Black people that transformed Britain throughout history

Black History Month allows us to increase the awareness of and celebrate the achievements of black people both past and present. Here are a number of significant black people who have been pivotal in helping society learn about and understand the black experience in Britain.

Olive Morris

1952 - 1979

Olive Morris was born in Jamaica and moved to London at nine years old. She grew up to become a fierce political activist, not only fighting against racism, but also taking a stand against sexism, demonstrating strength and resilience despite the racial abuse and physical assault she endured from the police. She opposed the ‘sus’ laws (the laws that allowed police officers to stop and search people on mere suspicion that they planned to commit a crime), and her activism also extended into creating community among marginalised women; she co-founded the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent in 1978. She died from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma at only 27, and despite her short life, her legacy and impact lives on.

Zadie Smith

1975 – today

My first encounter with Zadie Smith was when I read NW, her 2012 novel. She paints a vibrant portrait of contemporary multicultural London, and brings issues of everyday racism and clashes of culture to the forefront of the British literary scene. Her honesty in her novels and essays and her willingness to tackle heavy issues makes her writing engaging and provocative, inviting conversation and enabling readers to endeavour to understand cultures that they may not know much about. Everyone should try to pick up a copy of one of her books!

William Cuffay

1788 – 1870

On the political side of things we have William Cuffay, who was the grandson of a slave. Cuffay was an active participant in the Chartist movement, which aimed to gain political rights for the working class. What makes Cuffay so phenomenal is that he rose to become a Chartist leader in Victorian society (despite being lampooned in the media) and was a strong driving force in the movement. Cuffay was eventually arrested and sentenced to transportation for life for ‘levying war on the queen’, and he lived out the rest of his days in Tasmania, where he remained popular with the working classes and still gave stirring speeches on the importance of Chartism.

Mary Seacole

1805 - 1881

Voted the greatest black Briton in 2004, Mary Seacole is now celebrated as a woman who contested racism and brought medical comfort to many in the Crimean War, after being forgotten by history for nearly a century. She learned about herbal medicine in the Caribbean, acquiring nursing skills and an understanding of the Creole medical tradition from her mother. Despite her expertise, the War Office refused her offer to help the sick and wounded in the Crimean War. Rather than accept this, Mary Seacole undertook the journey to the Crimea at her own expense, becoming an independent nurse and setting up the British Hotel behind the battle lines. She was a familiar presence who brought medical comfort to the maimed and dying during the war. Her grave at Kensal Green Roman Catholic cemetery honours her ‘care for the sick and wounded in the West Indies, Panama and on the battlefields of the Crimea’.

Neil Kenlock

1950 – today

Neil Kenlock is a Jamaican-born photographer who specialises in fashion, celebrities, and cultural lifestyles of black people in the UK. His work documents a key chapter in London’s post-war life, and helped people to better understand the story of London’s black communities and to appreciate the huge artistic and cultural impact that they have. Kenlock is a notable figure as he was at the forefront of visually documenting the black experience in the UK. He became co-founder of Choice FM in 1979, UK’s first radio station broadcasting to the black community. Most recently in August 2018, in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Empire Windrush, the Black Cultural Archives showed 70 of Kenlock’s photographs in the exhibition Expectations: The Untold Story of Black Community Leaders, curated by his daughter Emelia Kenlock. His website contains images of some of his work, especially his photographs following the British Black Panther movement – have a look!

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