Celebrating 9 Overlooked Figures From Black British History

Patrick Vernon profiles figures from the past to the present day who deserve recognition

By Google Arts & Culture

The role of black British people in the nation’s rich history is too often overlooked or underrepresented. From medicine to education, academia to activism, black Britons have been responsible for some of the country’s greatest advancements. Here, you can discover some of the less-recognized figures of black British history and celebrate their achievements.

Cécile Nobrega: Founder of the campaign for the Bronze Woman statue in London

Cécile Nobrega was born in Georgetown, Guyana on June 1, 1919 and came to London in 1968. Nobrega was an accomplished classical composer, poet, sculptor, and educator. As an active trade unionist, in the National Union of Teachers, she also campaigned against placing children, usually from racialized communities, in ESN (Educationally Subnormal) schools.

In 1995, Nobrega launched the campaign for the Bronze Woman monument to celebrate the courage of black women in the face of historic oppression and slavery. With the support of OLMEC, a BME led social enterprise, the statute was unveiled in 2008. It was the country’s first permanent sculpture of a black woman.

Dr Aaron Haynes: race equality campaigner and Founder of Community Roots College

Aaron Haynes was born in 1927 in Barbados. After graduating from college, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, to attend Long Island University. Haynes majored in biology, while also working at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital as a technician in the blood laboratory.

Haynes came to England in 1965 and taught biology and chemistry before entering the field of race and community relations. He was serving as Senior Community Relations Officer in Wolverhampton when local MP Enoch Powell made his infamous “‘Rivers of Blood”’ speech, an historic turning point for UK race relations. Haynes also held several posts in the Commission for Racial Equality, including the position of Chief Executive, and is the author of The State of Black Britain, published in 1983. Haynes also established the Community Roots College in West London, the first black-led college in Britain. The West London Free School now lives in the same location in Hammersmith, London that the Community Roots College once did.

Erica and Jessica Huntley: political activists and radical book publishers

Eric and Jessica Huntley were both born in British Guiana (now known as Guyana). They became active in political and social issues, and for over 50 years the Huntleys participated in many significant grassroots campaigns. The couple established Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications to promote radical black writing. Bogle-L’Ouverture went on to publish texts by Walter Rodney, Bernard Coard, Lemn Sissay, and Valerie Bloom.

In 1974 the Huntleys opened their bookshop, called simply ‘The Bookshop’, in West Ealing, London. They later renamed it the ‘Walter Rodney Bookshop’, and it quickly became a place of importance for Britain’s black community. In 2005 the Huntleys deposited their archives at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA).

John Oke: housing campaigner and founder of Odu-Dua Housing Association

John Oke was born in 1934 in the Yoruba town of Ogbomosho, south-western Nigeria, and came to Britain in the late 1950s. He was well known for his dedication to various community organisations earning the affectionate nickname “Uncle John”. Oke is most notably remembered for founding the Odu-Dua Housing Association in 1988. He became the landlord’s first Chief Executive and was later the association’s Chair. According to his family, Oke referred to his work with Odu-Dua as his “proudest achievement in this country.”

As well as his work in housing, Oke served as a trustee of the Camden Community Law Centre from the mid-1980s, stepping down in 2018 due to illness. He was also a founding member of the Camden Black Parents and Teachers Association, later the CARAF Centre, after becoming concerned that large numbers of young black and mixed-heritage British people were leaving school or being permanently excluded with little to no formal qualifications.

Dr Elaine Arnold: social worker and academic researcher

Elaine Arnold was born in Trinidad and trained as a teacher before coming to Britain in the late 1950s to complete her postgraduate studies. She went on to teach social work at Goldsmiths College and Sussex University, and later became the Director of Training at Nafsiyat (Intercultural Therapy Centre).

Arnold’s research focused on the adverse effects of separation, loss, and trauma, linked to immigration from the West Indies to Britain among families of African Caribbean origin. As Director of the organisation Supporting Relationships and Families (formerly known as Separation and Reunion Forum) Arnold currently lectures at various colleges and voluntary groups on the Theory of Attachment, Separation, and Loss, and its applicability to practice in the caring professions.

Dr Aggrey Burke: first black Consultant Psychiatrist appointed by the NHS

Aggrey Burke was born in Jamaica in 1943 and arrived in the UK in 1959. Burke graduated from Birmingham University School of Medicine with Honours in 1968 and later became the Chair of the Transcultural Psychiatry Society (TCPS), which established itself by highlighting issues of culture and race in British mental health services.

Burke was appointed the first black British Consultant Psychiatrist and worked for many years as a psychiatrist and senior lecturer at St George’s Hospital until his retirement. He is still active in researching, lecturing, and writing on black mental health issues today.

Eddie Martin: publisher and author of Jamaican Airman

Eddie Martin was born in Jamaica in 1917 and came to Britain in 1943 as a 25-year-old RAF volunteer. He was stationed at an air base in East Anglia and stayed in the armed forces until 1951. After numerous jobs including working for the GPO and in the clothing industry, as well as running his own business, Martin worked at the British library while retired. At this time, he started his own publishing company and became a writer.

Martin’s first book Jamaican Airman was published in 1984 by New Beacon Books and became a seminal piece of work that has inspired thousands of people to discover the Caribbean people’s wartime contribution. Stories from Martin’s life also influenced Andrea Levy’s award-winning book Small Island and Levy acknowledges Martin’s importance as part of her research.

Patrick Nelson: law student, artist model, and partner of Duncan Grant

Patrick Nelson was born in Jamaica in 1916 and first migrated to North Wales in 1937. In Jamaica, he trained as a valet and worked at the Manor House Hotel in Kingston, London. He returned briefly to Jamaica and then migrated back to Britain in 1938, where he studied law and worked as an artist model in London.

In 1938 he met Bloomsbury Group artist Duncan Grant, who became his partner. In early 1940 Nelson joined the military and went to France with the British Expeditionary Force, where he was captured as a Prisoner of War for over four years. Nelson was repatriated to Britain in late 1944 and returned to Jamaica in 1945, before re-migrating back to London in the early 1960s. The diverse aspects of Nelson’s life as a queer black man can be explored further in Gemma Romain's book Patrick Nelson: Race, Sexuality and Identity in Britain and Jamaica.

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Words by Patrick Vernon OBE, Founder of 100 Great Black Britons

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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