Ivory Bangle Lady
In 1901 the ancient grave of a woman was discovered in York. Over a hundred years later, tests revealed her North African origin and established her as the earliest proven evidence of a Black woman in the British Isles.The contents of her grave indicated she was a woman of means and high social status. The engraving ‘Hail Sister May You Live in God’ found at the site, suggests a Christian burial. Images of the ‘reconstructed’ face of a woman of African descent who lived in York during the fourth century ADI Image Public domain
Although we only have her name, Celia represents some of the many women who took it upon themselves to chase freedom and disappear into the growing Black communities throughout Britain.
Although historians are unable to give precise figures on the size of the Black communities, the growing numbers led to the establishment of the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor in 1786, and an ill-fated scheme to repatriate a number of Black people to Sierra Leone.
Born in Senegambia, she was taken aged seven aboard a ship, The Phillis, to the USA and sold to the Wheatleys of Boston. They encouraged her literary talent, and at just 20, she became the second African poet to publish a book, and the first published African woman in Britain and America. Having travelled to England in 1773 with her master’s son, she is said to have become ‘the most famous African woman on Earth’. There, aristocratic patrons supported the publication of her work, and she had an audience with the Lord Mayor of London.
The quality of her writing – contemporary evidence that an enslaved woman was capable of intellectual originality –transformed the anti-slavery movement.
Born in nineteenth-century Jamaica to a Black free woman and a Scottish army officer, Seacole enjoyed social status without basic civil rights. Yet remarkably she travelled more than most women of her time. During the Crimean War (1853–56) she self-funded her trip to Balaclava, Ukraine, where she nursed beleaguered and wounded British soldiers. It was Seacole, not Florence Nightingale, who contemporary newspapers hailed as the mother of British soldiers. But after her death Seacole’s story fell into obscurity until the 1990s, when a campaign was launched to reinstate her remarkable history into the national consciousness.
Taken from Ethiopia as a child, Kathleen came to England in 1917. After traumatic experiences in children’s homes in Yorkshire she ran away and found work as a farm labourer. During the 1930s she moved to London and worked as an extra in films with Paul Robeson, and later established a Black seaman’s mission in Stepney with her husband. She was a founder member of the Stepney Coloured Peoples Association, an organisation committed to improving community relations, education and housing for Black people in the local area.
Born in Trinidad, Jones was raised in New York where poverty led to her childhood tuberculosis. She joined the Young Communists, working as a journalist where she earned her reputation as a pioneering feminist. Expelled from the USA under McCarthy she made a home in London where she founded the influential West Indian Gazette and, following the murder of Kelso Cochrane, launched the first indoor carnival to promote community harmony.
Leaving Jamaica in 1956 with a sense of adventure, upon arrival in England Doris found work as seamstress, and then as a childminder. She joined the Decca Radar company in Battersea in 1970, soon becoming a shop steward for the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (later forming part of UNITE), where her leadership and talent for public speaking led to her taking a more senior role as convenor. Doris is the mother of activist Olive Morris.
Connie joined the British Army in 1943 at the young age of 19, and served in Jamaica as part of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). On coming to Britain, Connie became a driving force within the Black community, raising the profile of the contribution women had made to the war effort, and becoming Chair of the Friends of Mary Seacole organization. She was also an active member of the West Indian Ex-Servicemen and Women’s Association and of the West Indian Standing Conference.
For Black women in Britain today, domestic and political lives have become inseparable. Now, more than ever, the histories of struggle and resistance, creativity and advancement are intertwined across time as part of a continuum of positive change.
Yet this continuum has gaps: the stories of many Black women are still missing from history. There remains a need to recover, preserve and share their stories,and liberate lives from the shadows of obscurity.
The journey of re-imagining continues for us all.
Original Curators 2014 Hannah Ishmael and Doreen Foster