October, as well as being the beginning of Autumn and the time for all things pumpkinny is also White History Month in the UK! That one month in the year when a dedicated attempt is made to go searching through the annals of history to try to uncover the hidden stories of figures such as Horatio Nelson, a little-known English flag officer or Florence Nightingale, a nurse during the Crimean war who…
Of course, you have already heard of them. No school history textbook is complete without mentioning them. They don’t get a month to be remembered or discovered, they are history. Yet, this is not the case for many figures who have had an impact on history and who also happen to be black.
It wasn’t until 1926, in the United States that Black History was recognized at all. They got a week. It was all down to the promotional efforts of historian Carter G Woodson, who was motivated by the notion that eventually the week could turn into something that was celebrated annually. He got his wish, and it became a full month. The United Kingdom did not have a Black History Month until October of 1987. I’ll let that time lapse sink in. Before this time, history showed no record of any significant input by people of color in the UK. It was literally as though black people were in the background of everything or perhaps weren’t even there at all.
My family are from West Africa and so I know a lot of the history of the countries there. I know the stories of the warrior queen Amina of Zaria, the legends of the Kings of Dahomey with their elite female only combat units (Black Panther took it from somewhere!), the story of Funmilayo Ransome Kuti a feminist politician and academic and even my own grandmother, Captain Abiodun Emanuel who became a missionary at the age of 18 in 1925. But I can only imagine what it must have been like to have grown up in a country where no stories seemed to exist in history of people who looked like you, well at least not until 1987 and even then, it wasn’t information that was disseminated widely and encouraged in the education sector.
So, while I have you here, let me tell you some stories and perhaps we can redress the centuries of oversight, a tale at a time.
Ignatius Sancho — 1729-1780
Ignatius was born on a slave ship, his mother, a slave, did not survive and so he was brought to England by the man who had purchased him. He worked as a butler. Fortunately for him, his purchaser recognized his intelligence and progressively (for the time) invested in supporting Ignatius’ creativity. This opportunity enabled him to become a playwright. He also wrote poetry, music and went on to open a shop, a salon if you will, where other creative people of color could meet and express themselves.
Phillis Wheatley — 1753-1784
Phillis was born in West Africa, possibly Senegal or Gambia. As a young girl she was captured and transported on a slave ship to the US. The family who purchased her named her after the slave ship that brought her to their country. Unusually, for the time — it was actually illegal in some states — Phillis was taught to read and write. She wrote her first piece of poetry aged fourteen. When she was twenty, she and her son moved to the United Kingdom. There was strategy behind the move as she had written a book of poetry titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral which was refused publication in the US. The slave owner who purchased Phillis, John Wheatley, had actually gone to court in the States to defend the fact that she was the original writer of the work as it was not believed that a black woman could have the capacity to write with intelligence.
The publication of the book (done through the assistance of wealthy English benefactors, the Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth) was a gigantic breakthrough for black people. It called into question the narrative that black people were akin to animals or savages and incapable of any form of intellect. Phillis’ work gave birth to the genre of Afro-American literature.
Ira Aldridge — 1807-1867
Ira’s story is one I only came upon recently myself, a highly talented actor, originally from America he travelled to the United Kingdom at a time when it would have been impossible for him to perform freely in theatres in his own country. Slavery was abolished in the UK in the same year that Ira was born, not so in the United States.
He made his career on the London and European stages and was very successful, most notably for his Shakespearean performances. As a matter of fact, he is the only actor of African-American origin in the list of 33 actors honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The push towards the abolition of slavery in the USA was topical when Ira was at the peak of his career and so he would often use the stage as a platform to reinforce the anti-slavery message, so not only was he an excellent actor, winning multiple honors in Prussia and Russia, he was also an ardent activist.
Mary Seacole — 1805-1881
Mary Seacole arrived in the UK, from Jamaica where she was born and raised, in 1854. The Crimean War had begun a year previously and Mary, who had learned nursing and how to use traditional Jamaican medicine from her mother, requested to go and help the wounded soldiers. The War Office refused. Mary, therefore, used her business savvy and raised the funds to send herself to the front. Once there, she set up a nursing home for the wounded soldiers not too far removed from where the war was raging and was so driven in her calling to heal that she would risk trips to the battlefield to go and help the wounded.
Upon her return to Britain, she wrote and published an autobiography called Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. The book was successful at the time and Mary was recognized at the highest levels for her service but after she passed away history nearly discarded her.
I have shared the highlights of contributions a few black people made in British history, but it is important to remember that there were many more. History is only history if it is documented. Too many other stories will have been lost, forgotten or not even counted as worth remembering.
For my part, I think it critical that the stories that do exist should enter into the national curriculum along with the stories of all minority ethnic people who have had a part to play in shaping the story of the United Kingdom. It is to be hoped that in the future we won’t need a month to go looking for these stories or a month to focus on these figures. They will be known already, in the same way that we all know about Lord Admiral Nelson, in the same way that the name of Florence Nightingale is immediately synonymous with nursing. In this way all can feel that they have some joint equity in the heritage of the country. This in turn creates the opportunity for a more balanced and accepting society where cultural intelligence can flourish and become the norm rather than the exception.
WRITTEN BY ABBY BECKLEY
Abby is a well-traveled writer, currently based in Italy. She is a multilingual global citizen, who has experience in diversity and inclusion and cultural matters.
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