Black people have played a pivotal role in British history for centuries. However, their achievements are seldom celebrated and often completely overlooked.
Black History Month aims to increase the visibility of these important figures and recognise and celebrate their contributions.
So let’s take a look at five inspirational Black men and women whose work has helped shape British history.
Charles R. Drew (1904-50)
Surgeon Charles R. Drew was known as “the Father of Blood Banking” due to his pioneering work in transfusion medicine. During a fellowship at Columbia University, he discovered that if you separated blood from plasma, the plasma could be dried, stored and reconstituted at a later date.
This discovery proved vital during the Second World War, when Charles led the special medical effort ‘Blood for Britain’ which saw thousands of pints of blood shipped overseas for British soldiers. His work didn’t stop here and in 1941, Charles was appointed Assistant Director of a national blood bank system for the American Red Cross, as the U.S entered the war.
Charles continued to work in medicine for the rest of his life, mentoring medical students and advocating for the inclusion of Black people in medicine. His work saved many lives and significantly advanced the capabilities of modern medicine.
Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)
Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa in 1753 but was sold to an American family (the Wheatley’s of Boston) in 1761. Whilst technically a slave, Phillis was in some ways treated as a member of the family and was taught to read and write, and it soon became clear that she had a natural knack for literature.
By 1772, she had a collection of 28 poems and sought to get them published. Unable to attract 300 subscribers (a standard requirement for publication) in the U.S. she came to Britain, and her first poetry anthology ‘Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral’ was published in 1773.
This made Phillis the first Black woman to be published in Britain and served as evidence that Black people were more than capable of being both intellectual and artistic, which, in turn, added momentum to the abolitionist movement of the time.
Mary Seacole (1805-1881)
Nurse Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica to a Black woman and Scottish army officer. She travelled to Britain in 1864 upon hearing of the plight faced by British soldiers fighting in the Crimean War.
Mary pleaded with the army office to send her to the front, but she was refused, due to her colour. Not one to be held back by adversity, she raised the funds herself and travelled to the Crimean Peninsula, where she set up the British Hotel. Here, she nursed British soldiers and provided them with essential supplies such as food and medicine. She even treated soldiers on the battlefield and became known as “Mother Seacole”.
Like many Black figures from history, Mary’s work was largely forgotten following her death. However, various campaigns have led to a resurgence of interest in her life and today, she’s rightly recognised as one of the most important figures in Black British history.
Paul Stephenson (1937-)
Civil rights activist Paul Stephenson has spent his life fighting racial injustice. In 1963, he organised a four month bus boycott, in response to the Bristol Omnibus Company’s refusal to hire Black or Asian drivers. On 28 August 1963, the same day as Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, the bus company announced that it would overturn its colour bar.
In 1964, Paul declined to leave a pub where he was refused service due to his colour. He was arrested and taken to court where he was found innocent. The case attracted national interest and the Prime Minister Harold Wilson promised Paul that he would change the law, with the Race Relations Act being introduced the following year, which made racism illegal in public places.
In 2009, Paul was awarded an OBE for his services to equal opportunities and community relations in Bristol. His work has helped to progress the fight against racism in Britain and demonstrates the power and importance of standing up for what is right, no matter how big or small an issue might seem.
Diane Abbott (1953-)
Labour MP Diane Abbott has enjoyed a long history in politics, starting out as a councillor for Westminster City Council in 1982. However, it was in 1987 when she made history, becoming the first Black woman to be elected as an MP.
During her time in Parliament she’s held various prominent positions within her party, most recently, Shadow Home Secretary. And she’s used her platform to promote race equality too, for example, she founded the London Schools and the Black Child Initiative, which aims to raise the educational achievement levels of Black children.
Diane is a shining example of someone who, despite humble beginnings, has worked relentlessly to achieve success, breaking through the glass ceiling and helping pave the road into politics for other women of colour.