Black British women who shaped our history

2020 has been a year of tragedy and grief. In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, it has been something of an awakening about racism and the west’s colonial past, for the mainstream at least. (Those on the fringes have been raising such issues as police brutality, employment discrimination and health inequities for decades.) The positive is that more and more people are asking questions about our past, not to castigate or condemn, but to understand how history has shaped the present. So, in celebration of this year’s Black History Month, here is a non-exhaustive list of some of Britain’s most inspiring Black women whose stories have often been forgotten in the white- and male-washing of history.

Baroness Valerie Amos – politician and diplomat
(13 March, 1954–present)

Valerie Amos was born in Guyana in 1954. She completed her education in the UK. A woman of firsts, she was the first Black deputy head girl at her secondary school. After studying Sociology at the University of Warwick, she worked in local government in a number of London boroughs. She was made a life peer in 1997, becoming the first Black woman to sit in the House of Lords. In 2003, she was appointed Secretary of State for International Development, making her the first Black woman to serve as a Cabinet minister. She was the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator between 2010 and 2015.

She was appointed Director of SOAS in 2015, becoming the first Black woman to lead a university in the UK. “I was taken aback when I found out I’d be the first black female head of a university”, she told the Guardian upon her appointment. Valerie is currently the Master of University College, Oxford; she is the first ever Black head of an Oxford college.

Barbara Beese – activist and one of the Mangrove Nine

(2 January, 1946–present)

Barbara Beese is a former member of the Black British Panthers and is one of only two living activists who were part of the Mangrove Nine. The Mangrove Nine were nine Black people charged with incitement to riot when they protested against the systematic targeting of The Mangrove, a West Indian restaurant in London’s Notting Hill, by police. Though hard to imagine today, in the 1960s and 1970s many Windrush-generation families of colour lived in Notting Hill because of the cheap rents there. The Mangrove was a hub for Black intellectuals, creatives and activists. It was repeatedly raided by police, who claimed they suspected there were drugs on the premises, despite a lack of evidence and the famous anti-drug stance held by the owner, Frank Critchlow.

On 9 August, 1970, members of the local Black community and anti-racism allies marched outside a local police station. Of the 19 arrested, 9 were tried. By campaigning for public support and putting together a case that exposed the contradictions in the prosecution’s case, all nine were acquitted of inciting a riot. Five of the nine were acquitted of all other charges. The judge presiding over the trial concluded that there was “evidence of racial hatred” in the Metropolitan Police. It is the 50th anniversary of the trial this December.

Barbara also wrote for Race Today, a political magazine that operated between 1969 and 1988.

Speaking in 2013, Barbara said: “I do wonder, given what’s happening in our schools, I do wonder, given the experiences of everyday people [who have] a government that’s committed to social inequality rather than equality, that we haven’t had people out on the streets in different ways. I think the riots of a couple of years ago were probably flashed by that sense of injustice.”

Mangrove, directed by Steve McQueen, is a cinematic retelling of this historic moment. It’s the first in a series of five films celebrating Black British history and culture. Mangrove will premiere on BBC One on 15 November and will also be available on BBC iPlayer.

Emma Clarke – First Black woman footballer


Liverpool-born Emma Clarke is considered to be the first Black woman footballer in the UK. Her story was only uncovered recently. The artist Stuart Gibbs was researching the history of women in football for an exhibition when he discovered Emma, but there is scant biographical information about her. All we know is that she worked as a confectioner’s apprentice and likely played football in the streets with her sisters, at least one of whom also went on to play professionally.

She grew up a few streets away from Helen Graham Matthews, who founded Mrs Graham’s XI – the first women’s football team in Britain. Mrs Graham was forced to move to England from Scotland after football was banned there. Emma made her British Ladies team debut in 1895, in London’s Crouch End.

Offside, a play about four women footballers across three centuries, including Emma, written by Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish, toured the UK in 2018.

Emma Clarke is second from the left in the back row

Leila Hassan Howe – activist and editor

(13 June, 1948–present)

Leila Hassan Howe was born on 13 June, 1948 in London to a working-class English mother and a father from Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania). Her father was Muslim and, according to husband and fellow activist, Darcus Howe, she grew up as a devout member of the faith. At the age of 10, her parents divorced and her father was granted custody. He decided to take his daughter to Zanzibar, telling her: “Everything you’ve been taught about Africa and Africans isn’t true.” She lived there until 1964, shortly after Zanzibar gained independence from the UK and the Zanzibar revolution broke out.

