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Black History Month: 8 of the most influential Black British historical figures

From left to right: Bishop Wilfred Wood, Mary Seacole, Sade Adu. These are just a few of many Black British historical figures who have made a huge impact on the UK. (Getty Images)
From left to right: Bishop Wilfred Wood, Mary Seacole, Sade Adu. These are just a few of many Black British historical figures who have made a huge impact on the UK. (Getty Images)

Black History Month is an important time for the UK to celebrate the contributions of Black Britons to the country’s progress and development, and reflect on the various forms of discrimination Black communities have faced and continue to deal with today.

The very first Black History Month was celebrated in the UK in October 1987, and was then recognised as the African Jubilee. It was organised by Ghanaian activist and journalist Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, who served as a coordinator of special projects for the Greater London Council, in order to acknowledge the 150th anniversary of Caribbean freedom and the 100th birthday of Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey.

Since then, Black History Month has been observed every year with a series of events, discussions, movements and celebrations that take place across the country. This year, the theme revolves around honouring Black women who “have been at the heart of social justice movements throughout history”.

But recent research has shown that more than half of Britons cannot name a single Black British historical figure, revealing “shockingly little” knowledge about Black British history among the general UK public.

The survey, commissioned by Bloomsbury Publishing (UK), found that 75% of British adults surveyed admitted they did not know “very much” or “anything at all” about Black British history. Meanwhile, only 7% of those surveyed could name more than four historical figures.

We take a look at some of the most important Black British historical figures, and why their existence has made such a difference in the UK.


Mary Seacole

Mary Jane Seacole (1805-1881), was Jamaican-born and of Scottish and Creole descent. Seacole set up what she called the 'British Hotel' behind the lines during the Crimean War, from where she provided support for wounded servicemen on the battlefield.  She was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991 and in 2004 she was voted the greatest Black Briton. This is a contemporary painting. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)
Mary Jane Seacole (1805-1881), was Jamaican-born and of Scottish and Creole descent. This is a contemporary painting. (Getty Images)

Mary Seacole, who lived from 1805 to 1881, was a British-Jamaican nurse whose mother was Black Jamaican and father was white Scottish army officer James Grant. She is best known for her work during the Crimean War, when she established the British Hotel to provide respite for sick and recovering soldiers.


Ottobah Cugoano

Ottobah Cugoano, also known as John Stewart, was the first African to demand total abolition. He himself had been sold into slavery at the age of 13, before being purchased by an English merchant who brought him to England, where he was later freed. He became one of the important leaders of London’s Black community and demanded the immediate abolition of the slave trade and emancipation for all slaves, as well as punishments for slave owners.


Bishop Wilfred Wood

The Rt Revd Wilfred Wood, newly appointed Bishop of Croydon, 1st May 1985. Wood is the first black bishop in the Church of England. (Photo by Len Trievnor/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Rt Revd Wilfred Wood became the first black bishop in the Church of England in 1985. (Getty Images)

Wilfred Wood, 87, became the first Black bishop in the Church of England in 1985 when he became a Bishop of Croydon. He was appointed a Knight of St Andrew by the late Queen Elizabeth II for “his contribution to race relations in the United Kingdom and general contribution to the welfare of Barbadians living there”.


Dame Jocelyn Barrow

JOCELYN BARROW, DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF THE BROADCASTING STANDARDS COUNCIL GOES TO BUCKINGHAM PALACE TO BE  INVESTED AS A DAME. JOCELYN IS THE FIRST BLACK WOMAN LIVING IN GREAT BRITAIN TO BE CREATED A DAME.   (Photo by John Giles - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
Jocelyn Barrow became the first Black woman in Britain to be made a Dame. (Getty Images)

The British educationalist and community activist was the first Black woman to be a governor of the BBC. Dame Jocelyn Barrow was also a pioneer in the Windrush generation, which refers to the mass migration of people from Caribbean countries to the UK between 1948 and 1971. She became the first Black woman to be honoured with the title of Dame in 1992.


Sade

Sade Adu performs on-stage in an all-black ensemble
Sade, also known as Sade Adu, is one of the most successful British female artists in history. (Getty Images)

Helen Folasafe Adu, known as the singer Sade, is Nigerian-born British and one of the most successful British female artists in history. The 64-year-old’s huge influence on the music industry led her to be recognised with the Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2002 and she was made Commander in the 2017 Birthday Honours.


Margaret Busby

Margaret Busby CBE, wearing a boldly patterned green and black collared dress, smiles as she attends the official winners ceremony of the International Booker Prize 2023 at the Sky Garden in London, United Kingdom
Margaret Busby CBE was Britain’s youngest and first Black woman book publisher. (Getty Images)

Margaret Busby was born in Ghana in 1944, making her 79 years old today. She is known for becoming Britain’s youngest and first Black woman book publisher in 1967 when she co-founded Allison & Busby with Clive Allison.


Dr John Anthony Roberts QC

Sierra Leone-born Lawyer Dr John Anthony Roberts QC, Recorder of the Crown Court, London, 28th January 1997. (Photo by Donald Maclellan/Getty Images)
Sierra Leone-born Lawyer Dr John Anthony Roberts QC, Recorder of the Crown Court. (Getty Images)

Born in Sierra Leone in 1928 to a Brazilian father and a mother descended from liberated slaves who returned to Africa after the slave trade came to an end, Dr John Anthony Roberts QC was the first person of African descent to be made QC. He was also first Recorder of the Crown Court in England and Wales.


Sir Learie Constantine

West Indian cricketer and politician Learie Constantine sits in an armchair with documents in front of him
West Indian cricketer and politician Learie Constantine became UK’s first Black peer. (Getty Images)

Learie Constantine, who lived from 1901 to 1971, was originally from Trinidad. He was a cricketer, and later served as Trinidad and Tobago’s High Commissioner to the UK and later became the UK’s first Black peer. He was also influential in the passing of the 1965 Race Relations Act, the first legislation in the UK to address racial discrimination.


Read more about Black History Month: