To mark Black History Month over the past few weeks, I’ve shared UK Black History blogs about some significant periods in British history, but it has struck me that calling them “Black History” blogs is a bit of a misnomer – it’s our shared history, and it’s important that we all understand it and how it continues to shape our society today.
The BHM planning team wanted to end Black History Month by highlighting and celebrating the achievements and contributions of the Black community in the UK. Throughout history, black people have made huge contributions to society in the fields of art, science, music, literature, politics, and many more – we have all benefited from the actions of the individuals mentioned in this blog and many thousands more.
I can only include a handful of individuals, so I’ve tried to focus on a selection of people who have been historically and socially prominent, and I’ve not covered the most recent history – so if you have a story or link about someone you think we should all know about, please comment on this blog and let’s open up the conversation to all.
Our schedule was inspired by the suggestions made by colleagues in the recent survey we completed on BHM, and has covered:
- UK black history – from Ancient Britain to the Transatlantic Slave Trade
- UK black history – World War I and World War II
- UK black history – the Windrush generation
- Prominent people in UK black history
Prominent People in UK Black History
Visit the blogs on World War One and World War Two, the Windrush Generation (both linked above), and the Health Service to read more about the contributions of people of African and Caribbean descent in the UK. You can also click on the names below to find out more.
Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (1705 –1775), also known as James Albert, was born in Bornu (now north-eastern Nigeria) – he claimed to be the grandson of the King of Zaara. At the age of 15 he was enslaved, ultimately being sold to a Calvinist minister in New Jersey. He was taught to read, and was freed in the minister’s will. He travelled to the Caribbean where he later enlisted as a soldier in the British Army, and on his discharge he sailed to England where he married a White English woman. Gronniosaw is considered the first published African in Britain, and is known for his 1772 autobiography ‘A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself’, which was also the first slave narrative published in England.
Ignatius Sancho (1729 – 1780) (left) was an eighteenth-century writer, composer, shopkeeper, and abolitionist, who was celebrated as a ‘man of letters’ and a social reformer. He is said to have been born in the Middle Passage (the forced voyage of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the West Indies), and grew up an orphan as it is said that his mother died not long after his birth, and his father completed suicide rather than live in enslavement. At the age of two, Sancho was taken to London and given to three sisters in Greenwich. He met John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu, who encouraged his education and gave him books to read, and after the duke’s death Sancho ran away and persuaded the duke’s widow to employ him. While working for the Montagues, Sancho educated himself and read widely, and established a wide network of correspondents – including the novelist Laurence Sterne, to whom he sent a letter to encourage him to throw his power behind the emerging abolitionist cause. Sancho also wrote letters to the editors of newspapers, advocating for the cessation of the slave trade – these letters vividly illustrated the trade’s inhumanity for a broad audience, largely people who had never read words written by a black person. At Mary Montagu’s death in 1751, Sancho received an annual income of £30 and a year’s salary. After Sancho left the Montagu household in 1773, he opened a grocery store in Westminster with his wife Annie Osborne, and he became a well-known cultural figure with an active social and literary life until his death in 1780. He was the first person of African descent to vote in a British general election (qualifying as a property owner), and was the first known person of African descent to have an obituary published in British newspapers. ‘The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho’ was published two years after his death, and is one of the earliest accounts of African slavery written in English by a former enslaved person. Sancho’s letters paint a vivid picture of what life was like in the eighteenth century, noting that despite being in Britain since the age of two he felt he was “only a lodger, and hardly that”, and recounting instances of being followed, stared at, and insulted.
Julius Soubise (1754 – 1798) (left) was a freed Afro-Caribbean slave who became a well-known fop in late eighteenth-century Britain. He was born on St. Kitts island, the son of a Jamaican slave woman, and was brought to England as a slave at the age of ten under the name of Othello. Soubise was given to the Duchess of Queensberry who manumitted (freed) him, and gave him a privileged life, treating him as if he were her own son. His life of luxury as a free Black man allowed him to excel in elite activities such as fencing, and made him notorious in London’s social scene as an exception to norms. He became socially prominent enough to become the subject of several caricatures, most notably as the muse for A Mungo Macaroni in 1772.
