Can You Name Great Black Britons?

Can You Name Great Black Britons?

Jeremy Corbyn, in this first week of Black History Month, quoted the inimitable poet and writer Ben Okri, one of many great black Britons. Unfortunately, it seems the media and TV stations in the UK don’t seem to feel as proud as Jez is for there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of black historical programming in the listings. However, we thought we’d try and plug some of the gap. Below is a taster of how black people have put the GREAT into Britain over the past centuries. (Yes, that’s plural.). We’ll leave the rest for you to discover and pass on to your children.

While schools across the country do an admirable job basing many lessons this month on Black history, in general, we can, of course, start with the most famous, inspirational black men and women who have changed the face of this planet and will no doubt be recognised for it.

Nelson Mandela, leader of the South African anti-apartheid revolutionary. Martin Luther King, leader of the civil rights movement in the US. These brave men are standard. And, let’s not forget Jez’s other quote, the stunningly honest award-winning poet and writer of ‘I know Why The Caged Bird Sings’, Maya Angelou. This book has been on the school curriculum reading lists since we were in school. And should be read by everyone, at least once.

But what about Black British inspiration?

How about Wilfred Wood, the first black bishop in the Church of England. Or children’s writer, Malorie Blackman’s appointment as children’s laureate in 2013?

Patrick Vernon is the founder of important black heritage website, Every Generation. He noticed that that no black people even made it to the BBC Top 100 great Britons list. He put this down to many people being unaware of black achievements and contributions made in the UK over the centuries, despite Black History Month being established in 1987.

The creation of 100 Great Black Britons nomination list reflects the history of the black UK community over the past 1000 years, of those who helped to change and shape the political, social and cultural landscape of Britain. Here are the website’s Top 12 Great Black Britons.

TOP 12 greatest Blacks Britons

  1. Mary Seacole a skilful nurse and ‘doctress’ from Kingston, Jamaica, made her mark on British public life when she went to the Crimea by her own efforts to bring comfort to the wounded and dying soldiers, after her offers to help were rejected by the government. In 1855 she opened her British Hotel, and the British army soon knew of ‘Mother Seacole’. She was awarded a Crimean medal, and in 1857 published her autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in many lands. She died in 1881,and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.
  2. Wilfred Wood Born in Barbados in 1936, Wood came to London in 1962 and served as a curate, then honorary curate, of St. Thomas with St. Stephen, Shepherd’s Bush, until 1974. Being struck by the harsh conditions that black immigrants had to undergo and by the problems of the inner city, Wood maintained an active interest in race relations and social justice in London. He was a founder member of the Paddington Churches Housing Association, and was appointed the Bishop of London’s race relations officer in 1966, and was Bishop of Croydon from 1985 to 2003.
  3. O.A. Lyseight Founding Father of the New Testament Church of God England & Wales. Dr. Oliver Lyseight arrived in the United Kingdom in 1953 and being a devoted Christian. Today, the New Testament Church of God stands proud with over 107 branches, 12 missions and over 10,000 members with a further 20,000 adherents.

    Mary Prince, one of the first black writers to be published in Britain, shocked readers with her account of the horrors of slavery that served as a protest and rallying cry for emancipation that provoked two libel actions and ran into three editions in the year of its publication.

    After escaping from her owner in 1828, it is thought that Mary remained in England. Her story is an important contribution to early black writing, offering a glimpse into the lives of enslaved men and women whose life stories cannot be traced

  4. Olaudah Equiano was the first political leader of Britain’s black community. He worked closely with Granville Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, often speaking at public meetings describing the cruelty of the slave trade. He published his autobiography, The life of Olaudah Equiano, the African in 1789, which became the single most important literary contribution to the campaign for abolition. In his lifetime, Equiano’s narrative went through 8 editions; six more followed in the 22 years following his death.
  5. Queen Phillipa was the daughter of William of Hainault, a lord in part of what is now Belgium. When she was nine the King of England, Edward II, decided that he would marry his son, the future Edward III, to her, and sent one of his bishops, a Bishop Stapeldon, to look at her. He described her thus:

    “The lady whom we saw has not uncomely hair, betwixt blue-black and brown. Her head is cleaned shaped; her forehead high and broad, and standing somewhat forward. Her face narrows between the eyes, and the lower part of her face is still more narrow and slender than the forehead. Her eyes are blackish brown and deep. Her nose is fairly smooth and even, save that is somewhat broad at the tip and flattened, yet it is no snub nose. Her nostrils are also broad, her mouth fairly wide. Her lips somewhat full and especially the lower lip…all her limbs are well set and unmaimed, and nought is amiss so far as a man may see. Moreover, she is brown of skin all over, and much like her father, and in all things she is pleasant enough, as it seems to us.”

