Presented byEmma DabiriSocial historian

Pioneers and trailblazers

The story of black Britain is the story of Britain itself. For almost two millennia, black people have been born, lived and died here. Theirs is a story of political activism, historic struggle and artistic innovation often in the face of adversity.

As a social historian, I am fascinated by the ways people shape the societies and culture we live in. Here are just a few of the pioneers and trailblazers who deserve our recognition.

c.125 - 350

Beachy Head Lady

Graham Huntley

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Scientists were able to determine that the woman was around 30 years old when she died.

Although we know little about her life, this woman's remains have given us a remarkable insight into the long history of Africans living in Britain.

In 2012, archaeologists examined skeletons found during the 19th Century. Analysis revealed one skeleton, named Beachy Head Lady after the Eastbourne beauty spot where she was discovered, belonged to a woman of sub-Saharan African descent from around 125 AD. She had lived in England most of her life and held a relatively high position in Roman society. The first black Briton known to us, she confirms the African presence in Britain stretches back to the second and third centuries.

Centuries old face revealedFind hidden stories from Black British history

1729-1780

Ignatius Sancho

Bridgeman

Ignatius Sancho

Ignatius Sancho engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi

The first African prose writer published in England, Sancho became a financially independent male householder and the first known black British voter.

Born on a slave ship, Sancho’s birthplace is unknown. When his mother died and his father committed suicide, the orphan Sancho was taken to England. Working as a butler, his intelligence was recognised by his employer the Duke of Montagu who sponsored his creative endeavors. Sancho wrote plays, poetry and music, then set up a shop in Westminster, which became a meeting place for writers, artists and musicians. Sancho counted Samuel Johnson, Laurence Sterne and David Garrick among his friends.

In Search of the Black MozartLetter of the late Ignatius Sancho, volume I - full text

The first part of my life was rather unlucky, as I was placed in a family who judged ignorance the best and only security for obedience.

The letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, Volume I, Letter XXXV

1745-1797

Olaudah Equiano

Bridgeman

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano, from the title page of his first-hand account of slavery

Olaudah's story captured my imagination at a young age, inspiring seven-year-old me to write a history of Equiano called 'Break the Chains'.

Equino's own autobiography became pivotal for the abolitionist movement, earning him fame and fortune. It describes near unfathomable horrors of captivity, before he purchased freedom around 22 years of age, a phenomenal achievement. Life as a free black man in the colonies was dangerous. Equaino was almost sent back into slavery. This prompted a move to London. His book was one of the earliest personal accounts of slavery by a black writer, roused public opinion and was an instant bestseller.

Olaudah Equiano's autobiography - full text

I have often seen slaves [...] put into scales and weighed; and then sold from three pence to six pence or nine pence a pound

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African

1788 - 1870

William Cuffay

Reynolds’s Political Instructor

William cuffay

This image is thought to be William Cuffay, featured in a political journal dated 1850.

Cuffay - a formerly enslaved man from St.Kitts - was a powerful orator. He campaigned for universal suffrage and emerged as a leader of the Chartists.

Part of the first mass political movement in Britain, fighting for political rights for the working classes, Cuffay was arrested and accused of "conspiring to levy war" against Queen Victoria. Transported to Tasmania, he received a pardon three years later. However he elected to stay, agitating for democratic rights until his death in 1870. Though he has been largely forgotten, his legacy remains an inspiration for those who believe in the rights of the marginalised and the poor.

BBC History - The Chartist movement

1805 - 1881

Mary Seacole

Mary Evans

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During her lifetime, Seacole's profile rivalled that of Florence Nightingale.

Born to a free black woman, Seacole's position in Jamaican society did not protect her from the racism experienced by black people at that time.

Seacole’s mother was a healer who gave her daughter a rich education in Caribbean and African medicine. When the Crimean War began, Seacole applied to the British War Office to assist but was refused. Independently she set up the British Hotel near Balaclava to care for the wounded. She became a much-loved figure, with a reputation to match Florence Nightingale. She returned destitute, but a benefit arranged by Queen Victoria’s nephew raised funds for her. She lived in London until her death.

