Black History Month: exceptional figures to celebrate

October 19, 2021

L to R Charlie Phillips, Brixton, London 2019 (cropped) MassiveEarthaCreative Commons, a drawing of Mary Seacole, from Wikimedia Commons, Frank Bruno, photograph by James O’Hanlon (cropped) at Flickr, Philippa of Hainault, artist Edw. Corbould from Wikisource, Secretary-General Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC (cropped). Photograph by The Commonwealth at Flickr

Olivia Opara explores the lives and achievements of six people who have made outstanding contributions to Black British History

As October rolls forward, it is that time of year when Black History is highlighted, and notable black figures and their work are showcased.

This year, for a change, let us take a step back from the usual focus on slavery and the civil rights movements, the negative and painful past. How about we celebrate those people whose achievements are rarely talked about?

Charlie Phillips – born Ronald Charlie Phillips (22 November 1944 – present)
Charlie Phillips, aka “Smokey”, is one of Britain’s greatest photographers. He captured Black London from the 1960s onwards, portraying the fashion, the work and struggles of the African and Caribbean communities.

Phillips began his work at just 14 years old when he got his first camera. He documented the rich culture of Notting Hill by photographing children playing, weddings and funeral processions.

His photography from the sixties was compiled and published in 1991 in his book: Notting Hill in the Sixties. Philips work included pictures of many great people such as Jimi Hendrix, Federico Fellini, Muhammad Ali and Henri Cartier-Bresson. His photos featured in magazines including Italian Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Stern and Life.

You can read more about Charlie Phillips and see some of his evocative photos in the Guardian.

Mary Seacole – born Mary Jane Grant (23 November 1805 – 14 May 1881)
A notable figure lost to history for over a century is Mary Seacole. She was a remarkable nurse who, in 1855, under her own steam, made her way to Crimea, today in the south of Ukraine, to take care of the sick and wounded soldiers during the Crimean war.

Of Jamaican descent, Seacole had always been inclined towards healing others. Her mother taught her traditional medical practices. At just 12 years old, Mary worked at the boarding house that her mother ran, where many of the guests were sick or injured soldiers.

After her mother and husband died in 1944, Mary travelled to Panama, where she fortified her medicinal knowledge, successfully treating people with cholera.

Once again, Mary was caring for sick people in London, in 1854 when it became public knowledge that there was a severe lack of nursing care for injured soldiers in the Crimean war.

Despite her expertise, Seacole’s offers to serve as a nurse were refused. She went on to fund her own trip to the Crimean war battlegrounds, where she provided much-needed care. It is her bravery and genuine desire to help that makes her such an admirable figure in Black British History.

For more about Mary Seacole visit Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Sir Trevor McDonald OBE – born George McDonald (16 August 1939 – present)
Born and raised in Trinidad in the Caribbean, Sir Trevor McDonald OBE is arguably the most recognisable news presenter in British broadcasting history.

He began his career in the West Indies as a sports journalist, news presenter and radio reporter. In 1962, Sir Trevor came to London to report on the independence talks at Marlborough House.

In August 1969, he was signed up as a producer for the BBC Overseas Regional Service. Later, under the BBC World Service, he produced current affairs programmes alongside working on The World Today.

Sir Trevor then went on to become a reporter at ITN, getting started in Northern Ireland. Throughout his career at ITN, he travelled worldwide, reporting on a wide variety of topics, from sport to politics. In 1985, Sir Trevor won a BAFTA for his outstanding coverage of the Philippines Election, the People Power Revolution.

From 1999 to 2007, Sir Trevor reached the peak of his success when he hosted ITV’s flagship current affairs programme Tonight with Trevor McDonald.

You can find out more about Sir Trevor here.

Queen Philippa of Hainault – born Philippe de Hainaut (24 June 1310 – 15 August 1369)
The first Black Queen of England and mother to the Black Prince, Queen Philippa is one British Royal to be recognised. Wife and political adviser of King Edward III, Queen Philippa was adored by the English for her wisdom, kindness and for working tirelessly for the Crown.

Her rapport with the English public is best described by the chronicler Jean Froissart, who Queen Philippa was a patron of, praising her to be, “The most gentle Queen, most liberal, and most courteous that ever was Queen in her days.”

She was also the first to be appointed ‘Lady of the Garter’, under ‘The Most Noble Order of the Garter’ which was founded in 1348 by her husband, King Edward III. It is the highest order of chivalry and the third most prestigious honour in the British system.

Queen Philippa was a model queen. She was highly respected for the way she carried herself and her duties of being both a queen and a mother. Her political influence was much respected; she was able to give sound advice to her husband, especially during the time of the Hundred Years’ War. She even served as regent whilst the King was away for the war.

You can find out more about Queen Philippa of Hainault here.

Frank Bruno – born Franklin Roy Bruno (16 November 1961 – present)
Frank Bruno, MBE, a former professional boxer, is a Black Briton to learn about this Black History Month for sports lovers, especially boxing fans. Competing from 1982 to 1996, Bruno had an extremely successful career, the height of which was during his fourth world championship challenge where he won the 1995 World Boxing Council heavyweight title from Oliver McCall.

Bruno’s exceptional punching power is renowned within the boxing sphere. He has a 95% knockout-to-win ratio. He has been ranked 12 times, in BoxRec’s 10 best heavyweights in the world and ranked number three in 1984.

Bruno has also gone head-to-head with greats such as Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis. Out of his 45 fights, Bruno only lost five. After his career as a Boxer, Bruno is still very much loved by the public and continues to be a celebrity alongside writing about his struggles with mental health.

Read more about Bruno’s boxing here and check out his deeply personal autobiography, Let Me Be Frank.

Patricia Scotland (19 August 1955 – present)
Born in Dominica and raised in East London, Baroness Patricia Scotland, also known as Baroness Scotland of Asthal, made legal history in 1991. At 35 years old, she became the first black female Queens Counsel (QC) – a senior barrister appointed on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor. She is also the youngest woman ever to become a QC.

Having trained as a lawyer, Baroness Scotland obtained a Bachelor of Law Degree from the University of London. Later she was called to the bar, specialising in family law, in 1977 at the Middle Temple.

She is also a member of the bar in Antigua and Dominica. Baroness Scotland is the second Secretary-General from the Caribbean and she is the first woman to hold the post. She is the 6th Commonwealth Secretary-General.

In 1997, as a Labour Politician, Baroness Scotland was appointed to the House of Lords. She has served, most notably, as the Attorney General for England and Wales and Advocate General for Northern Ireland. She has represented parties in several major inquiries relating to Child Abuse, Mental Health and Housing.

You can find more about Secretary-General Patricia Scotland and her achievements here.

Let’s celebrate these inspirational people!

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