Leila was part of the Black Unity and Freedom Party (BUFP), which fought for racial justice. She also worked for the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) and was a founding member of the Race Today Collective, a Black power organisation that took over the publishing of Race Today from the IRR, enabling it to take a more radical position. She was editor of Race Today between 1986 and 1988. In the 1980s she worked with Olive Morris (below), running Race Today’s “Basement Sessions.”

Following the New Cross Fire in January 1981, which was suspected to have been caused by a racist arson attack and in which 13 young Black people died, Leila helped to organise a 20,000-person protest, later named Black People’s Day of Action. But the police failed to seriously investigate the suspected racist violence. Designed, in Leila’s own words, to “cause maximum disruption”, protestors managed to stop traffic on Blackfriars Bridge. “Today it is considered to be a turning point in black British identity,” writes Kehinde Andrews.

Leila also campaigned for Arts Council England to recognise the Notting Hill Carnival as an art form.

Most recently, in 2019, she co-edited the Race Today anthology Here to Stay, Here to Fight. You can read the first few pages for free here.

Olive Morris – community organiser and squatters’ rights activist

(26 June, 1952–12 July 1979)

Olive Morris was born in St Catherine, Jamaica, in 1952. When she was nine, she and her brother, Basil, joined their parents, who had moved to England. She lived in South London for most of her life.

In 1969, at the age of 17, she was beaten by police officers outside Desmond’s Hip City, a record shop in Brixton, after attempting tohelp Clement Gomwalk, a Nigerian diplomat who was accused of having stolen the Mercedes he was driving. The “sus” laws of the time, akin to today’s Stop and Search, granted powers to the police to stop and search people who ‘looked’ like they were doing something wrong. Black people were disproportionately targeted.

She participated in numerous demonstrations and fought for squatters’ rights. Along with her friend and fellow activist, Liz Obi, she squatted in a vacant flat above a launderette in Lambeth, where they resisted many eviction attempts. It was the first privately owned building to be successfully squatted in Lambeth. It was later turned into a bookshop, Sabaar, that catered to the Black community. It became a meeting space for groups like the Black Workers’ Movement and Black People Against State Harassment.

In 1978, she co-founded the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) in London and support groups in Manchester

She tragically died at the age of 27, less than a year after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She is buried at Streatham Park Cemetery.

You can find out more about Olive at the Remember Olive Collective website, which was co-founded by Liz Obi.

Claudia Jones – activist and mother of the Notting Hill Carnival

(21 February, 1915– 24 December, 1964)

Claudia Jones was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1915. At the age of eight she moved to Harlem in New York with her parents and three sisters. She lived in New York for over 30 years. During this time she became an active member of the American Communist Party, which she joined largely on account of its uncompromising defence of the Scottsboro Boys.

In 1948, Claudia became the editor of ‘negro affairs’ for the party’s paper, the Daily Worker. She wrote about the need to dismantle the gender-neutral approach to anti-racism, explaining the triple exploitation that Black, working class women faced in the US, as elsewhere, while advocating for an emancipatory politics for all. She famously penned “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!” which appeared in the magazine Political Affairs in 1949. In this article, she developed what later came to be termed an intersectional analysis within a Marxist framework.

Claudia was put in prison four times between 1948 and 1955, primarily because of her involvement in the Communist Party. She was eventually ordered to be deported on 21 December, 1950, but Trinidad and Tobago refused her entry, in part because the British colonial governor, Major General Sir Hubert Elvin Rance, considered that “she may prove troublesome”. Claudia was granted asylum in the UK, settling in London, where she spent her remaining years working with London’s African-Caribbean community.

Disappointed at British Communists’ hostility to Black women in the UK, Claudia founded the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News (WIG), widely considered to have been Britain’s first major Black newspaper. Along with Frank Critchlow, owner of The Mangrove, she helped to launch the Notting Hill Carnival in 1959 as an annual showcase for Caribbean talent. She’s often called “the mother of the Notting Hill Carnival”.

Claudia died at the age of 49 of a heart attack on Christmas Eve, 1964, due to heart disease and the tuberculosis with which she was diagnosed aged 17 and which plagued her throughout her life. She is buried next to Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery.

Altheia Jones-LeCointe – physician and research scientist; activist and one of the Mangrove Nine

(9 January, 1945–present)

Altheia Jones-LeCointe was born in Trinidad on 9 January, 1945. In Trinidad, she won the Girl’s Island Scholarship, an annual competition for university study abroad. She came to the UK in 1965 to complete a PhD in Biochemistry at University College London. While she was studying in London, she became involved in community organising against racism. She worked as a teacher and organiser in the Universal Coloured Peoples’ Association (UCPA).

