Black History Month Black Heroes of History

Black History Month October 2020 banner

Britain is less famous than America for leading figures in the Civil Rights movement, however most of Britain’s founders were women.

Olive Morris (1952-1979)

A community activist, in 1970's London, who sadly died at only 27 from Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma – her activities organising the black community left behind a legacy of local activism.

Olive Morris Civil Rights Activist Many people are unaware of Olive’s existence, or the contributions she made to the communities in London and Manchester. She remains unrecognised and absent from discourse on black radical feminist and community activism.

The Lambeth Archives hold a photograph taken of her in 1969, when she would have been around 17 or 18. Her face is swollen, clothes torn and dirty as she had sustained brutal injuries both in the street and in police custody. The back of the photo reads “Leaving Kings College Hospital after police assault. 15th November 1969”.

Why: Earlier that day a Nigerian diplomat had parked his Mercedes on the side of the road in Brixton, leaving his wife and children in the car while he bought some records. Police officers, thinking the diplomat had stolen the car began to, according to witnesses, arrest him and beat him. Olive came forward and physically tried to stop the police from attacking the diplomat, causing the police to turn on her, arrest her and assault her, kicking her in the chest. This young girl, barely five feet two inches, took on racist police officers, without thinking about her own safety, because she could not stand by and allow the injustice of an African man being arrested for driving a nice car. This was one early incident of Olive’s commitment to challenging oppression.

She dedicated her life to the struggle for liberation and became part of the British Black Panther Movement in 1968. She also co-founded the Brixton Black Women’s group (est. 1974), who in 1986 campaigned to have 18 Brixton Hill renamed Olive Morris House in her memory. One of the aims of the group was to encourage black women to share their experiences of day-to-day injustices; an idea that greatly formed subsequent movements, like the #MeToo movement.

Information sourced from Glamour, New York Times and the Fawcett Society

Connie Mark (1923-2007)

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Connie Mark (nee McDonald) was 16 when WWII was declared. At 21 she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and served in Jamaica as a Medical Secretary to the Assistant Director of Medical Services.

Connie Mark Community Activist Civil Rights

Mark was promoted twice during her decade long service yet was denied the usual pay rise for unknown reasons. She began to fight for the back-pay she believed she was owed: "The Queen owes me eight years of tuppence a day". Then when she settled in Britain during the 1950s, she became a community activist who promoted Caribbean culture and ensured that people of colour who contributed to the war effort received equal recognition. This activism was fundamentally sparked when she was denied her British Empire Medal.

In 1989, she began campaigning again, for the inclusion of black servicemen and women in the celebrations of fifty years since the outbreak of WWII. She raised enough money for a photography exhibition celebrating the war effort of Black British people.

In 1992, at the age of 68, Mark finally received her British Empire Medal, two years later she was given a Member of the British Empire (MBE) award in recognition of a lifetime of public service.

Information sourced from the Guardian, Independent and Glamour.

Extra information:

  • British Film Institute's 'Riots and Rumours of Riots' film (1981) depicts radical resistance in the post-war British Caribbean community, from the 1948 Nationality Act to the 1958 Brixton Riots. Rent the film online for £1. 
  • Mark Brown from The Guardian has produced an article entitled 'Britain's black power movement is at risk of being forgotten, say historians'. Brown discusses Darcus Howe's biography which claims "Britain's black power movement is being written out of recent cultural history because it does not fit into the 'utopian' narrative of the UK being a nation of civilised fair play".

Lilian Bader (1918-2015)

Black and white image of Lilian BaderLilian Bader was born to Marcus Bailey, Barbadian born migrant, and an Irish mother. Bader was subsequently orphaned at the age of nine and was separated from her brothers to live in a Convent.

Despite being a class leading student, the reality of being a mixed-race woman in early 1930s Britain hit Lilian at a young age. By 20, she was still at the Convent she joined at the age of 9 as nobody was willing to hire her. 

When war broke out in 1939, she worked briefly in the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes canteen, however she was forced to leave. Her employment was a short seven weeks – she was sacked as her father was black and born outside of the United Kingdom.

Yet on 28 March 1941, Lilian Bader volunteered to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and trained as an Instrument Repairer. Once she passed, she became one of the first women, let alone black women, in the Air Force to qualify in this trade. She was moved from York to Shropshire and was soon promoted to Corporal and leading Aircraftswoman.

After having two children with Ramsay Bader, a mixed-race Tank driver, she went back to school and achieved the necessary grades to secure a degree at the University of London which allowed her to become a teacher. 