Francis Barber (1742 – 1801) (right) was Dr. Samuel Johnson’s servant, who upon Johnson’s death in 1784 was made his residual heir. Barber was born a slave in Jamaica on a sugarcane plantation, and was brought to England by his owner, Colonel Richard Bathhurst, and was sent to Johnson as a valet two weeks after the death of Johnson’s wife. In the eighteenth century, England was rife with pro-slavery propaganda and it was a hostile place for Black people; however, we know Johnson to be an outspoken opponent of slavery who believed in the uniformity of human nature. In Johnson’s will, Barber was bequeathed £70 a year along with Johnson’s books, papers, and a gold watch. In line with Johnson’s wishes, Barber moved from London to Staffordshire, where he opened a draper’s shop and married a local White woman.
In Olaudah Equiano’s (1745 – 1797) (left) autobiography, he wrote that he was born in what is today southern Nigeria, and was enslaved as a child and taken to the Caribbean and then Virginia in the USA where he was sold as a slave to a Royal Navy Officer. He was later sold to a ship’s captain in London, and then to a merchant in Montserrat. He earned enough money trading on the side to purchase his own freedom in 1766. As a freedman later living in London, he was a prominent figure in the British abolitionist movement, and was part of the Sons of Africa, a group in Britain that campaigned to end African chattel slavery (where an enslaved person is legally rendered the personal property of the slave owner) and is often referred to as Britain’s first Black political organisation. Equiano published his autobiography, ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’, in 1789. It is one of the earliest books published in the UK by a Black African writer, and became immensely popular, helping to gain passage of the British Slave Trade Act 1807 which prohibited the slave trade in the British Empire.
Joseph Antonio Emidy (1775 –1835) (right) was a Guinean-born British musician who was sold into slavery by Portuguese traders as a child. He was later freed and lived in Portugal where he became a virtuoso violinist in the Lisbon Opera. He was press-ganged during the Napoleonic Wars, and served as a ship’s fiddler in the Royal Navy. Following his discharge in Cornwall he worked as a violinist and teacher, becoming the leader of the Truro Philharmonic Orchestra and one of the most celebrated and influential musical figures in early nineteenth century Cornwall.
Mary Prince (1788 – after 1833) (left) was born in Bermuda to an enslaved family of African descent. She was sold several times (you can read about her early life on her Wikipedia page – it is a story of severe mistreatment), and eventually was moved away from her husband (who was a freed man) by the Wood family to London in 1828, where despite the 1807 legislation abolishing the slave trade, slavery itself was still legal. She experienced repeated conflict with the family, and eventually was given a letter that nominally gave her the right to leave, but suggested that no one should hire her. Prince started working occasionally for Thomas Pringle, an abolitionist writer, who tried to arrange to have Wood manumit (free from enslavement) Mary Prince. Wood’s refusal meant that as long as slavery remained legal in Antigua, Prince could not return to her husband and friends without being re-enslaved and submitting to Wood’s power. With the help of Pringle and Susanna Strickland, Prince’s slave narrative ‘The History of Mary Prince’ (1831) became the first account of the life of a Black woman to be published in the UK. The book’s first-hand description of the brutalities of enslavement had a significant impact and it became a key part of the anti-slavery campaign. Mary Prince was also the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to Parliament. Prince’s life after the book was published is not much known, and it is not clear if she achieved her wish to return to Antigua and her husband after the abolition of West Indian slavery.
