was not meant to thrive or even survive at a time in history during which millions of Africans became victims of the largest-ever forced migration, made to toil on Caribbean plantations in order to help develop a culture of consumption in Europe with products such as sugar, rum, molasses, indigo and pimento. These commodities meant that by the mid-eighteenth century, slavery was an accepted part of the social and economic structures that sustained Britain and other European nations – the source of their wealth and power. 

Born in the Igbo kingdom of Benin (present-day Nigeria), Equiano spent most of his life at sea, giving him a unique position to witness how slavery functioned on different islands. He had become a committed abolitionist from the time of his manumission in 1766, anxious to return to England to begin his campaign against slavery and the slave trade. 

He became part of a growing Black community in London which historian James Walvin, noted “formed one branch in the Atlantic network for information, gossip and news from Africa, the slave ships and slave colonies”. 

Equiano led several Black delegations to Parliament to listen to the debates and the examination of witnesses. He drew on his experience and knowledge of enslavement to refute claims made by its defenders, which were widely published. 

Through the book he established himself as an African who spoke with authority on the subject of enslavement, as well as a Briton, and showed that the two identities could exist within the same person. In the telling of his life, readers, from the eighteenth century to the present, are introduced to a remarkable person who made a major contribution to the abolitionist cause.

Claudia Jones – radical intellectual, journalist, activist, communist, feminist (1915-64) 

Claudia Jones is credited with being one of the most important Black radical thinkers, activists and organisers in African diasporic history. 

In Britain, she committed herself to campaigning on behalf of the Caribbean community: she used journalism as community activism by establishing the West Indian Gazette, Britain’s first Black newspaper, giving form to the Black British community’s political voice; and by founding the London Carnival, forerunner to the Notting Hill Carnival, which tackled racial hatred through cultural expression and celebration.

Arriving in London in December 1955, Claudia Jones gave a succinct summary of the main reasons for her deportation: I was deported from the USA because, as a Negro woman Communist of West Indian descent, I was a thorn in [the government’s] side in my opposition to Jim Crow racist discrimination against sixteen million Negro Americans in the United States . . . for my work to redress these grievances, for unity for Negro and white workers, for women’s rights and my general political activity.

Claudia Jones was a stalwart campaigner for the rights of Black people in the UK and founder of what became the Notting Hill Carnival. Image: Graham Tiller/Flickr

After Jones arrived in London, she became acutely aware of the poverty, alienation and discrimination that Caribbean immigrants were experiencing. Almost immediately after her arrival, Claudia Jones began organising the London Caribbean community; one of the major tools of mobilisation was the West Indian Gazette, which she founded in 1957 and launched in March 1958. 

Jones conceived the idea of a carnival as a way to heal the community through its common African ancestry. She envisaged it as being held indoors, and in January 1959 it took place in St Pancras Town Hall, London, and was televised by the BBC. Subsequent carnivals were held in various halls until 1966, when it became an outdoor event. 

Claudia Jones’s death at the age of forty-nine ripped a hole in the fabric of Caribbean society. In the eight years she lived in England she had her finger on the pulse of British society, using her remarkable gifts to create unity and strength within the early Black British communities.

Dr Harold Moody – physician and activist (1882-1947)

Life for Black and Asian Britons in the early 20th century was profoundly affected by racial discrimination. They found it tough to obtain decent jobs and accommodation, and were prevented from participating in many aspects of life, from fighting for British boxing titles, to joining the armed services, to serving in positions of authority. Racist legislation was enforced, people were refused entry in restaurants, hotels and public houses; racial politics was a prominent aspect of life in Britain that was nearly impossible to overcome.

It was within this context that Harold Moody, a Jamaican-born doctor living in Camberwell, south London, founded the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931 with the aim of improving conditions for Black people in Britain. 

Through his leadership of the league, Harold Moody became one of the most influential Black men in Britain. By 1943 the league was the most important organisation working for improved race relations in Britain, addressing racism in the armed forces and the Colonial Office. Moody had been instrumental in the setting up of two commissions: the Asquith, concerning the development of higher education in the colonies; and the Elliot, to consider the development of universities in West Africa. In all of his actions and campaigns, Moody was led by his strong belief that education was the key weapon to combat racism and the colour bar.

Mary Seacole – nurse, war heroine (1805-81)

Although Mary Seacole is celebrated today as a heroine of the Crimean War and a pioneering nurse and doctress, greatly admired in her lifetime for her service, immediately after her death in 1881 her name and exploits slipped from public memory. 

Approaching a century and a half after her death, though, she has achieved iconic status; her experiences make her an impressive woman in any century. In 2004, Seacole topped the poll as the Greatest Black Briton and, in 2016, a statue of her likeness was unveiled in front of St Thomas’ Hospital after many years of campaigning. The first statue of a named Black woman in Britain, it is a recognition of Seacole’s many contributions to medical advancement and as a nurse.

When Britain, France and Turkey declared war on Russia in 1854, many of the soldiers based in Jamaica were transferred to Europe. Seacole was excited to follow but, rejected because of the colour of her skin, she resolved to travel to the Crimea independently.

Mary Seacole’s bright personality lit up the war zone and brought comfort to the men under her care. What she had aimed to do by travelling to the Crimea was to be of some use to the soldiers and to discharge her strong sense of duty. Her interest was not in advancing hygiene in war zones, but to give comfort and solace, and to use her skills to heal the sick and injured. Mary Seacole was more than a nurse; she was an adventurer. She was celebrated by Punch magazine as ‘our own life-line for suffering soldiers’; she was both ahead of her time and made history on her own terms, and was literally a self-made woman.

Paul Stephenson OBE – civil rights campaigner, (b. 1937)

In 1963, Paul Stephenson forced the Bristol Omnibus Company to abandon its racist recruitment policy designed to exclude African Caribbeans from working as bus drivers or conductors. In so doing, he helped pave the way for Britain’s first race relations laws. The boycott marked the beginning of a lifetime of activism for Stephenson, who would challenge racist policies in all areas of life and dedicate his time to working to unify Black and white communities throughout the world.

In the 1940s and 1950s, a steady stream of Caribbeans arrived in Bristol; by 1963, six thousand Caribbean people lived there and new arrivals were subjected to racial discrimination, finding it difficult to find well-paid jobs, and were only able to find affordable homes in the heavily bombed areas of St Pauls and Easton. In this period, Bristol became a de facto segregated city, with whites closing ranks against Caribbeans.

Stephenson organised a boycott among the city’s Caribbean contingent against the city’s most powerful employer, the Bristol Omnibus Company, which prevented Caribbeans from working as drivers and conductors. 

The boycott heavily influenced the 1965 Race Relations Act, which was passed by the Labour government after meeting with Stephenson and his co-organisers. It forbade discrimination on the grounds of colour, race or national origins, and was expanded three years later to include both housing and employment. In 1976 the Act was amended to include direct and indirect discrimination. Harold Wilson himself conceded that without Paul’s efforts, it would have been difficult for the Labour government to introduce these law

Paul Stephenson has received many awards for his campaigning work in Bristol, including the Freedom of the City. In 2009 he was awarded the OBE for his services to equal opportunities, and in 2017 he was the recipient of the Pride of Britain Lifetime Achievement Award. 

This is an edited extract from 100 Great Black Britons by Patrick Vernon and Angelina Osborne, available now in paperback and hardback

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