Writer Yomi Adegoke looks back at black women’s history of activism in Britain
As black British identity continues to evolve and take shape, our history in the UK is currently being contemplated alongside our future. The work of historians, cultural critics and academics such as David Olusoga, Akala, Afua Hirsch and Kehinde Andrews have made the historic presence of black Brits visible in the mainstream in an unprecedented way, and made it increasingly difficult for our contributions to this country to be denied.
This year marked the 100th year women in Britain successfully secured the vote and since the work of many minorities, especially minority women have been intentionally erased from history, it has left many considering if they had been written out of the fight for suffrage too.
The answer is essentially, we don’t know. The first 1866 petition demanding women be given the vote on the same terms of men was signed by 1,499 women. Of that number, only one of them was undoubtedly a woman of colour - Sarah Parker Remond, an African-American lecturer on anti-slavery and women's rights who had moved to London in order to rustle up support for the abolition of slavery in the states.
The subsequent years of campaigning and protest played out with little mention of minority women - specifically black women - which may be simply because they weren’t present for whatever reason, or due to a host of more complicated reasons. It is futile attempting to ascertain ethnicity from census records, which only documented a person's place of birth, as so many of White brits were born in the colonies. Caribbean migrants also had the anglicised surnames of their slavers, making them indistinguishable from white Brits on paper.
Despite this, there is definitive evidence that some involved were of Asian descent, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, the daughter of the last maharaja of the Sikh empire, perhaps being the best known. She was an active member of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), the militant organisation led by Emmeline Pankhurst. Sushama Sen was another Indian suffragette, and PL Roy (Lolita Roy) and Bhagwati Bhola Nauth were present at a demonstration to support white British women’s rights, as evidenced by a now iconic photograph of the three women at the procession which included an empire pageant and them, in the ‘India section’.
But it’s important to not revise their involvement in the campaign for women’s suffrage to present a more palatable narrative for today. As pointed out by Dr Sumita Mukherjee, despite the women being photographed with an Indian flag, “the issue of Indian women who might vote in Britain was not being raised. They were not there to represent the campaign for votes in India though either. They were used then to show support for the British, largely ‘white’ campaign, and to represent the size of the empire, rather than to reflect in any way on the diversity of the British population at the time.” What I find more intriguing about the women is that while it is not clear if these women played a further part in British women's suffrage campaign, Roy, Nauth and Sen were later involved in the campaign for securing the vote for Indian women.
Despite the lack of diversity within the Suffragettes, it should be noticed that unlike their peers in the states, they were not lobbying for a “white women only” vote. Once the 1928 amendment to the Representation of the People Act was passed, ‘British subjects’ of all races were allowed to vote. But this in no way meant race relations in Britain were progressive. In fact, the activism of black British women in particular becomes truly visible when they began leading the fight against racial injustice in the UK.
Take Claudia Jones, for instance, who arrived in London after deportation from the US just as the Windrush community began to swell. By 1958, just three years after her arrival, she had founded the UK’s first weekly black newspaper, West Indian Gazette, which was crucial in highlighting stories of injustice the mainstream press ignored. In the wake of the Notting Hill riots, Jones founded Notting Hill Carnival to celebrate Caribbean culture and counteract the racial bile from the riots. The story of the largest carnival in Europe's origin however is largely unknown.
Similarly sidelined are the British Black Panther party. It’s fascinating how many of us have heard of the Black Panthers in the US, but know so little of its British iteration. Still, many knew enough of the group to call foul of its depiction in drama Guerilla, which cast an Asian protagonist. In actuality, the British Black Panthers were largely led by “strong black women”, confirmed by the groups official photographer, Neil Kenlock (though Asian women had a prominent presence, too). Black women led the group figuratively and literally - it was founded in 1968, by Nigerian playwright Obi B. Egbuna, and after his arrest, was taken over by Althea Jones Lecointe. Jones-Lecointe was also one of the Mangrove Nine, who were arrested at a protest against the continued racist targeting of the Mangrove restaurant. Barbara Beese, who part of the protest, was the only woman that was tried out of the nine arrested and their trial (which saw them acquitted) was the first judicial acknowledgement of racism in the Metropolitan Police.
One of the most inspiring and criminally under documented Black Panther members is Olive Morris, a Jamaican-born activist, and victim of brutal police violence as a teenager. Morris was politically active from her youth - she joined the Black Panthers Youth branch at 15 and went on to fight racism and police brutality in Brixton for almost a decade before her untimely death at 27. When the group disbanded, she founded first black women’s group in the UK out of its remnants in 1973, the Brixton Black Women’s Group. It was a collective of radical feminist black women who tackled issues which specifically affected black women, such as immigration and family planning and went on to found the Brixton Black Women’s Centre in Stockwell Green.
From the tireless work of these women, a host of equally integral groups were formed. Olive Morris went on to co-found The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent with Stella Dadzie in February 1978 to campaign on issues including immigration and deportation. Southall Black Sisters formed nearly exactly a year later, providing legal advice and offering counselling to women of colour. In 1986 Shakti Women's Aid is set up by Edinburgh Black Women's Group, founded by Rowena Arshad and Mukami McCrum, offering support and information to minorities fleeing domestic abuse.
Many of these groups formed during this time continue to work tirelessly on the issues that affect black and ethnic minority women to this day. Southall Black Sisters for instance, are still active and campaigning for policy changes to protect immigrant women who have “no recourse to public funds” (those who are new immigrants to the UK and relying on spousal visas) and are experiencing violence at the hands of their partners. London-based black feminist organizationImkaan was founded in 1998 and still aims to tackle violence against black and minority women. Other, newer organizations have ensured the immediate, often invisibilized needs of minority women are met, such as Women Asylum Seekers Together who challenge gender discrimination within the UK immigration system and Manchester’s Lesbian Immigration Support Group, who offer emotional support to lesbian and bisexual women who are currently applying for asylum.
When we look back at black women’s history of activism in Britain, it’s tempting to attempt to compartmentalize their contributions, categorize them as either part of the fight for women’s rights or for the equality of races. But we cannot separate their blackness and their womanhood as we so often seek to. For these women, and the black British women who continue to follow in their footsteps, both their sex and race were central to their work. And it is our job to ensure their position at the intersection of both identities no longer permits the erasure from either movement.