Fanny Eaton (1835 – 1924) (right) was born in Jamaica. Her mother was a woman of African descent who may have been born into slavery, and her father was not recorded on her birth records, suggesting she may have been illegitimate. She moved to England in the 1840s, and by 1851 was working as a domestic servant. She began modelling for the Pre-Raphaelite artists to augment her salary (she had 10 children to look after!), and her impact was significant at a time of rigid beauty standards and intense racial prejudices. Her appearance in paintings and Pre-Raphaelite art focused attention onto the “Other” in Victorian society, challenging societal expectations of Black women – Victorian art typically portrayed Black people as decorative figures and they were rarely seen as models of idealised beauty.
Andrew Watson (1856 –1921) (left) was the son of a wealthy Scottish sugar planter Peter Watson and a local British Guianese woman called Hannah Rose. After coming to Britain with his father as a child he studied at the University of Glasgow. He played football for local side Parkgrove, where he was the match secretary, making him the first Black administrator in football. In 1880 he signed for Queen’s Park, then Britain’s largest football team, which he led to several Scottish Cup wins, becoming the first Black player to win a major competition. He is widely considered to be the world’s first Black person to play association football at international level, playing three matches for Scotland between 1881 and 1882. In 1882 he became the first Black player to play in the English Cup when he turned out for Swifts. He went on to become Britain’s first professional Black football player, as the star signing for Merseyside club Bootle in 1887.
John Archer (1863 – 1932) (right) was born in Liverpool and was of dual heritage, with a Barbadian father and Irish mother. He worked as a seaman before he settled in Battersea where he became involved in local politics and was a political activist. He became a local Councillor in 1906, and in 1913 was elected the first Black mayor in London. He later became a notable Pan-Africanist and was the founding president of the African Progress Union.
Harold Moody (1882 – 1947) (left) was born in Jamaica, and moved to the UK to study medicine at King’s College London. He qualified in 1910, finishing top of his class, but was refused work because of the colour of his skin. He started his own medical practice in Peckham in 1913. He campaigned against racial prejudice, and in 1931 formed and became president of the League of Coloured Peoples, which worked for racial equality and civil rights in Britain and across the world. He is credited with overturning the Special Restriction Order (or Coloured Seamen’s Act) of 1925, a discriminatory measure that sought to provide subsidies to merchant shipping employing only British nationals and required alien seamen, many of whom had served the UK during WW1, to register with their local police. Moody was also very involved in organising the local community during World War Two, and was the first doctor on the scene of a bombing in South London, saving many lives.
Evelyn Dove (1902 – 1987) (right) was of Sierra Leone Creole and English parentage, and became the first Black singer on BBC radio. She was a student at the Royal Academy of Music where she performed with some of the world’s top Black entertainers, and went on to become a singing and acting star of the 1920s. She became a member of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, a band composed of British West Indian and West African and American musicians who were popularising black music on the UK club scene. Dove took part in revues across Europe and the US, and became famous all over the world at a time when Black female performers would struggle to get the same recognition as White entertainers because of racial prejudices. Her broadcasting work with the BBC during World War Two made her one of radio’s most popular singers.
Una Marson (1905 – 1965) (left) was born in Jamaica. She first travelled to London in 1932, staying at the home of Harold Moody who had recently founded The League of Coloured Peoples. She wrote poetry and about politics for magazines and newspapers, advocating feminism, and published her own literary works. She met racism and sexism in London that motivated her to focus on the identity of Black women, as well as the broader issues faced by Black people, in England. In 1941, she was the first Black woman to be hired by the BBC, working for the BBC Empire Service on the programme Calling the West Indies (for which she later became the producer), in which World War Two soldiers would have their messages read on the radio to their families. She turned the programme into Caribbean Voices, as a forum in which Caribbean literary work was read over the radio. The programme was a catalyst for Caribbean creative writing in English, and helped to influence later Caribbean poetry to take a more spoken form.