By the end of the 20th century, three generations of her family had served in the British Armed Forces: her father, two brothers, her youngest son and of course Lilian herself. 

Information sourced from RAF Museums ; Black History Month ; the Fawcett Society and Living Memorial.

David Clemetson (1893-1918)

Black and White image of David Clemetson The first black officer to join the British Armed Forces. When war was first declared in 1914, Jamaican-born David Clemetson was among the first to volunteer. As a 20-year-old law student at Trinity College, Cambridge, Clemetson joined up eager to prove that he and others from British colonies like Jamaica were willing to fight and die for King and Country in a European conflict dismissed as a 'white man’s war’. 

In 1915, he became one of the first Black British officers of World War One, as he received the title 2nd lieutenant. This was despite the Manual of Military Law at the time effectively barring what it called “any negro or person of colour” from holding rank above sergeant.

A number of the first Black British soldiers lied about their Black ancestry in order to become an officer however, when asked if he was of pure European descent, Clemetson answered “no”. By telling the truth about his ancestry, Clemetson threatened to disrupt the military’s peculiar “Don’t ask, don’t tell” racial practices. Recruiting officers would have preferred he claimed that he was white as if others had followed Clemetson’s stance, the military could no longer claim that it barred people of colour from taking leadership roles. 

The question of race quickly shaped Clemetson’s brief military career. Shortly after he was enlisted, he was examined by a military doctor. Asked to describe what “complexion” Clemetson was, the physician wrote “dusky”, or between light and dark (depicted on the right).

Medical Description of Enlistment for David Clemetson

After serving on the Macedonian Front in 1916 and being torpedoed and rescued on his way to Britain in 1917, Clemetson ended up at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland. Whilst recovering, he received a letter from the War Office promoting him to full lieutenant. It is thought that he was the only Black person to hold this rank in the British armed forces during WWI. 

He returned to fight in March 1918 and died 6 months later in the Somme region on 21 September 1918 – just 52 days before the end of the war. He was 25. 

David Clemetson is memorialised in Unicorn war cemetery in Vendhuile, northern France, and in his Jamaican hometown of Port Maria, St Mary. However, in Britain he is unknown. At Trinity College, Cambridge, he was left off the war memorial in Trinity College Chapel which features 618 Trinity students killed fighting during the Great War. 

Information sourced from Coral Hill; BBC; Trinity News and Trinity College Library.

Extra information has been provided by the Imperial War Museum Group. [PDF]

Sam King MBE (1926-2016):

Born in Jamaica in 1928, Sam King MBE worked with his nine siblings on the family farm of which he intended to take over after his father’s retirement. However, once World War II was declared he was interested in everything going on in Britain and Europe as he believed that if Hitler won the war, his government would re-introduce slavery in the West Indians colonies. In 1944, he volunteered in the Royal Airforce. After three months of training, he was posted at a fighter station near Folkestone and served as an engineer.Sam King MBE playing the trumpet.

After returning to Jamaica, he found resettling back into civilian life difficult, so he took the opportunity to travel to Britain on Empire Windrush in 1948 and settled in South London. He re-joined the RAF, and later worked for the Royal Mail.

Later he became Southwark’s first black mayor (1983-84) and a prominent campaigner for the West Indies community, it was London’s first West Indies carnival that eventually became Notting Hill Carnival (he organised this alongside Claudia Jones).

Sam King is best known for setting up the Windrush foundation in 1995 with his friend Arthur Torrington. This aimed to celebrate the arrival of people from the Caribbean to Britain following World War II and was first charitable organisation whose objectives are to keep alive the memories of the young men and women who were amongst the first wave of post-war settlers in England.Sam King MBE with war medals.

On the 40th anniversary of the Windrush’s first docking in 1998, Sam King was awarded his MBE for his outstanding service to Britain.

He sadly passed away in June 2016 at 90 years old.

Extra Information - find out about Sam King's time at the General Post Office and the racism he faced. 

Information sourced from: The BBC website, The Windrush Foundation website, and the Black History Month website

Mona Baptiste (1928-1993):

Baptiste turned 20 the day before she arrived in Britain on Empire Windrush. As she was one of only few women on the ship, she had travelled first class. The Trinidad-born blues singer also entertained fellow passengers (ex-servicemen) onboard the ship (see below).Mona Baptiste playing music to passengers on Empire Windrush.