David Olusoga on Mary Seacole BBC History: The Crimean War

She was a wonderful woman...all the men swore by her, and in case of any malady would seek her advice.

A lieutenant from the 63rd (West Suffolk) Regiment, writing on Seacole in his memoirs.

1807 - 1867

Ira Aldridge

Bridgeman Images

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Aldridge performed some of Shakespeare's greatest roles during his career, including Lear, Othello and Macbeth.

Aldridge was one of the highest paid actors in the world at a time when black roles - such as Othello - were played by white men with blackened skin.

Born in New York before the abolition of slavery, he emigrated to the UK in order to pursue opportunities impossible for a black man in the US. He went on to establish himself as a formidable Shakespearean actor throughout Europe. His daughters also became performers. In 1896, Luranah Aldridge, was cast to perform in the notoriously racist “Ring of the Nibelung,” at the Bayreuth Festival, a full six decades before Grace Bumbry officially broke the colour barrier.

Shakespeare on Tour: Ira in Nottingham Adrian Lester on playing Ira Aldridge

After Aldridge, it is impossible to see Othello performed by a white actor.

Russian theatre critic, reviewing Aldridge's performance as Othello.

1793 - 1822

John Edmonstone

Edinburgh University

Edmonstone taught taxidermy to students at Edinburgh University in the 19th Century

Edmonstone was a taxidermist whose skills were instrumental in facilitating the pioneering scientific research of Charles Darwin.

Edmonstone was born into slavery in Guyana. Upon gaining his freedom he travelled to Scotland and met the naturalist Charles Waterton, who taught him the craft of taxidermy. He became a tutor at Edinburgh University, where he taught the young Darwin. He regaled his student with accounts of the tropics, which are thought to have inspired Darwin’s pivotal trip to the Galapagos. Taxidermy was crucial to Darwin's research, leading to his development of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

The Royal Society: Francis Williams and John EdmonstoneDarwin the abolitionistiWonder: Charles Darwin timeline

1835 - unknown

Fanny Eaton

Bridgeman Images

Fanny Eaton

In later life, Eaton worked as a domestic cook on the Isle of Wight.

Eaton was a model and muse who featured in the work of Pre-Raphaelite artists.

The child of a formerly enslaved woman, Eaton moved to London from Jamaica and worked as a portrait model at the Royal Academy. She sat for several well-known artists including John Millais, Joanna Boyce, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Frederick Sandys. Rosetti praised Eaton's beauty in a time when narrow beauty standards and racial prejudice ensured black women rarely had a prominent place in Western art. Recently, increasing interest in Eaton has led to an appreciation of her place in art history.

Fanny Eaton: The black muse that time forgot BBC Culture: Challenging racism is art history

1902 – 1987

Evelyn Dove

Getty Images

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Evelyn Dove performing in 1930

Dove was an internationally renowned singer, actress and star of the 1920’s cabaret scene.

The daughter of a Sierra Leonean Barrister and his English wife, Dove studied at the Royal Academy of Music where she performed with some of the world’s top black entertainers. She was soon regarded as a close rival to jazz star Josephine Baker. There were many challenges for a black female performer in Evelyn's day. Once hugely celebrated, her reputation as a singer faded and she died alone in obscurity. Recent interest in her extraordinary life will hopefully introduce her to a new generation.

National Portrait Gallery: Evelyn Dove BBC Culture: Josephine Baker: From dancer to activist

1932 – 2014

Stuart Hall

BBC

Sue Lawley's castaway is cultural theorist Professor Stuart Hall

Hall pictured during an appearance on the BBC in 2000

Hailed as “the godfather of multiculturalism", Hall was a one of Britain’s leading intellectuals and political campaigners.

Hall arrived from Jamaica in 1951 after winning a scholarship to study at Oxford University. In 1960, he helped found the influential academic journal, The New Left Review. He pioneered academic study of low and highbrow culture – including the media, identity, sexuality and race – as a means to understand and interpret society and politics. He went on to co-found the first cultural studies course in Britain at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham.