Charlie Williams, MBE (1927 – 2006) (right) was born in Yorkshire. His father had come to Britain from Barbados in 1914 to enlist in the Royal Engineers. He was one of the first Black players in British football after World War Two, and following his retirement from football in 1959 he became a stand-up comedian. He eventually became Britain’s first well-known Black television comedian after coming to prominence from 1971, when he began appearing very regularly on The Comedians.
Clive Sullivan (1943 – 1985) (left) was a Welsh rugby union and professional Rugby League World Cup winning player. He was the first black captain of the Great Britain Lions and for any national British sporting side. He made his debut for Great Britain in 1967, represented the country 17 times, and appeared at three World Cups, playing for Great Britain Lions in 1968 and 1972 and Wales in 1975.
Margaret Busby OBE, (1944 – ) (right) was born in the Gold Coast (now Ghana). While she was at university at Bedford College, she met her future business partner Clive Allison, with whom she set up the publishing company Allison and Busby in 1967. This made her the then-youngest publisher as well as the first African woman book publisher in the UK. Busby is a prolific publisher, writer, journalist, and broadcaster. She is also a prominent literary activist, and has worked continuously for diversity within the publishing industry, including being a founding member in the 1980s of the organisation Great Access to Publishing, which engaged in campaigns for increased Black representation in British publishing.
Joan Armatrading, CBE (1950 – ) (left) was born in St. Kitts, and moved to join her family in Birmingham in England when she was seven years old. She taught herself to play the guitar, performed her first concert at Birmingham University at the age of 16, and started performing her own songs in local clubs. Her recording career has spanned nearly 50 years, during which time she was the first ever female UK artist to be nominated for a Grammy in the blues category (going on to be nominated three times), and in the 1970s she became the first Black British singer-songwriter to enjoy great success abroad. In 2007 she became the first female UK artist to debut at number 1 in the US Billboards blues chart. She received an Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Song Collection in 1996. She was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2001 Birthday Honours and Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2020 Birthday Honours for services to music, charity, and equal rights.
Olive Morris (1952 – 1979) (right) was born in Jamaica, and emigrated to England with her family when she was nine as part of the Windrush generation. Morris became a community leader and activist in the feminist, Black nationalist, and squatters’ rights campaigns in the 1970s. When she was 17, the Nigerian diplomat Clement Gomwalk was confronted by police when parked outside the first Black record shop in Brixton – the police did not believe him when he said he was a diplomat, and he was accused of stealing his Mercedes car. Under the ‘sus law’ (suspected person), he was dragged out of his car and interrogated and beaten. Morris came forward and physically tried to stop the police, causing the police to turn on her, arrest her, and assault her, kicking her in the chest – she was fined and given a suspended sentence. In the early 70s, Morris became a member of the youth section of the British Black Panther Movement, and in 1974 she co-founded the Brixton Black Women’s Group. She was also a founding member of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) in London, which along with the Brixton Black Women’s Group was the first organisation for black women in the United Kingdom. She died at the age of 27 after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Tessa Sanderson, CBE (1956 – ) (left) was born in Jamaica and is of Ghanaian ancestry. She moved to England with her family at the age of six. She was encouraged to become an athlete by her high school PE teacher, and went on to become a six-time Olympian in the javelin from 1976 to 1996. Sanderson set a new Olympic record with her javelin throw in the 1984 Summer Olympics, and became the first Black British woman to win an Olympic gold – and Britain’s first modern Olympic winner in a throwing event since it was instigated in 1896. In 1996, she became the second track and field athlete to compete at six Olympics.
The internet is not short of lists of Great Black Britons, so if this blog has piqued your interest you can find a wealth of interesting information with the help of Google. If you fancy falling down a rabbit hole, Wikipedia has a number of collections of prominent people which you can find here:
- Black British writers
- Black British artists
- Black British female actors
- Black British male actors
- Black British television personalities
- Black British politicians
- Black British sportspeople
I hope you’ve found this blog interesting – I look forward to reading about other individuals’ contributions, if you’d like to share about anyone you find inspiring!