She was and up-and-coming singer in Trinidad who from the age of 14 was singing on the radio and attending dances. However, on arrival in Britain she declared her occupation as ‘clerk’ however her musical ambitions were not well concealed. She quickly absorbed herself in London’s nightclub and ballroom scene which was already influenced by the calypso and highlife music popularised by the capital’s small pre-war black community.  

Within a few weeks, she appeared on the BBC’s Light Programme with Stanley Black and his Dance Orchestra. Soon after she toured with some of the most popular artists of the day including Ted Heath and Stephane Grappelli. Mona was eventually recognised on the international stage, especially in Germany, where she decided to settle and make dozens of records singing in German. She was largely popular from songs such as “Calypso Blues” and “There’s Something in the Air”. She also acted in multiple musical films such as Dancing in the Sun (1954).

However, her son Marcel has previously commented that it was marriage that ruined his mother’s career as a singer. Her first husband died in a car crash, so Mona devoted the 1960s to bring up her son, then aged five. But in 1972 she moved to Ireland after marrying her second husband. The marriage appeared unhappy and he did not her to go out on tour.

Mona died in 1993, aged 65, having suffered a stroke. Little had been heard from her in years but sadly, so few Britons knew about her and her work.

Information sourced from: The BBC, Windrush Foundation, Camden New Journal, Historycal Roots

Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797):

Born in southern Nigeria, Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped aged 11 and sold to a Royal Navy Officer, Lieutenant MichOlaudah Equiano ael Pascal, who renamed him Gustavus Vassa. Equiano travelled the seas with Pascal for eight years, during which time he learned to read and write.

He was sold again to a ship captain. Equiano was able to earn money by trading on the side which allowed him to buy his freedom in 1766 where he then spent much of the next 20 years travelling. In 1786 he become part of the abolitionist group ‘The Sons of Africa’, considered to be Britain’s first black political organisation, which campaigned to end African slavery.

In 1789, Cambridge University Press published Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’, which in 2017 was featured in The Guardian’s 100 best nonfiction books of all time. In his article, Robert McCrum states that Black literature begins with these 18th century slave memoirs of which Equiano’s are the most famous.

In 1792 Equiano married Susannah Cullen and they made their home in Soham, Cambridgeshire. They went on to have two daughters – Anna Maria (born October 1793) and Joanna (born April 1795). Susannah died in February 1796 and was buried in Soham – her gravestone states ‘Susannah Vassa, wife of Gustavus the African, aged 34 years’. Equiano died a year after in March 1797, his burial place is not known. Anna Maria then died aged four and is buried at St. Andrew’s Church in Chesterton. There is a memorial to her on the church wall which reads:

Near this Place lies Interred

Anna Maria Vassa

Daughter of Gustavus Vassa, the African

She died July 21 1797 aged 4 years

Information sourced from: Capturing Cambridge, The Guardian, BBC History

Albert Gordon – Cambridge’s First Black Pub Landlord

Albert Gordon came to the UK in 1960. In 1969 married his wife Lorna and adopted the children she had through her previous marriage. Together they ran the Midland Arms on Devonshire Road (now the Devonshire Arms off Mill Road) during the 1970s. Doing this they broke every social barrier possible.

He was the driving force of West Indian culture for the city and often featured in the Cambridge Evening News (below). When the pub first opened, customers demanded Reggae music. It was unheard of to have a dancing licence in a pub, yet having approached the police, fire service, council and magistrates’ court to have a disco pub. He was eventually granted a licence.

Albert and Lorna Gordon in Cambridge Evening News (1970s)

Lucy Gordon, Albert’s adoptive daughter spoke about the different events the family hosted such as a ‘Charity Pram Race’ starting at the Midland Tavern, going along to several pubs on Mill Road. Groups would push their friends from pub to pub having a pint in each along the way. He often made friends with other landlords, encouraging custom between pubs.

Lucy also noted how much her parents loved people, so Albert Gordon and his family. being the landlord and lady of the Midland Tavern during the 70s suited them well. People loved the atmosphere and the mix of people – from 70s teddy boys with suits and slicked back hair, rock and roll boys and students. He was notably indiscriminate, welcoming the Irish who were often discriminated against at the time.

Albert and Lorna closed their pub in the later 1970s, but despite the end of the Midland Arms, Cambridge locals still remember the community hub of the 1970s.

Information sourced from: Cambridge News, Capturing Cambridge's website

Please visit the Cambridge City’s ‘Capturing Cambridge’ page for further information about the history of Cambridge.

Was this web page helpful?

Feedback form

Your feedback
Your details