“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” Carter G. Woodson
Black History Month and its origins
Black History Month is an annual celebration of the achievements, history and contributions by people of African and Caribbean descent. It originated from the US, created by historian Carter G. Woodson. Woodson set out to erase false beliefs accepted about Africa and African Americans. He and a group of students named the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History organised for the second week of February to be held as “Negro History Week” in 1926. A week that coincides with Abraham Lincoln (12th) and Frederick Douglass’ (14th) birthdays. A tribute to their important roles in ending the slave trade.
The purpose of the week was to educate America on the history of African Americans, people of the African Diaspora. The goal was to integrate Black history in education which was seen as necessary for the physical and intellectual wellbeing of Black people. For their survival, as Woodson explained in his quote above.
The programme was enthusiastically received and quickly grew in popularity. So much so that in 1969, Black university students and educators at Kent State University proposed to widen it. At the time of numerous social movements like Black Power which promoted racial pride. The first Black History Month was celebrated in 1970. As it’s been ever since.
It is celebrated in February for Canada, like the US, and in October in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the UK.
Black History Month brought to Britain
Politician Linda Bellos is said to be responsible for introducing Black History Month to the UK in 1987 to improve race relations. As Bellos described it in the guardian, the 1980s were challenging times to be Black with… “massive civil unrest in cities across Britain”. The threat of deportation, chronic unemployment, escalating police harassment and a general anti-Black rhetoric made the lives of Britain’s Black citizens difficult. Black history Month was an antidote, “an opportunity to show a history we knew existed but which had been hidden“. To inform white British people of “the positive contributions Black people made, and continue to make, to the UK.”
October was chosen for practical reasons, a scheduling difficulty with the guest speaker, Sally Mugabe. It was funded and organised by Greater London Council for two years. But the budget cuts by government, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, meant it continued irregularly. Thanks to individual efforts, it grew and today it is firmly recognised in British culture with a variety of events taking place around the country.
FIVE BRILLIANT BLACK FEMALE BRITONS WHO CREATED HISTORY
With history at the heart of Black History Month, it is important to acknowledge African and Caribbean people who have contributed to the development of Britain. From our feminist perspective, it is triply (race, class, sex) vital to know and celebrate the women who persevered.
Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881): Pioneer of modern medicine
Born Mary Jane Grant in 1895, Kingston, to Scottish father who worked in the army. Her Jamaican mother, a healer, was known for her use of traditional Caribbean herbal medicine who also run a hotel, skills she passed onto her daughter.
Though a “free” woman, her race and gender meant she had no career prospects. Yet she travelled extensively in the Caribbean, to places like Haiti and Cuba, to the UK and US. Thereby, combining her knowledge of traditional medicine with European concepts.
After losing her husband of 8 years, and her mother around the same time (1844) Seacole continued treating those suffering from cholera which had killed 32,000 Jamaicans. When the Crimean War broke out, she applied to the War Office but was rejected for reasons she later concluded due to racism.
Undeterred, Seacole raised the money herself, travelled and built a “British hotel” in the Crimean Peninsula. There, she treated soldiers on the frontline often and injured herself in the process. She returned to London sick and poor, but gained public support due to her popularity. And went on to write her autobiography ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’, the first Black British woman to do so.
Seacole died in 1881, her contribution was recognised by Jamaica in 1991 and the UK in 2004 as one of the greatest Black Briton.
Fanny Eaton (1835 – 1924): Model for the Royal Academy of Art
Fanny Eaton, a mixed-race British model in the Victorian era having posed for works that still hang in the Tate Modern. Her beauty shone through in an era normally painted white and imagined Black women insignificant.
Eaton was born Fanny Enwhistle in 1835 in Jamaica and travelled with her mother to England in 1840. In her twenties she modelled for the Royal Academy of Arts which had started in 1768 and developed into a very famous place for London art known for painting, sculpture and architecture. There she met the Brotherhood, the Pre-Raphaelites made of English painters, poets and art critics, and went on to model for many of their work.
