October is Black History Month in the UK. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of all people of colour, especially those who may have historically been overlooked.
With that in mind, we’re sharing the intriguing and inspiring stories of eight black British women who have helped change the course of history, or are still doing so today.
Her remains were found decades ago, but it wasn’t until Heritage Officer Jo Seaman and his team re-examined her skeleton in 2012 that anyone realised just how special she was.
Named after the area where she was found, testing on her remains revealed that she was a young woman who grew up in Southeast England during the Roman period, around 200-250 AD. What’s truly remarkable is that she is of Sub-Saharan African descent (highly unusual as Sub-Saharan Africa was not part of the Roman Empire). Forensic facial reconstruction was able to give us this incredible image of what she probably looked like.
She is the first black Briton known to us, and she confirms that the African presence in Britain stretches back to the second and third centuries.
Often compared to Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole was a British nurse best-known for helping soldiers during the Crimean War.
She was born in Jamaica to a Scottish father and a Creole mother, from whom she learned her nursing skills. As an adult, she moved to England, where she applied to be a nurse during the Crimean War. After being rejected due to racial prejudice, she took matters into her own hands and set up a hotel in Crimea near the British headquarters. There she cared for the wounded and supplied the troops with food and medicine.
After the war, she lived in London until she died in 1881, and in 2004 she was honoured by being voted the Greatest Black Briton.
They’re revisiting who should be the Greatest Black Briton for 2020 – cast your vote here!
Lilian Bader was one of the first black British women to join the British Armed Forces.
Born in Liverpool in 1918 to Barbadian father and a British-born Irish mother, she eventually became an aircraftwoman and rose to the rank of Corporal. She left the army to have a family, and earned a degree from the University of London and became a teacher.
Diane Abbott made history in 1987 when she was the first black woman elected to British Parliament. She is an active political commentator and has been a vocal campaigner for race relations and social justice issues throughout her career.
In 2015, she was appointed Shadow Secretary for International Development, then became Shadow Secretary for Health in 2016. She is now the first black female Shadow Home Secretary.
Ghanaian-born Margaret Busby became Britain’s youngest and first black female book publisher in the 1060s when she co-founded the London publishing house Allison and Busby. She is a publisher, editor, writer and broadcaster who campaigns for equality in publishing and literature.
Her pioneering anthologies Daughters of Africa (1992) and New Daughters of Africa (2019) celebrate writing by women of the African diaspora across a variety of genres. She’s published many important female authors, including Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and number 7 on this list!
A model, actor and businesswoman, Naomi Campbell was an icon during the 1980s and 90s. She was one of the six models of her generation crowned ‘supermodels’, and became a household name.
In recent years, she has appeared on the modelling competition show The Face, the television series Empire and American Horror Story. She’s been outspoken throughout her career about racial bias in the fashion industry, and she is involved with numerous charitable causes including the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.
Zadie Smith published her first novel, White Teeth, at the age of 25 and it immediately became a best-seller, winning the Guardian First Book Award. She has since published five more novels, two short fiction collections and numerous collections of essays, and has been shortlisted for the Man-Booker Prize.
Born to an English father and a Jamaican mother, Zadie grew up in North London and attended Cambridge University, where she met her husband. She writes about issues of race, cultural identity and religion and teaches Creative Writing at New York University.
British heptathlon athlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson was born in Liverpool to a Bahamian father and British mother. She became interested in athletics at a young age, and won gold at the World Youth Championships in 2009.
As an adult, she has competed in the Olympics, the European Championships and the World Championships. At the 2019 World Championships, she broke the British record with a score of 6,981 points and took home the gold medal, earning her the sixth spot on the all-time heptathlon list.