Great Black women we should all know about in Britain

Roselyn Mutongerwa talks about the lives of Mary Seacole, Olive Morris, and Lilian Bader.

Extraordinary Black women like Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks might be figures who we are all familiar with. Their incredible accomplishments are frequently at the centre of discussions around Black History and the civil rights movement in the United States. Yet, across the pond here in Britain, the stories of many other remarkable Black women are often left untold.

Black women have made some significant contributions to British history, and whilst the Windrush generation (1948) has commonly been considered as the inception of Black British history, Black women have shaped our society in a myriad of ways, for centuries. There have been some remarkable female figures that we can take inspiration from, even today.

Read on to find out about the incredible things that these three Black women have done for Britain.

Mary Seacole (1805-1881) – The woman who nursed British soldiers during the Crimean War

Mary was born in Kingston, Jamaica more than 200 years ago. She was the daughter of a Jamaican mother and a Scottish father. Her mother ran a hotel where she would treat sick and injured soldiers, letting them rest and providing them with medicine made with plants.

In 1853 when the Crimean War began, Mary wanted to help British wounded soldiers fighting in the war, who, at the time, had poor medical facilities. Having had previous experience in treating injured soldiers, Mary travelled to England and approached the British War Office and requested to be sent to the battlefields with a group of nurses, however, her request was declined. Nonetheless, she was determined to help and therefore, she raised the funds required alone, and she travelled to Balaclava, Ukraine to an area near the frontline. There, Mary established the British Hotel, where she nursed British soldiers who had been injured at battle. The hotel became a place of respite for sick and recovering soldiers. She was nicknamed ‘Mother Seacole’ by the those she helped.

She was admired and praised by many who heard of kindness in those times; The Times War Correspondent, Sir William H Russell, wrote of Mary in 1857:

“I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead”.

Mary is one of British history’s great Black female figures due to her drive, good citizenship and entrepreneurship.

Olive Morris (1952-1979) – A key female figure in British civil rights

Olive was an important figure in terms of civil rights in Britain. She recognised that Black people in the Britain did not have the same rights as other people, simply because of the colour of their skin – and Olive was one of many who worked tirelessly to change that. Olive raised awareness of the inequalities by organising and leading demonstrations, travelling, writing, and setting up support groups.

As a teenager, Olive joined the Black Panthers’ Youth Collective at a time when there were few legal protections against racial discrimination in Britain. In 1969, at just 17 years old, Olive was caught up in an incident of police brutality – she was beaten by police officers as a consequence of fighting for injustice. Olive was then arrested on charges of assault. This incident launched a movement of Black women in Britain fighting against racial discrimination.

Olive continued to campaign for the rights of Black people in Britain and was a founding member of groups like the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) and the Brixton Black Women’s Group –the first networks established in Britain to take action on issues specifically affecting Black women. The networks had great influence, mobilising Black women to engage in politics and push back against inequalities, particularly in relation to public housing, immigration, family planning and education.

Lilian Bader (1918-2015)– One of the first Black women to join the British Armed Forces

Lilian was born in Liverpool in 1918. When war broke out in 1939, she wanted to do her bit for the war effort. She started out at an army base in Yorkshire as a canteen assistant, serving food to servicemen. However, shortly after when it was revealed that father was born in Barbados, and not in Britain, she was dismissed because of the ‘colour bar’. As such, Lilian got a job in domestic service whilst looking for potential opportunities to get involved in war work. She had higher ambitions and her persistence paid off as she was accepted into the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1941. Lilian trained in instrument repair, before becoming a leading aircraftwoman. She was one of the first group of women to be allowed on to planes to check for leaks in their vital pipes. Rising the ranks, she eventually earned the rank of Corporal.

As Lilian was not a stranger to racism, and so she also dedicated time to fighting racism and prejudice by writing letters to politicians and the media and sharing her story. She was determined that the contribution made by Black and Asian Britons to the country’s defence should be recognised and remembered.

In addition to these women, there are many other remarkable women who deserve recognition for their incredible achievements and contributions to British society. These women should be celebrated not only during Black History Month but all year round too.

This blog is part of a series to celebrate Black History Month 2020. Did you miss the first blog? Catch up now to learn about the life of renowned activist, Wangari Maathai by Arushi Tewari.