October marks Black History Month in the UK. The event was officially recognised by the US government in 1976, and first celebrated in the UK in 1987. Black people have been a fundamental part of British history for centuries. However, their contributions have often gone overlooked or ignored. Black History Month gives everyone the opportunity to share, celebrate and understand the impact of black people and their experiences here in the UK. Black History Month is more important than ever, with the Black Lives Matter movement at the forefront of everyone's minds, as well as the treatment of the Windrush generation. We wanted to use this Black History Month to celebrate some of the UK's greatest black British icons and their ground-breaking achievements...
Born in 1805, Mary Seacole spent her youth in Jamaica. Her Father was a white Scottish army officer while her mother was a member of the community of Free black people in Jamaica. Mary's mother was a healer who used traditional Jamaican medicines, and as a child, Mary inherited this passion. In 1821, she began to travel the world, gaining as much medical knowledge as she could at each stop. She sailed to England and asked to be an army nurse to to the wounded British soldiers in Crimea (now part of Ukraine). The War Office refused her request. Refusing to give up, Mary funded her own trip and set up the British Hotel - a place of respite for sick soldiers. She also nursed the wounded on the battlefield, and incredible act of selflessness and bravery.The soldiers dubbed her 'Mother Seacole' and back in Britain, her popularity was comparable to that of Florence Nightingale.
In 1888, Walter Tull was born in Kent to a Barbadian man and English woman. Both of his parents died when Walter was only nine years old, so he and his brother were brought up in an orphanage. From 1908, Walter enjoyed playing football, and he was very good at it. He was soon signed by Clapham FC, then in following years by Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town. When the First World War began, Walter gave up his football career and enlisted in the army. He had a very successful army career fighting in France and had a great reputation for always acting selflessly and bravely protecting his fellow soldiers. In 1916, Walter returned to England and trained to be an officer. He was the first black person ever to do so. Tragically, two years later, aged 29, he was killed while leading an attack on German trenches. Walter was recommended for a Military Cross after his death. His brother, Edward, qualified as a dentist and became the first mixed-heritage person to practise this profession in the UK.
Regarded by many as the "Mother of Notting Hill Carnival", Claudia Jones was a radical political activist who came to Britain after being forced to leave the USA. Born in Trinidad, she was a well known journalist, communist, feminist, black rights campaigner and orator, she was also an incredibly important figure in the early struggle for racial equality in the UK, and worked tirelessly throughout her short life to promote revolutionary politics worldwide. Upon arriving in the UK, Claudia quickly got involved in the struggle of London’s West Indian community. By 1958, she had founded the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News. It was the UK’s first weekly black newspaper, and was crucial in her efforts to help organise the black British population in campaigns for equal rights. Racial tensions had been growing throughout the 1950s, following an influx of West Indian migrants who came to fill the post-World War labour shortage. The situation escalated with the Notting Hill Race Riots. It was then that Claudia had the idea of holding a carnival to celebrate Caribbean culture in the hopes to relieve racial tensions. In January of 1959, the first Caribbean Carnival was held inside St Pancras Town Hall, and televised by the BBC. Though, strictly speaking, this may not have been the first Notting Hill Carnival (Rhaune Laslett is now considered to have organised the first event from which today’s carnival grew, in 1966) it set a precedent for the celebration of Caribbean culture through public events, and was inspired by the same anti-racism that would lead to the creation of the Notting Hill Carnival.
Image via The Guardian
Dina Asher-Smith is one of the UK's most talented young athletes. At the London games in 2012, she carried kits for other athletes, four years later in Rio, she won a bronze for the 4 x 100m relay. And in 2018 she recorded the equal fastest time in the world. Recently, the twenty five year old from Orpington became the first British person to win three medals at one major World Athletics Championships. Not only this, she was on Forbes 30 under 30 list, walked down the runway with Virgil Abloh's Off-White show during Paris Fashion Week, made Sports Illustrated's Fashionable 50 list, has been on the cover of Elle, Stylist and the Harrod's magazine, and also appeared in the music video for Santan Dave's "Black." She is inspiring a new generation of young athletes with her refreshing honesty and immense talent.
Image via Bristol Old Vic
Rose Hudson-Wilkin was born and raised in Jamaica. Aged 18, she travelled to the UK to train as an evangelist at the Church Army College, an evangelistic organisation and mission community founded in 1882 in association with the Church of England. She was ordained as a deacon in 1991, after initially being discouraged by the Church because she was a wife and mother. For almost 17 years, she served as a priest in Hackney. From 2010 to 2019, she served as the first female Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, where she would lead daily prayers. In 2019, Rose was hired as the new bishop of Dover. This new role made her the first black British woman to become a bishop. In a recent interview she explains that although she is proud of her achievements, she "longs for the day when we stop having firsts."
Image via Planet F1
Lewis Hamilton was born in Stevenage, Hertfordshire in the UK. He began his driving career aged just eight and won the British Kart Championship when he was 10. Five years later, he became the youngest ever driver to be ranked number one in the sport. Lewis joined McLaren F1 in 2007 which was a huge achievement for him as racing for the team had been a childhood dream of his. The following year, Lewis won his first F1 world drivers’ championship, becoming the first Black driver to capture the title. He currently holds six Formula One world titles - only topped by Michael Schumacher's record collection of seven. As of 2021, Lewis remains the only black driver to race in Formula One. He is a prominent advocate against racism and fights for increased diversity in motorsport. Well-known for his activism and charitable pursuits, he recently launched Mission 44, a charitable foundation created to help young people from under-represented backgrounds achieve their ambitions in wider society. He also fights for animal rights and has his own sustainable vegan fast-food restaurant called Neat Burger, which donates free meals to NHS frontline workers as well as children during school holidays.