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Black History Month: 10 inspiring Brits you need to know more about

October 18, 2021

October is Black History Month, which aims to celebrate the accomplishments of black Britons throughout history who have often gone unheralded. From sportsmen to activists, there’s a huge list of inspiring Brits that should be celebrated, so here are 10 you should know more about.

1. Harold Moody

Doctor and lobbyist for social reform, Harold Moody had a lasting impact on race relations in the UK. He was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1882 before moving to the UK and studying medicine at King’s College London in 1904. He experienced racism while studying and after graduating, including being refused a hospital post because he was black. While some activists said he was too polite, he consistently pushed back to encourage reforms, from housing discrimination to how the UK governed its Caribbean colonies.

2. Mary Seacole

In 2003, a poll was conducted to name 100 Great Black Britons, with Mary Seacole being voted the number one spot. She’s famous for setting up the “British Hotel” behind the lines during the Crimean War. She used traditional herbal remedies from Jamacia to nurse soldiers back to health and provide care. After the war, she continued to expand her knowledge and experience, from helping in Panama during a cholera epidemic to caring for yellow fever victims in Jamaica.

3. Tessa Sanderson

Tessa Sanderson moved to Britain when she was just nine years old. She joined a local sports club in her home of Wolverhampton and quickly showed sporting promise. She earned her first spot on the Olympic team in 1976, competing in the javelin. Eight years later, she made history at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles: she became the first British woman to win Olympic gold in the heptathlon, and the first black British woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

4. Olaudah Equiano

As a child, Olaudah Equiano was taken from his home in the Kingdom of Benin as a slave and taken to the Caribbean. He was sold three times before buying his freedom at the age of 21 in 1766. He spent the next 20 years travelling before moving to London to campaign against slavery. As an abolitionist, his autobiography, which detailed his own experiences and the atrocities of the slave trade, contributed to the British Slave Trade Act 1807, which prohibited the slave trade in the British Empire.

5. John Edmonstone

John Edmonstone was born into slavery in 1793 and moved to Scotland when he gained his freedom to become a leading figure in scientific research. After learning the skill of taxidermy, he taught students at Edinburgh University, including Charles Darwin. It is thought the renowned naturalist and explorer was influenced by John’s lessons and the skills taught to him.

6. Paul Stephenson

Paul was just two years old when the second world war began and was evacuated from London to rural Essex. This experience may have encouraged him to join the Royal Air Force at 15. After seven years of service, he moved to Bristol to become the first black social worker in the city. After witnessing racism, he took inspiration from civil rights activities in the US. When a local bus company refused to hire black or Asian drivers, he called for a bus boycott that was successful after 60 days. He didn’t stop there; after confronting racism experienced in a pub, Britain’s prime minister promised laws would change, leading to the introduction of the 1964 Race Relations Act.

7. Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a space scientist and educator. She’s hosted the astronomy TV programme The Sky at Night since 2014 and has committed to inspiring new generations of astronauts, engineers, and scientists. Through visits to inner-city schools, she’s encouraged tens of thousands of children to consider a career in the sciences by busting myths about gender, race, and class. She was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2009 for her services to science education.

8. Mary Prince

Mary Prince is another black Briton who used her skills as a writer to highlight the atrocities of slavery. Her autobiography gave the first account of a black woman’s life published in Britain. Mary was born into slavery in Bermuda in 1788 and was sold several times, and came to Britain with the family of Adams Wood in 1828. Even when the Woods left England a year later, they refused to free Mary, meaning she could not return home without being enslaved.

9. Dame Elizabeth Anionwu

Dame Elizabeth Anionwu is a nurse who pioneered treatment for sickle-cell and thalassemia in the UK. She travelled to the US to study counselling for these inherited blood disorders, as there were no courses available in the UK. She returned and began to work in the UK’s first sickle-cell and thalassemia counselling centre in the UK. Today, over 30 centres are using the model Elizabeth set out across the UK. When she retired, she successfully campaigned for a statue in honour of her hero, and another individual on this list, Mary Seacole.

10. Ignatius Sancho

Ignatius Sancho was an influential figure in the arts during his life in the 18th century. He was born on a slave ship and brought to England as an orphan, where he gained work as a butler. However, it was his creativity that caught people’s attention, from his plays to music. He used these skills to speak out against the slave trade and set up his own shop in London for creative people to meet. He was also the first known black British voter, qualifying because he was a financially independent male householder.

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