History’s Most Influential Black Britons

#1 Mary Seacole (1805-1881)

Mary Seacole was a British-Jamaican nurse who defied the prejudices and injustices of her era in order to bring succour and aid to a great many wounded military personnel during the Crimean War. An intrepid traveller and a compassionate humanitarian, Mary made a staggeringly long 4000 mile journey to the eastern front, where she established a relief home for wounded soldiers known as the British Hotel. Initially, Mary tried to join through the British army. Despite her skill however, she was refused, a decision that she attributed to racial prejudice. Remarkably, this did nothing to dull her willpower borne out of a sheer desire to help others, and together with Thomas Day, a relative of her husband, they secured finances for the trip. 

Tragically, she returned to Britain after the war with very little money - but the soldiers whose lives she had saved would not let her efforts be forgotten. After being declared bankrupt on November 1856, her financial situation was highlighted by British newspapers sympathetic to her plight, and a donation fund was set up. Just a couple of months later, she was declared free from bankruptcy. 

In her later years, she published an autobiography - the first autobiography authored by a black woman in Britain - chronicling her many adventures across the world, titled ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands’. Highly recommended!

#2 Walter Tull (1888-1918)

Notable for being not only one of the first professional black footballers, but also for being the first known black officer of the British Army, as well as the first black dentist registered in the United Kingdom! 

Born in 1888, Walter Tull was an incredible man: in his tragically short life, he racked up a list of impressive accomplishments and left behind an inspiring legacy. Walter won several accolades over the course of his football career in the early 1900s, including winner’s medals in the FA Amateur Cup. Upon the onset of the First World War in 1914, Walter was among the first of his countrymen to enlist in the British Army. Quickly ascending through the ranks, he was promoted first to lance-sergeant in 1916, where he fought at the Battle of the Somme. Just a year later, he was commissioned as a Second-Lieutenant. Afterwards, Walter continued to serve in the army until he was killed in action in 1918. 

#3 Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797)

Olaudah Equaino was a freedman author whose published writings pioneered the early abolitionist cause during the late 18th century. 

As a young child, Olaudah and his sister were kidnapped from their village in southern Nigeria and sold into slavery by pirates. He went through several masters, eventually buying his freedom and migrating to England, where he would remain for the majority of his life. He was one of the early members of the first black political organisation, the Sons of Africa, who campaigned vigorously to bring about an end to slavery in the United Kingdom. 

While Equaino sadly never lived to see his goals realised, his writings, which depicted the horrors of slavery, helped to highlight the terrible conditions under which slaves laboured and helped to raise awareness for the abolitionist cause. Just a decade after his death, slavery was abolished in the United Kingdom and across the British Empire under the Slave Trade Act 1807.

#4 Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780)

Writer, composer, abolitionist and voter: Ignatius Sancho was an incredibly accomplished man, celebrated today as a great social reformer and the first black voter in the United Kingdom. 

An influential pioneer of the early abolitionist cause, Sancho is best known for the letters he wrote on slavery. Having lived much of his life as a slave himself, he managed to secure his freedom by escaping to Montagu House in 1749. The noble Montagu family were frequent visitors to the estate that he had previously been enslaved on, and the Duke in particular was noted by Sancho to have been kind and encouraging towards his interests in literature and the arts. Working as a butler for the Montagu residence from 1749-51, he received an education in music, literature and writing. 

Known widely as a man of letters during his life, he spent the later years of his life fully committed to lobbying for the abolition of slavery, and his ability to communicate meaningfully on the moral injustices of slavery gained him recognition across the country.

#5 John Edmonstone (1793-?)

John Edmonstone was a taxidermist and teacher of taxidermy in Britain. Born as a slave in the late 1700s, he managed to secure his freedom in 1817, later moving to Edinburgh where he lectured on his chosen trade, taxidermy. As a lecturer, John taught many students the art of taxidermy, most prominently a young Charles Darwin! Darwin, aged only 15 at the time he attended the university, mastered the art under the tutelage of John. Darwin would go on to utilise taxidermy models often for research purposes in his later life, using the methods that his instructor had taught him to produce them.

#6 Evelyn Dove (1902-1987)

Evelyn Dove made history in 1939 when she became the first black singer to perform on BBC radio, a groundbreaking achievement that marked the beginning of a long and successful career with the BBC. 

A talented singer and actress, her trailblazing status as one of the first successful women of colour in the industry earned her recognition worldwide. She earned great acclaim throughout her career, establishing a popular reputation abroad as she travelled to many different countries to perform, including Spain, India, Germany and France. Unfortunately, the impending outbreak of war in Europe meant that she was unable to travel, and for many years of her career she sang at home as an Armed Forces sweetheart, having been employed by the BBC throughout the war. 

#7 Claudia Jones (1915-1964)

Claudia Jones was a political activist who campaigned with great success for equal opportunities for black people. 

Holding a firm belief that the most important factor in effecting change was to give a voice to those who needed it, she founded a newspaper, the West-Indian Gazette, in 1958, which focused primarily on Afro-Asian Caribbean news. In her own words, the paper stood for “full economic, social and political equality and respect for human dignity for West Indians and Afro-Asians in Britain, and for peace and friendship between all Commonwealth and world peoples.” 

She was also a key founder of the Notting Hill Carnival, which has today become one of the biggest street festivals in Europe, chiefly a celebration of Caribbean heritage, arts and culture. Today, the event attracts over two million attendees each year. Claudia continued to campaign for equality in the United Kingdom until her death of heart disease and tuberculosis in 1964. 

#8 Arthur Wharton (1865-1930)

Arthur Wharton was born in Ghana in 1865, migrating to Britain shortly before his 20th birthday. Originally intending to train as a Methodist missionary, Wharton soon discarded this way of life in order to pursue his true ambition: sports. Cycling, cricketeering, athletics and most memorably football: Wharton boasted a legendary career in sports, having achieved the world record for the 100-yard sprint in 1886. 

History remembers Arthur as the first recorded professional black footballer, having played in a team that reached the FA cup semi-finals in the late 19th century. He played for a number of senior clubs, including Sheffield United, Darlington, and Stockport. In the last twenty years, several statues have been commissioned in order to commemorate Arthur and his contribution to the sport, particularly for his notable achievement of being the first black man to play in the highest flight of football. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



What do you think?

10 Facts About William the Conqueror

Potential Identities of Jack the Ripper