She first appeared in Simeon Solomon’s religious portrait, ‘The Mother of Moses’ exhibited at the royal academy in 1860. And in Joanna Boyce Wells’ ‘The Head of Mrs Eaton’ in 1861. Another famous piece is ‘The Beloved’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The last known painting of her is the ‘Jephthah’ by John Everett Millais in 1867.
Emma Clarke (1875 – unknow): Britain’s first female Black footballer
Emma Clarke, a mixed-race Liverpudlian who grew up playing football on her local street, Bootle, before playing professionally. Clarke was a daughter of a boat owner, William and Wilhelmina and one of 14 siblings, only 5 surviving into adulthood.
She made her professional debut in 1895, at 20 years old, at the British Ladies first ever match, in Crouch End, London. A match that attracted 11,000 paying fans. And covered by the press which described Clarke as “the fleet footed dark girl”. She was paid, and compensated for food and accommodation, which even in today’s terms is pretty impressive.
Her older sister, Jane, also played for the British Ladies, and both played at well-known grounds such as Wembley Park Cricket Ground. Traces of Clarke end in 1903 where she played against a men’s team in Bedfordshire, she scored the only goal for her team before losing.
Claudia Jones (1915 – 1964): Pioneer of Intersectionality
Claudia Jones’ contribution to the fight against capitalism, for Black freedom, and especially Black women is extensive, so much so that in 2003 she was named in the 100 Great Black Britons.
Born Claudia Vera Cumberbatch in 1915 in Trinidad and Tobago, immigrated to the US when she was 9 with her family, and there her life’s work as a political activist took root. Using communist ideologies, she agitated the status quo through her column ‘Claudia comments’ for a Harlem journal. She joined and led many groups including the Young Communist League, Communist Party and Women’s National Commission. Her focus which she outlined in her essay: ‘An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!‘, was on what she called the triple oppression for women: class, race and gender. What we call intersectionality today.
Her militancy led to four spells in prison before her deportation to the UK. In London, she quickly joined the growing British African – Caribbean community. While she wasn’t readily welcomed as a Black woman, she campaigned for better access to basic facilities like housing for Black people, challenging the “No Irish, No Coloured, No dog” policy. And fought against unfair immigration laws.
In Brixton, she established the West Indian Gazette to give Black people a voice. And responded to the Notting Hill “riots” with a carnival which took place in 1959 at St Pancras town hall. It was televised by the BBC and grew to what we know today as the Notting Hill Carnival. Jones died of a heart attack in 1964 and was buried next to Karl Marx.
Olive Morris (1952 – 1979): Community Activist
In her short life of 27 years, Olive Morris, left a lasting impression in the fight for race equality. Her legacy is visible; a building named after her, a blog was created to keep her memory alive, and listed as one of eight important Black women by the British National Afro-Caribbean newspaper – The Voice.
Morris was born in 1952 in Jamaica, to Doris and Vincent Nathaniel Morris, before moved to London with her family at the age of nine. She had a brutal experience with police in 1969 where it appears, she intervened in their attack of a Nigerian diplomat. This led to her assault, arrest, a charge for assault on police and a suspected sentence.
In 70s, she joined the British Black Panther Movement and founded the Brixton Black Women’s Group. She squatted in Brixton, in an building that become an activist spot, with the first Black community bookshop.
In 1975 she moved to Manchester to study social science and was involved in the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative and the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group. Back in London, she become a founding member in organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent. Sadly, Morris was diagnosed with cancer following her travel in Spain and died shortly after in 1979.
Examples like these are important because Black stereotypes, as entertainers, sportsmen and slaves, persist in Britain. These excellent Black women not only invalidate them but provide us with “a sense of history, achievement and continuity”. Black history matters for, as Woodson suggested, it goes to the physical and intellectual wellbeing of Black people. And I think we can agree, these SHOULD matter all year round, not just in October.