Black History Month: Celebrating Alternative Histories
By Olga Nasiridou: firstname.lastname@example.org
Black History Month is a time to honour the achievements and contributions of Black people. However, often, Black History Month focusses on the achievements of a narrow group of Black civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks, which limits young people’s understanding of Black history to one of struggle and oppression.
Black people have made, and continue to make, huge contributions in all aspects of society. Here, we have listed 10 alternative Black and mixed-race role-models, whose achievements should be shared more widely.
1. Thomas Elkins (1818- 1900)
Thomas Elkins was a Black American inventor, abolitionist and trained medical professional. He invented household furniture items, including the chamber commode (the early toilet) and the refrigerator. He worked with Stephen Myers, a former slave, helping to transport fugitive slaves to Canada. He also provided food, legal aid and medical assistance to those seeking freedom (Mahoney, 2017).
Further investigations for young people: Lots of important items that we use daily were invented by Black people. Investigate what Garrett Morgan, Charles Drew and Dr Shirley Jackson invented. What other inventions can you find that were created by Black people? How different would life be today without these?
2. Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931)
Daniel Hale Williams was a Black American doctor who was the first person to successfully perform open heart surgery (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019).
Williams campaigned for Black Americans to have equal access to medical care and training (Alisha J. Jefferson; Tamra S. McKenzie, 2017). To this end, in 1891 he founded Chicago’s Provident Hospital, the first hospital for Black people in the country whose staff were both Black and White. Chicago’s Provident Hospital also trained Black nurses and Black medical school graduates.
In 1913 he was elected as a charter member of the American College of Surgeons, becoming the first Black member.
Further investigations for young people: What was the situation with regards to race-relations in the USA during Daniel Hale Williams lifetime? Why does this make his work so ground-breaking? What kind of obstacles did Daniel Hale Williams come up against in setting up and running his hospital?
3. Walter Tull (1888-1918)
Walter Tull, born in Barbados, was the first Black infantry officer in a British Army regiment during the World War I and one of the country’s first Black footballers playing for Tottenham Hotspur in the top division of English football. However, he only made 10 appearances for Spurs before being dropped, probably due to the amount of racist abuse he received from fans. He then moved to Northampton Town FC where he made 111 appearances for the club. There is a statue of Tull in Northampton’s Guildhall. Tull died in battle in 1918 when he was shot and fatally wounded but was recommended for a Military Cross for his bravery in WW1.
Further investigations for young people: Northamptonshire Black History Association has produced lesson plans about Walter Tull suitable for KS2 and 3: http://www.northants-black-history.org.uk/images/education/Teachers_Resource_7M.pdf
4. Lilian Bader (1918- 2015)
Lilian Bader was a corporal and leading aircraftwoman and the first woman to serve in the Royal Air Force. She was mixed race: her mother was Irish while her father was an immigrant from the West Indies.
During World War II she volunteered to join the Royal Air Force. In 1941 she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and was one of the first women to be trained as an instrument repairer (Ministry of Defence, 2017). In December of the same year, Bader gained the rank of acting corporal. In 1944, she left WAAF and she studied at London University to become a teacher.
Further investigations for young people: Black people from the Caribbean and Africa were also instrumental in fighting for Britain in World War II, but many who travelled across the Atlantic to fight for Britain faced hardship and racism. Watch veteran Jake Jacobs story here.
5. Dr. Shirley Joy Thompson
Dr. Shirley Joy Thompson is an English-Jamaican composer, violinist, visionary artist, cultural activist and academic. Her music is performed in symphonies, ballets, operas and concertos, as well as used for TV, film and theatre.
Her work, New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony, composed in 2002 and debuted in 2004, made the first woman in Europe to have composed and conducted a symphony in the past 40 years (Shirley J. Thompson Music, 2016).
She is also an academic; a reader and Head of Composition and Performance at the University of Westminster. In the ‘2019 New Year Honours’ she was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to music.
Further investigations for young people: You can listen to New Nation Rising here: https://open.spotify.com/album/0PXFreUb9u0Mw2TArnJU6T
6. Margaret Busby OBE (1944 – )
Margaret Busby was the youngest and first Black British female book publisher. She was born in Accra, Ghana and moved to the UK as a child. In the 1960s, she co-founded the publishing company Allison and Busby. She has been a reviewer and obituarist for The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Independent (Black History 365, 2017). One of her most ground-breaking projects was editing the Daughters of Africa anthology, which brought together the work of more than two-hundred Black women. In 2019 she has brought out New Daughters of Africa, bringing together the work of a new generation of Black women (The Guardian, 2019).
She was awarded with the 2015 Henry Swanzy Award and the Royal Society of Literature’s Benson Medal in 2017 (Onwuemezi, 2017). In 2018, The Voice newspaper listed Busby among eight other Black women who have changed British History (The Voice, 2018).
Further investigations for young people: Click here to watch an interview with Margaret Busby, where she talks about how women’s voices sometimes go unheard.
7. Bernie Grant (1944-2000)
Bernie Grant, born in Guyana, was one of the UK’s first Black politicians. Grant joined Tottenham Labour Party in 1973, was elected a Councillor in 1978 and was the first Black head of a local authority in Britain, London Borough of Haringey (Black History 365, 2015). For four decades he campaigned against injustice and racism alongside European Members of Parliament and European anti-racist groups (Black History 365, 2015).
Grant founded the Standing Conference of Afro-Caribbean and Asian Councillors and was a member of the Labour Party Black Sections.