    Philippa was a remarkable woman. She was very wise and was known and loved by the English for her kindliness and restraint. She would travel with her husband on his campaigns and take her children as well. When the King was abroad she ruled in his absence. Queen’s College in Oxford University was founded under her direction by her chaplain, Robert de Eglesfield in 1341 when she was 28. She brought many artists and scholars from Hainault who contributed to English culture.


    Queen Phillippa, England’s first Black Queen


  6. Courtney Pine is one of Britain’s best known and most innovative jazz saxophonists. His debut album, Journey to the Urge Within released in 1987 was the first serious jazz album ever to make the Top 40, and established Pine as the leading figure in the British jazz scene, and an inspiration to many young musicians, black and white. Pine has been honoured with a MOBO award for best jazz act for two years on a row (1996 and 1997). He has collaborated with some of the biggest names in jazz including Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and was asked to join Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He has been awarded an OBE, and currently hosts a popular show on BBC Radio 2.
  7. Sir Bill Morris. Born in Jamaica in 1938, Sir Bill Morris was until recently General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. His leadership of the TGWU has seen several high profile battles; in October 1999 he challenged the Ford Company over racism at its Dagenham plant, saying that the company was sitting on a tinderbox. Most recently he was awarded with a knighthood and is heading an inquiry into the treatment of ethnic minority police officers in London, an inquiry he says is vital to restoring public confidence in the Metropolitan Police.
  8. Sir Trevor McDonald Born in Trinidad in 1939, Trevor worked in various aspects of the media including local newspapers, radio and television. He joined the Caribbean regional service of the BBC World Service in 1960 as a producer, before moving to London at the end of that decade to work for the corporation (BBC Radio, London). Moving to Independent Television News (ITN) in 1973, he rose steadily through the ranks. He’s served as news, sports and diplomatic correspondent before moving on to become diplomatic editor and newscaster. Twice voted Newscaster of the year, McDonald is perceived as the face of ITN after years of fronting its flagship ‘News at Ten’ bulletin. Once viewed as the best-spoken person in the country and was reported to have fronted a two-year inquiry into the state of language learning. It warned that government education policy failed to teach pupils the necessary language skills needed for later life.

    In 1992, he received an OBE in the Queen’s Honours List, and received a knighthood in 1999. He continues to be the anchor for the News at Ten, and presents Tonight with Trevor McDonald, which was launched in 1999.

  9. Shirley Bassey is regarded as one of the original divas. With a career that spans more than 50 years, her dramatic voice has provided three Bond films with unforgettable theme songs. She hosted her own highly rated BBC show in the 1970s moving to Switzerland in the early 80s.

    The woman they call Burly Chassis came back in customarily spectacular style in 1997 with History Repeating, collaborating with Bath’s Propellerheads. It introduced her to a new generation of dance fans, just as she was celebrating her 60th birthday.

    A mother and grandmother with a self-confessed love of glamour, Dame Shirley still returns to Wales for occasional performances – she topped the bill at the opening of the Welsh Assembly in 1999, and performed the anthem World In Union with Bryn Terfel for the Rugby World Cup in 2000.

  10. Bernie Grant Labour MP Bernie Grant was one of the most charismatic black political leaders of modern times. His death on 8 April 2000 marked almost four decades campaigning for racial justice and minority rights. Though in life he was an outspoken maverick, in death, Bernie Grant was praised from the heights of the Establishment, from Cabinet ministers and Scotland Yard to political associates and black community leaders, and Prime Minister Tony Blair described Grant as « an inspiration to Black British communities everywhere.

    A successful local politician, Grant served for a decade as local councillor in the London Borough of Haringey, of which he was elected Leader in 1985. He was the first black head of a local authority in Britain, and was responsible for the well-being of a quarter of a million people, many of them Black and ethnic minorities. Grant joined the Labour Party in 1975 and was elected as Member of Parliament for Tottenham in 1987.

    Bernie Grant brought to parliament a long and distinguished campaigning record. He was a founder member of the Standing Conference of Afro-Caribbean and Asian Councillors and a member of the Labour Party Black Sections. He convened major conferences of politicians, activists, researchers and academics to shape black agendas. Grant also helped tackle racism on a European wide level, in association with members of the European Parliament and anti-racist groups

  11. Professor Stuart Hall was born in Kingston, Jamaica and was educated in Jamaica and at Merton College, Oxford (Rhodes Scholar). He came to prominence at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Birmingham University and thereafter as Professor of Sociology at the Open University from 1979.

    He is currently emeritus at The Open University and Visiting Professor, Goldsmith College, Milton Keynes, he was Research Fellow and then Director of the Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham. His research interests are in cultural theory and cultural studies, race, ethnicity and cultural identity. His publications include: Resistance through Rituals, The Popular Arts, Policing the Crisis, Culture, Media, Language, New Times, Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, Questions of Cultural Identity, Representation and Visual Culture: A Reader.


You can read more on the website, Every Generation, here.

You can read more about Black History Month, here. 

photo credit: BBC/ 100 Great Black Britons

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