Along with Barbara Beese, Altheia is one of two living members of the Mangrove Nine. She and Darcus Howe, who was also charged as part of the Mangrove Trial, defended themselves and argued for an all-Black jury under the Magna Carta’s ‘jury of my peers’ clause. You can read more about their tireless fight for this right here. In Altheia’s closing speech she referred in detail to the police persecution the Black community in Notting Hill experienced.

Altheia was a central figure of the British Black Panther movement. She said, “The Black Panther movement put out this list: we wanted better housing; we wanted better education; we wanted the end to police brutality.” The Black Panthers held Saturday schools on Shakespeare Road, where they gave extra lessons in English, Maths and Black History.

Pauline Henriques OBE – first Black woman to appear on British TV, sexual health counselling pioneer and first Black woman magistrate

(1 April, 1914–1 November, 1998)

Pauline Henriques was born into a fairly wealthy family in Kingston, Jamaica in 1914. She moved with her family to England in 1919 as her father wanted his children to have an English education. The family was passionate about the theatre and would spend time reading plays at home together. She enrolled in a drama course at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) in 1932, when she was 18.

Because there were no roles for Black actors, except for maids, she recalls having to “white up” in order to play classical roles, such as Lady Macbeth. After struggling to find acting work in the 1930s and early 1940s, the BBC started a radio series for their West Indian Service called Caribbean Voices, which ran for 15 years. In 1946, she became the first Black woman actor to appear on British TV. She appeared as Hattie Harris in a 1946 BBC television version of Eugene O’Neill’s controversial play All God’s Chillun Got Wings.

Still, roles, especially serious ones, were few and far between for Black actors. Pauline co-founded the Negro Theatre Company, which produced and performed their own productions.

In the 1950s, she turned towards social work and pioneered sexual health counselling. For the next 40 years she worked with pregnant teenagers who had been cast out by their families, first with the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child, now Gingerbread, then with the Brook Advisory Centres (now Brook). She became Brook Advisory Centre’s Secretary in 1971.

In 1969, when abortion became legal, Pauline insisted that anyone requesting abortion received counselling. She supported a woman’s choice to have an abortion, but “felt that everyone should receive counselling before and after the procedure, to support women mentally through a uniquely personal experience.”

She became Britain’s first Black woman magistrate in 1966, and in 1969 was appointed OBE.


Image descriptions

  1. The feature image is a flyer calling for justice for the Mangrove Nine. In the tenth week of the trial these were distributed to black people around the court and Notting Hill to raise awareness of the case. It depicts the Mangrove Nine, from L-R: Barbara Beese, Radford “Darcus” Howe, Rupert Boyce, Rothwell Kentish, Altheia Jones-Lecointe, Frank Critchlow, Godfrey Millette and Rhodan Gordon. The flyer’s heading reads: “Battle for Freedom at Old Bailey.” Image used with permission courtesy of the National Archives
  2. This is a newspaper clipping reported the support of actress and activist Vanessa Redgrave. It is a double page spread with the headline “It’s the black man standing up for his rights” and there is a sub-heading that reads “The voice of angry militancy in Notting Hill yesterday.” Another subheading reads “Actress Vanessa offers help.” An image on the left-hand side of the spread shows the Mangrove restaurant with an unidentified person standing outside. There is a slogan that reads “Hands off the Mangrove” on the sunblind. On the right-hand side of the spread are two full-length photos: one shows Barbara Beese and Corin Redgrave walking along side-by-side. Barbara wears her dark hair in an afro and is wearing a long, patterned dress. She is looking down. Colin Redgrave has short blonde hair and glasses. He is wearing a white shirt, black trousers and a black jacket. He is also looking down. The caption underneath the photo reads: “After the court hearing… Colin Redgrave who stood bail for her.” The other image is of Vanessa Redgrave. She has long blonde hair and is wearing sunglasses. She is wearing a long, patterned dress and carrying a large, black umbrella. Her left hand is drawn to her face as if she is worried. The caption underneath reads: “Actress Vanessa Redgrave… her help was not needed.” Image used with permission courtesy of the National Archives.
  3. This is a black and white picture of players from Mrs Graham’s XI in 1895.  It is a team of nine young women. The photograph is in the public domain. 
  4. This is a black and white picture of three police officers leading Altheia Jones Lecointe away after arresting her. Altheia looks distressed and is crying out. Image used with permission courtesy of the National Archives 
  5. This is a black and white image of Pauline Henriques reading a story during the weekly Caribbean Voices programme in 1952. The photo is cropped so that her hair isn’t really visible. She is wearing an all-black outfit with a large, circular white brooch. She is wearing a watch on her left watch. She is looking away from the camera and holding a piece of paper, presumably a script, in her right hand. Image in the public domain