In 2000 the Prime Minister Tony Blair described Grant as “an inspiration to Black British communities everywhere” (Forrester, 2017).
Further investigations for young people: There is a website http://berniegrantarchive.org.uk/ which has a timeline of Bernie Grant’s life, audio and transcripts of his speeches and information about the inequalities faced by Black people locally and nationally during Bernie’s life and how people fought to combat this inequality.
8. Marsha P Johnson (1945-1992)
Marsha P Johnson was an African American LGBTQ rights activist who supported trans people to identify as themselves and was a key figure in the gay liberation movement. From 1987 to 1992, she was also an AIDS activist with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).
She was a co-founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a street activist organisation that supported gay, gender non-conforming and transgender people by providing food, clothing and housing in New York City.
Johnson was popular in New York City’s LGBTQ art scene; she modelled for Andy Warhol and performed with the drag performance troupe Hot Peaches.
Further investigations for young people: Transwomen of colour were key in the Stonewall Riots, which happened in New York in 1969. The UK organisation Stonewall was named after these riots. Investigate why the riots were so important and what impact they had on LGBT+ rights.
9. Phyll Akua Opoku-Gyimah, also known as Lady Phyll, (1974 – )
Phyll Akua Opoku-Gyimah is an LGBTQ rights activist, anti-racism campaigner and co-founder of UK Black Pride, the largest celebration for LGBTQ people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin American descent (Kaleidoscope International Trust, 2019).
She is an executive director at Kaleidoscope Trust, a UK charity that advocates the human rights of LGBTQ people on a global scale and the editor of Sista! Magazine.
Last September, Lady Phyll was one of 25 women in the UK whose work was recognised with a statuette, which is on display in Lambeth, created as part of a campaign to celebrate women’s achievements.
Further investigations for young people: Why is it important for there to be a Black Pride event? Find out about the statues that are on display across Britain. How many are women? How many are people of colour? There is currently a campaign for a statue to remember the victims of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. Why is this important? What can we do to support the campaign?
10. Zadie Smith (1975 – )
Zadie Smith is a British author, born to a Jamaican mother and English father, known for her work around race, religion and cultural identity.
Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth (2000) became a best-seller and won a number of awards. She has since written numerous novels, short story collections and non-fiction books. She has been celebrated with around twenty awards for her work. In 2006, her third novel On Beauty won the Orange Prize for Fiction (British Council, 2019).
She is currently a tenured professor in the Creative Writing faculty of New York University.
Further investigations for young people: You can read an excerpt of White Teeth here: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/first/s/smith-teeth.html
Alisha J. Jefferson; Tamra S. McKenzie. (2017). Daniel Hale Williams, MD:“A Moses in the profession”. Retrieved 10 01, 2019, from https://www.facs.org/~/media/files/archives/shg%20poster/2017/04_daniel_hale_williams.ashx
Bellis, M. (2019, May 13). Inventor Thomas Elkins. Retrieved from ThoughtCo: https://www.thoughtco.com/dr-thomas-elkins-4074330
Black History 365. (2015, August 19). The First Black Parliamentarians in our Times. Retrieved October 01, 2019, from Black History 365: https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/section/history-of-politics/the-first-black-parliamentarians-in-our-times/
Black History 365. (2017, July 3). Margaret Busby: Doyenne of Black British Publishing. Retrieved from BLACKHISTORY365: https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/section/bhm-firsts/margaret-busby-doyenne-black-british-publishing/
British Council. (2019). British Council. Retrieved from Zadie Smith: https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/zadie-smith
Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019). Daniel Hale Williams American Physician: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Daniel-Hale-Williams
Forrester, K. (2017, December 5). Portrait Of History-Making MP Bernie Grant Is Unveiled In Parliament. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/portrait-of-history-making-mp-bernie-grant-is-unveiled-in-parliament_uk_5a26f48ee4b06d807b4fbef8?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAGcw0g9qncpK2kh-LfTNQchXHiMJHMyb14DYuJ
Kaleidoscope International Trust. (2019, September 24). Phyll Opoku-Gyimah Appointed Executive Director of Kaleidoscope Trust. Retrieved from Kaleidoscope International Trust: https://kaleidoscopetrust.com/news/159
Mahoney, E. (2017, November 4). THOMAS ELKINS (1818-1900). Retrieved from BlackPast: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/elkins-thomas-1818-1900/
Ministry of Defence. (2017, July 6). Lilian Bader: One of the first black women to join the RAF. Retrieved 10 01, 2019, from https://medium.com/@DefenceHQ/lilian-bader-one-of-the-first-black-women-to-join-the-raf-9ba5141cdfab
Onwuemezi, N. (2017, December 15). Busby to compile anthology of African women writers. Retrieved from The Bookseller: https://www.thebookseller.com/news/myriad-commissions-new-anthology-about-african-women-writers-689486
Richard Conway & David Lockwood. (2018, May 23). Walter Tull: The incredible story of a football pioneer and war hero. Retrieved from BBC: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/43504448
Shirley J. Thompson Music. (2016). Biography. Retrieved October 01, 2019, from Shirley J. Thompson Music: https://shirleythompsonmusic.com/pages/about/
The Guardian, (2019). From Ayòbámi Adébáyò to Zadie Smith: meet the New Daughters of Africa. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/mar/09/from-ayobami-adebayo-to-zadie-smith-meet-the-new-daughters-of-africa
UK Black Pride. (2019, September 23). Where we are now. Retrieved from UK Black Pride: https://www.ukblackpride.org.uk/mission-statements