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Which black Britons should we be commemorating?



Six black Britons who had a momentous impact on the UK’s history

Mary Seacole, a Jamaican-born woman of Scottish and Jamaican descent, funded her own trip to the Crimean war to care for wounded soldiers

Mary Seacole, a Jamaican-born woman of Scottish and Jamaican descent, funded her own trip to the Crimean war to care for wounded soldiers. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

The toppling of a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston at a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol last weekend has sparked a fierce debate over the removal of statues of historical figures linked to slavery and racism.

Whether removing certain statues would be erasing our history, as Boris Johnson has suggested, or a way for Britain to finally reckon with its past, the debate has heightened racial tensions across the country. It also raises intriguing questions of what should be done with the empty spaces potentially left behind.

For some, the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement and the call to decolonise education provides an important opportunity to shine a spotlight on historical figures Britain should instead be commemorating.

Here are six black Britons who had a momentous impact on the UK’s history. While some already have statues and are recognised in the school curriculum, campaigners say many do not have the profile they deserve.

William Cuffay, 1788-1870

Born on a merchant ship in the West Indies in 1788, Cuffay was the son of a naval cook and former enslaved person from St Kitts. The family eventually settled in Chatham, Kent.

Cuffay played a leading role in the Chartist movement and was considered one of its most militant leaders. In 1842 he was elected to the national executive of the National Charter Association. His significance within the movement was highlighted by a contemporary report in the Times that referred to the chartists as “the black man and his party”.

In August 1848, Cuffay was arrested for conspiring to levy war against the Queen and was sentenced to transportation to Tasmania.

Mary Seacole, 1805-81

A statue commemorating Mary Seacole in the grounds of St Thomas’ hospital in London

A statue commemorating Mary Seacole in the grounds of St Thomas’ hospital in London. Photograph: Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, to a Jamaican woman and a Scottish soldier, Seacole was a nurse who funded her own trip from Britain to the Crimea to take part in the war effort. She risked her life going out on the frontline and frequently came under fire while bringing support to wounded and dying soldiers.

After the war she returned to England and became destitute and unwell. After the press highlighted her plight, a benefit festival was organised in Kennington, south London, to raise money for her. The fundraiser is believed to have attracted 1,000 people.

In 1857, Seacole published her memoirs, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. A statue of Seacole was erected opposite the Houses of Parliament in the grounds of St Thomas’ hospital in 2016.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, 1875-1912

Samuel Coleridge TaylorSamuel Coleridge Taylor. Photograph: Hulton Getty

Born in Holborn, London, on 15 August 1875 and raised in Croydon, Coleridge-Taylor was one of few black classical composers to catch the imagination of the white British musical establishment.

He came to prominence in 1898 at the Gloucester festival with an orchestral Ballade in A Minor, followed by his much acclaimed trilogy Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898), which Sir Hubert Parry, the principal of the Royal College of Music, described as “one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history”.

Coleridge-Taylor died aged 37 after he collapsed at West Croydon station while waiting for a train. His funeral procession through Croydon was lined for three and a half miles by crowds with their heads bared.

Claudia Jones, 1915-64

Claudia JonesClaudia Jones. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Born in Belmont, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, in 1915, she lived much of her life in New York before she was deported from the US for being an active member of the US Communist party. She was given asylum in England in 1955.

Jones threw herself into the anti-racist struggle in the UK, founding the West Indian Gazette and launched the Notting Hill carnival, which was held in 1959 in response to racist attacks and rioting. The carnival was put together to celebrate the culture of the local community because, according to a brochure handed out during the time, “a people’s art is the genesis of their freedom”.

Jones died in 1964 and she is buried next to the Karl Marx memorial at Highgate cemetery.

Olive Morris, 1952-79

Born in Jamaica in 1952, Morris moved to south London as a young child with her siblings to be with her parents.

Morris was just 17 when she became a leading figure in Britain’s anti-racism movement in the 1960s and 70s, organising actions against discrimination in housing and employment, stop and search and attacks by far-right groups such as the National Front. Morris was a member of the youth section of the Black Panther movement in the UK.

She became ill while on holiday in Spain and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer, upon returning home. She died aged 27 on 12 July 1979 at St Thomas’ hospital in London.

Jack Leslie, 1901-88

Born in 1901 in Canning Town, London, Leslie played for Plymouth Argyle from 1921 until he retired in 1934 and was the only professional black footballer in England at the time.

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