Published: 2 October 2020
Black History Month has been observed by people in the UK since 1987.
It was first organised by a Ghanaian analyst named Akyaaba Addai-Sebo working for the Greater London Council.
With such a long tradition of celebrating important people and events in our city, we wanted to highlight some of the lesser-known, but no less important, characters from our collective past.
1) Celestine Edwards (Approx. 1858 – 1894)
Our first notable person has links to both the capital and our parent city. Celestine Edwards was an anti-slavery advocate in the 19th-century and resident of Sunderland.
He spoke regularly about equal rights at the city’s Assembly Hall, even after moving down to London, and was Britain’s first Black editor.
Researchers from the University of Sunderland are currently looking into his history ahead of a Blue Plaque being placed in the city to celebrate his life.
2) Phillis Wheatley (1753 – 1784)
Born in West Africa and enslaved as a young girl, Philis Wheatley wrote her first poem at the age of 14. At 20 she moved to Britain with her young son and published her debut book a year later.
That makes Phillis the first African-American poet to ever publish her work, with her initial volume appearing in 1773.
Among her many quotes are the lines:
“In every human breast
God has implanted a principle
which we call love of freedom.
It is impatient of oppression
And pants for deliverance.”
3) John Edmonstone (1793-1822)
Like many of the people on this list, John Edmonstone was born into slavery.
Once he gained his freedom, however, he moved to Scotland where he studied animal biology through training as a taxidermist (people who stuff and display dead animals).
But it’s after this, as a lecturer at Edinburgh University, that he made an enormous contribution to the scientific world. John taught the young Charles Darwin at the University.
Darwin, of course, would later go on to use the knowledge he learnt to form the Theory of Evolution and revolutionise the way the world views the animal kingdom.
It’s been argued that without Edmonstone, Darwin would never have come up with his ideas.
4) Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881)
Originally from Jamaica, Mary Seacole came to the UK in 1854. She wanted to help wounded soldiers fighting in Crimea but was refused by the War Office.
Not to be stopped, Mary raised the money to travel to the front lines herself where she made a huge contribution to the war effort.
Sadly, until recently Mary Seacole had been largely forgotten in favour of her more famous contemporary, Florence Nightingale.
However, thanks to a campaign by the Mary Seacole Trust, a statue to her memory was placed outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London in 2016.
5) Ignatius Santo (1729 – 1780)
Born on a slave ship, Ignatius was brought to England and forced to work as a butler.
Unusually, his ‘owner’ took note of how intelligent he was and supported his creativity, allowing Santo to produce plays, poetry and music.
Eventually, he was able to set up his own business in London, which he used to support other creative people and speak out against the slave trade.
Ignatius is also known as the first Black person to ever vote in the UK.
Although it was never illegal for Black people to vote in Britain, most were disqualified as, at the time, you had to be a land-owning male to qualify – excluding the vast majority.
The contribution Black people have made to all aspects of British society is immeasurable. Sadly, this important fact is often forgotten or overlooked.
That’s why Black History Month is so vital and something we want to celebrate.
The names above are only a small snapshot of the huge numbers of Black people who have influenced our society through science, politics, arts and every other area of British life.
We’d love to hear about more people you want to celebrate this month. Share your contributions on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using #WeAreSunLon.