As any young student is told, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
And as Black History Month continues, there is no better opportunity to reflect upon the brave heroes, tragedies and landmark events you might not have been taught about at school.
Earlier this month, the Mirror brought you the story of former head teacher Betty Campbell – the first black woman in Wales to hold such a title, who also became the first woman in Wales to have a public statue unveiled in her memory.
Beginning her career in 1960, Betty was a pioneering force in British education, but 60 years on representation in our classrooms is still sorely lacking.
Almost half of all schools in England have no black or minority ethnic teachers, according to a recent report by UCL’s Institute for Education – while there are growing calls to ‘decolonialise’ the curriculum in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Here, campaigner and activist Professor Patrick Vernon OBE, the co-author of 100 Great Black Britons, sheds light on seminal moments of black history that should be taught in our classrooms.
Revolution that paved way for end of slavery
You might have heard of the United States’ 13th Amendment, which came into place on December 18, 1865, and officially abolished slavery.
However, the foundations were laid decades before during the Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1804.
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Led by the groundbreaking revolutionaries Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Alexandre Pétion, thousands of formerly enslaved Africans overcame the British, Spanish, and Napoleonic French armies to establish the first independent black republic in the Americas.
However, while it proved to be the catalyst for the abolition of slavery across the Caribbean and North America, it was actually not until 1888 that slavery was abolished in Brazil.
Windrush generation changed the face of Britain
The Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury on June 21, 1948 from Jamaica, bringing to our shores a diverse mix of communities from the Caribbean.
Arriving during an acute labour shortage, the 800 passengers and crew quickly became the backbone of institutions like the NHS and key industries including transport and manufacturing.
In short, the Windrush Generation has helped to transform Britain into a successful multicultural society over the last 70 years alongside other migrant communities.
Yet in 2018, as result of the hostile immigration policy of the Government, more than 50,000 people – many from the Caribbean – saw their lives suddenly uprooted.
The British citizens, who had the right to settle in the UK, were denied NHS treatment and legal rights, wrongly detained, or in some cases deported.
A public outcry and campaign forced the Government to do a U-turn in immigration policy.
In 2019, a national Windrush Day was established to recognise the legacy and achievement of the Windrush Generation.
The UK’s ‘Rosa Parks moment’
Dubbed ‘the mother of the freedom movement’, Rosa Parks famously started the Montgomery bus boycott when she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger in Alabama on December 1, 1955.
This became a pivotal moment in the establishment of the civil rights movement in the US, which sought to end racial segregation and remove the legal barriers to voting and education for African Americans.
You may not know that in Britain, a similar boycott was led in 1963.
Civil rights activist Paul Stevenson took a stand against the Bristol Omnibus bus service, which operated an employment colour bar.
The campaign not only led to the company changing its policy of recruiting black and other minority ethnic staff, but also helped to shape the first legislation in Britain on race discrimination in 1965.
Racist murders that sparked national outrage
In 1959, Kelso Cochrane, a black man, was murdered by a gang of white youths in west London.
The police failed to investigate and to catch the murderers.
In response to the scandal, activist and publisher Claudia Jones organised a series of events to celebrate Caribbean culture “in the face of the hate from the white racists”.
This eventually led to the formation of what we today know as Notting Hill Carnival.
METROPOLITAN POLICE/AFP via Gett)
Nearly three decades later, Stephen Lawrence was murdered at a bus stop in Eltham, south-east London.
His parents, Doreen and Neville, spearheaded the campaign to arrest and convict his murderers.
It took 19 years for the two killers, David Norris and Gary Dobson, to finally be put behind bars.
The Lawrences’ campaign led to a public inquiry that culminated in the MacPherson report, which contained sweeping recommendations on policy addressing institutional racism in public bodies.
This eventually became legislation under the Race Relation Amendment of 2000.
Deadly tragedies that rocked black communities
Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, the Tulsa race massacre became one of the most serious episodes of racial violence against African Americans in the history of the US.
A thriving black area, Greenwood – ‘dubbed ‘Black Wall Street’ – was terrorised by white mobs, resulting in the estimated deaths of up to 300 people.
A further 10,000 were left homeless in Tulsa, Oklahoma, while 1,400 business premises and whole neighbourhood blocks were destroyed.
Largely ignored by for many decades in the US, there is now a growing awareness about the tragedy with books, television programmes and campaigns from the families calling for justice and a formal inquiry.
On January 18, 1981, 13 young African-Caribbeans enjoying a party in south London died in the New Cross fire.
The blaze, believed to have been set by racist thugs, is one of the biggest tragedies the black British community has faced.
Not recognised by the police as a racist attack, the horrific loss of life led to a national demonstration called Black People’s Day of Action that saw more than 20,000 people march from south to central London demanding justice.
Forty years later the campaign is still ongoing.
Pioneering women who broke political mould
Over the decades, a number of game-changing women have paved the way for black representation in the often narrow halls of politics.
In January 1969, Shirley Chisholm was confirmed as the first African American woman elected to Congress.
Just this year, Kamala Harris became the first female US Vice President and the first African American to hold the office.
Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, the Caribbean’s first female prime minister, took charge of Dominica from 1980 to 1995 – making her one of the longest running black head of estate in history.
Although Kwame Nkrumah became the first elected leader of Ghana in 1957 – the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence – and Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa in 1994, we had to wait until 2006 for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to become Africa’s first elected female as head of state of Liberia.
In the UK, Diane Abbott became the first black female MP in 1987, while Baroness Valerie Amos was the first black female leader of the House of Lords in 2003.
Joanne Anderson was elected the new Mayor of Liverpool in May 2021, becoming the first black woman to run a major city.
She was only the second black person in history to do so – following Marvin Rees, who was elected Mayor of Bristol in 2016.
Proud roots of Black History Month
The Roaring Twenties wasn’t felt by all Americans – a decade when lynching was common, white supremacy was rampant and African Americans had no rights and privileges.
But in 1926, the historian Carter Woodson launched Negro History Week – a precursor to Black History Month – in an effort to develop and promote black racial pride and celebrate achievement.
Black History Month itself was established in Britain back in 1987 by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo.
The Ghanaian activist pushed for the annual event in the aftermath of uprisings in Brixton, Toxteth, St Paul’s and Tottenham – sparked over issues of policing, racism and mass unemployment of black youths, as well as the growing campaign to end Apartheid in South Africa.
Black History Month has since influenced the establishment of other history months such as LGBTQ, Travellers, and South East Asian History Month.
Professor Patrick Vernon OBE is the co-author of 100 Great Black Britons.
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