A History of Black Legal Equality in Britain 

By Candice West

To mark Black History Month, we take a look at some of the key events throughout history that contributed towards legal equality for Black British people.  

Sculpture of Emperor Septimius Severus

People of colour have lived in Britain for centuries and historians often reference John Blanke – the Black trumpeter who played in the court of Henry VIII – as an example of an early Black Briton. But, as the Beachy Head Lady proved, Black people have had a presence in Britain since the Roman period. Archaeological evidence discovered in York and at Hadrian’s Wall suggests that African people, of varying degrees of social status, were fully integrated into British communities in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. These people included slaves, soldiers and governors and there is even evidence that the Emperor Septimius Severus, who was based in York for a time, was an African man born in Roman Libya. The Roman Empire was large, covering much of Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia, and its population, particularly its army, was incredibly mobile. And so, it makes sense that Romans from all corners of the empire, and their families, maintained a presence in Britain. 

Transatlantic Slavery

The number of Black people living in Britain saw a marked increase from the 16th century during the 300-year period of transatlantic slavery. The vast majority of Black people arriving in Britain during this time did so as enslaved people, brought here to work predominantly as household slaves in the homes of the upper and middle class. Whilst some Black enslaved people were granted access to education, freedoms were greatly restricted and the practice of buying and selling household slaves was incredibly common. But after centuries of enslavement and ill treatment, things began to change… 

1772 – The Somerset Case 

Having been brought to London from Virginia as an enslaved man, James Somerset escaped his captivity only to be caught again and forced onto a ship bound for the Caribbean. Somerset approached abolitionist Granville Sharp. In court, Sharp argued that no enslaved person in England should be forcibly moved. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, agreed, setting a precedent that enslaved people living in England could not be sent abroad at their master’s whim. 

“Am I not a man and a brother?” medallion and motto used by Britain’s Committee to Abolish
the Slave Trade in 1787.

1807 – The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 

After a tireless, 20-year long campaign by abolitionists, Parliament finally passed this Act in 1807, ending the buying and selling of enslaved people within the British Empire. However, the Act did not provide freedom for the hundreds of thousands of people who were already enslaved and many slavers continued to trade illegally. 

1833 – The Slavery Abolition Act 

This act called for the abolition of slavery throughout most parts of the British Empire. But, whilst legally free, formerly enslaved people were forced to continue working on plantations as “apprentices” and working conditions were often no better than before. At the same time, the Abolition Act provided a huge amount of compensation to plantation owners across the British Empire. This cost the British government £20 million, 40% of the Treasury’s annual income. 

1838 – Emancipation

Freedom for enslaved people was finally granted in 1838 but British attitudes to race remained closely linked to ideas of imperialism. In the mid- to late-19th century, Britain’s colonial rule extended across five continents and notions of Great Britain “ruling” other parts of the world, and the people who lived there, fueled the idea that colonial citizens, particularly those in Africa, South Asia, and the indigenous people of Australia and New Zealand, were second-class citizens.  

Post-War Race Relations 

Despite the racial prejudice that was rife across the British Empire at the turn of the century, the onset of World War One saw millions of men from all over the world rally to fight for their “mother country” as Britain turned to its colonies to bolster its armed forces. This included Black soldiers from the Caribbean and Africa as well as troops from India. But the treatment of these men, despite their efforts to support Britain in the war, was poor and they suffered from discrimination and segregation.  

After World War One, most African, Caribbean and Asian people in Britain lived in port cities such as Liverpool and Bristol, working as seamen. Borne out of an anger at the prevalence of interracial relationships, a series of violent riots took place across the country in 1919, during which the homes of Black men and their families were vandalised and several people were murdered. Despite White men initiating these attacks, a disproportionate number of Black men were arrested. These “race riots” gave rise to government-backed restrictions on people of colour. The Special Restrictions Coloured Alien Seamen’s Order of 1925 gave the police the power to arrest British Black and ethnic minority sailors who failed to provide proof of nationality and the colour bar of the early- to mid-20th century prevented Black residents from finding affordable housing, jobs and entering certain public places. But the economic boom of the mid-20th century was to prompt a change in attitude. 

1948 – The British Nationality Act 

The British Nationality Act provided all Commonwealth citizens with entry into Britain along with full citizen rights. In the 1950s, a huge recruitment drive in the former colonies was undertaken to fill the significant gaps in the British workforce that existed after the Second World War. As a result, a large number of migrants from the Caribbean, as well as people from Africa and Asia, moved to Britain for work. The NHS became a top employer of African and Caribbean women, whilst many South Asian migrants were employed in the textile industry in the north of England. But despite the necessity of their labour, these migrants were subject to direct discrimination and overt racism. Many pubs, shops and hotels openly banned Black people, displaying slogans such as the infamous “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”.  

1963 – Bristol Bus Boycott 

In the early-1960s, racial discrimination was legal and the Bristol Omnibus Company, which was run by the local council, were open about their refusal to employ Black bus drivers and conductors. In the spring of 1963, 18-year-old Guy Bailey was refused a job interview at the company once the manager realised he was Black. This incident triggered a boycott of the bus network, supported by both Black and White members of the community. The boycott soon became a general campaign about the racism that was rife within the city and the protests triggered a move towards the outlawing of racial discrimination in Britain.  

1965 – 1976 Race Relations Acts 

Introduced in response to the high levels of discrimination that Black citizens suffered, the 1965 Race Relations Act banned racial discrimination in public places and made the incitement of racial hatred illegal. But this first Act did not address the issue of discrimination in the workplace or with regards to accessing accommodation and so the act was revised in 1968 to include these things. In 1976, a further Act extended the definition of discrimination to include indirect discrimination. 1976 also saw the formation of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) whose purpose was to address racial discrimination and promote racial equality. The CRE was replaced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2007. 

2000 – The Race Relations Amendment Act 

The tragic murder of London teenager Stephen Lawrence, and the police’s handling of the subsequent investigation, resulted in the 1999 Macpherson Report concluding that the Metropolitan Police force was institutionally racist. This led to an amendment to the Race Relations Act which placed a duty on public authorities to actively promote racial equality. 

2010 – The Equality Act 

The Race Relations Amendment Act became redundant when the Equality Act 2010 came into force. The Equality Act brought all existing equalities legislation together, outlawing discrimination and harassment based on nine protected characteristics: race, religion or belief, sexual orientation, sex, disability, age, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership. This is the legislation that is still in place today. 

Despite all of the legislation that has been put in place to protect people of colour living in the UK, there have been, and continue to be, numerous instances of injustice where Black citizens rights have been neglected. The Windrush Scandal of 2018 is a prime example of this. Hundreds of Caribbean immigrants who had settled in the UK after being encouraged to do so by the British government during the 1950s, and whose rights as British citizens should have been protected, were suddenly denied legal rights, wrongly detained, threatened with deportation, and even deported. Whilst people of colour have much better legal equality than during the days in which most Black people living in the UK were enslaved, Britain still has a long way to go before true racial equality is achieved. 

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