Stuart Hall in his own words Flavorwire: Why Hall’s groundbreaking work still matters

Identities are formed at the unstable point where personal lives meet the narrative of history. Identity is an ever-unfinished conversation.

Stuart Hall

1950 - Today

Neil Kenlock

Rex / Shutterstock

Neil Kenlock

Neil Kenlock, pictured in 2002

Since moving to Britain from Jamaica in 1963, Neil Kenlock has been at the forefront of documenting the black experience in the UK.

As a photographer, he became renowned for images celebrating the culture and lifestyle of the UK's Jamaican community. He was the official photographer for the UK Black Panther movement, producing powerful portraits of prominent campaigners and protests. He was also a staff photographer for the first national black newspaper - West Indian World. Later, he co-founded Choice FM, the first radio station devoted to playing music of black origin.

The Amazing Lost Legacy of the British Black PanthersPhotographing the black British experienceV&A: Neil Kenlock and his work

1950 - today

Joan Armatrading

Getty

Joan Armatrading

Joan Armatrading, playing in London in 1975

Three-time Grammy Award-nominee Joan Armatrading was the first ever female UK artist to be nominated for a Grammy in the blues category.

Joan moved to the UK aged seven, joining her parents – migrants from St. Kitts – in a slum district of Birmingham. She began writing songs aged about 14. Like many great guitarists she taught herself to play. Joan left school to support her family but lost her first job when she took her guitar to work. In the 70s Joan became the first black British singer songwriter to enjoy international success. She received honorary degrees from seven UK universities and the University of the West Indies.

Joan Armatrading on the BBC

1952 - 1979

Olive Morris

Getty

Olive Morris

Olive Morris featured on the Brixton pound - a local currency launched in 2009.

Morris was a prominent civil rights activist, spearheading antiracist activism in South London and Manchester.

Although she died of cancer aged just 27, she made significant contributions to black communities across the country. A member of Brixton’s Black Panther movement, Morris co-founded the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) and the Brixton Black Women's Group. She left school without qualifications, yet won a place to study at Manchester University and helped establish Black Women's Mutual Aid and the Manchester Black Women's Co-op.

Remembering Olive Morris: Manchester Co-opBritish Library: OWAAD

When remembering Olive, there’s one word that comes to mind: fearless.

Dr Red Chidgey, lecturer in Gender and Media at King’s College, London

1975 – Today

Zadie Smith

Getty Images

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Zadie Smith was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002.

Since the release of her debut novel when she was just 24, Smith has been regarded as one of the leading literary voices of her generation.

Born to a Jamaican mother and British father, Smith began writing White Teeth while studying at Cambridge University. It received widespread acclaim and scooped literary prizes. More novels followed, including the Orange Prize winner On Beauty, as well as essays and short stories. Smith's writing, informed by her background with its distinct racial and class intersections, provides profound insights into identity, and the human condition more expansively. She now teaches at New York University.

Zadie Smith's Desert Island Discs New Yorker: Zadie Smith archive

A white male writer is never asked to be a spokesman for anything; he has complete artistic freedom.

Zadie Smith

1979 - Today

Wiley

Getty Images

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Wiley is noted for his altruism, supporting numerous other artists both financially and musically.

Wiley – aka Richard Kylea Cowie – is widely considered the Godfather of grime. He enjoyed success in grime and garage groups, and as a solo artist.

From the mid-90s, he has been instrumental in creating a new sonic aesthetic, drawing on the reggae his father played, to the drum and bass he MC’d over as a teenager. In the process he has given black Britain a unique voice, forging a genre that both contains black British musical history, and pushes it forward. It has enabled the success of artists from Dizzee Rascal to Stormzy to Skepta, whose cultural dominance have given shape to the wider identity of 21st Century British youth culture.

The twenty best verses in Grime, ever.Wiley: soundtrack of my life