Black British Firsts

We celebrate the unsung heroes of Black British history whose contributions have for too long been ignored and forgotten. From the Black Briton’s who conquered their professional fields to notable Black figures who broke down barriers to transform UK society.

 

 

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

 

She was an enslaved West African who moved from America to England in the 18th century. She wrote her first poem at the age of 14 and six years later published her first book in the UK. She was the first African-American author of a book of poetry. It was an international best seller and confounded the period’s views on Black female writers.

John Richard Archer (1863-1932)

 

He was a British politician and Black activist. In 1913 he was elected the Mayor of Battersea, becoming the first African-Caribbean heritage mayor in London. He was a notable Pan-Africanist and the founding president of the African Progress Unit.

Phyllis Wheatley (1753-1784)

 

She was an enslaved West African who moved from America to England in the 18th century. She wrote her first poem at the age of 14 and six years later published her first book in the UK. She was the first African-American author of a book of poetry. It was an international best seller and confounded the period’s views on Black female writers.

Ira Aldridge

(1807-1867)

He was the UK’s first Black Shakespearean actor despite the racist views of some theatre critics. The African American actor was born in New York City and came to Britain as a teenager to pursue a career on the stage. He first performed  in 1825 and spent most his career touring the UK and Europe. He was the highest paid Black actor at the time and was especially popular in Russia.

Jimmy Peters

(1879-1954)

 

Born to a Jamaican father and English mother in Lancashire in England. Jimmy Peters is notable as being the first African-Caribbean heritage man to play rugby union for England and the only Black England player until Chris Oti made his debut in 1988.

Una Marson

(1905-1965)

Poet, dramatist, and broadcaster Una Marson made history by becoming the first black woman to be employed by the BBC during the second world war. She worked alongside writers’ TS Eliot and George Orwell on the Calling West Indies radio series before establishing her own poetry strand ‘’Caribbean Voices’’. She went onto become the first Black producer at the BBC despite experiencing racism and sexism from some of her co-workers.

John 'Jack' London (1905-1966)

He was the first Black British athlete to win Olympic medals. Runner Jack London won the bronze in the 4x4 100 metres relay and sliver in the 100 metres sprint in the 1928 Olympics.

Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780)

 

Renaissance man Sancho was a writer, abolitionist, composer, actor and shopkeeper. He was a celebrated a man of letters and leading social reformer. He is the only Briton of African heritage known to have been eligible and voted in an 18th century general election through property qualifications.

John Edmonstone (1793-1822)

 

Edmonstone was an enslaved African who left modern day Guyana for Scotland after gaining his freedom. He learnt taxidermy – the practice of stuffing animals after they have died – and became a teacher at the Edinburgh University, where he taught Charles Darwin. Edmonstone gave Darwin inspiring accounts of tropical rain forests in South America and may have encouraged him to explore there.

Earl Cameron CBE (1917-2020)

 

He was the veteran film and TV actor who along with Cy Grant blazed the way for Black performers in Britain. Cameron made his screen debut in the 1951 film Pool of London, in a rare starring role for a Black British actor. He made over 40 movie features and appeared in several TV series include The Prisoner. His screen credits include the 1965 Bond movie Thunderball and parts in the movies The Queen and Inception.

Lilian Bader

(1918-2015)

She was born in Liverpool to a Barbados merchant seaman who had served in the First World War and a British-born mother of Irish parentage. She was one of the first Black women to join the British Armed Forces.

Stuart Hall BFA (1932-2014)

 

He was an important figure in multiculturalism. Stuart Hall was a sociologist, cultural theorist and political activist. He was one of the founders of what is now known as British Cultural Studies. He expanded the scope of cultural studies to deal with race and gender; and was responsible for the first cultural studies course in Britain, which was offered by the University of Birmingham.

Olive Morris

(1952-1979)

 

In her short life Olive Morris made her mark in Britain, fighting for racial, gender and social equality in the late 1960s and 1970s. She co-founded the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD) and was part of the British Black Panther Movement. She was key player in the squatter rights campaigns of the 1970s and helped form the Black Women’s Mutual Aid and the Manchester Black women’s Co-op.

Sir Learie Constantine MBE (1901-1971)

 

Britain’s first black peer, Sir Learie Constantine MBE was a cricketer, lawyer, Black rights activist and politician who served as Trinidad’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. He advocated against racial discrimination and was influential in helping pass the 1965 Race Relations Act in Britain. He was knighted in 1962 and made a life peer in 1969.

Claudia Jones (1915-1964)

 

She was the visionary feminist and Marxist who developed the theory of triple oppression which connects race, class and gender to oppression. She was deported from the USA for being a communist and came to Britain in 1955. She was a leading Black activist and founded the first Black British newspaper and the Caribbean Festival – a precursor to the Notting Hill Carnival. She is buried next to her hero, Karl Marx, in the Highgate Cemetery in North London.

Yvonne Conolly

In 1969, Yvonne Conolly became Britain’s first female Black headteacher, she received racist abuse but refused to let that define her. On her first day, she had to be escorted into the school by senior inspectors from the London education authority because of the severity of threats she’d received. She was a head teacher at Ringcross Infant School, Highbury, London for eleven years before joining Ofsted as a school inspector.

Sislin Fay Allen

In 1968 Sislin Fay Allen became Britain’s first Black policewoman in the UK. She served in the Metropolitan Police in London from 1968 to 1972.

Barbara Blake Hannah

 

Long before Trevor MacDonald and Moira Stuart hit our TV screens there was Barbara Blake Hannah. She was the first Black person to appear on British TV in a non-entertainment role in 1968, landing the job of on-camera reporter for daily evening show Today on Thames TV. Racism forced her to leave the industry in 1972 and she remained a forgotten face until she was formally recognised by the Press Gazette after they named an award after her.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE

 

She is the British space scientist, science educator and presenter of the BBC’s The Sky at Night. She holds a PhD in machinal engineering and is managing director of Science Innovation Ltd, through which she organises public engagement activities which show school children and adults the wonders of space. She has appeared on the UK Powerlist six times.

Naomi Campbell

 

She was discovered at the age of 15 and was one of the five original supermodels of the 1990s. She was the first Black British model to grace the cover of British Vogue and has appeared on the covers of more than 500 magazines during her career. She is also an actress, businesswoman and founded the Fashion Relief and We Love Brazil charities.

Mo Ibrahim

 

He is the Sudanese born Brit who founded telecommunication company Celtel, which he sold in 2005 for 4.3 billion. He is notable for being the first Black British billionaire. He set up the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to encourage better governance in Africa and was ranked first in the annual Powerlist of influential Black Britons.

Bill Morris, Baron Morris of Handworth

In 1992 Bill Morris became the first Black leader of a major trade union when he was elected General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1992. He led the union for 11 years and was knighted in 2003. He later joined the House of Lords as a working peer for the Labour party in 2006.

Bobby Joseph

 

He is the critically acclaimed comic book writer of Skank and Black Eye magazines and the Scotland Yardie graphic novel. Skank was the first Black British satirical magazine published between 1994 and 1997. It took an irrelevant look at Black British life in the 1990s but was forced to close, after being sued by the runner Linford Christie over the cartoon ‘Lunch-box Christie’. His comic work was prominently featured at the Anarchy in the UK comic exhibition at the British Library in 2015 and was seen by over 60,000 visitors.

​​Dotun Adebayo MBE

 

He is a radio presenter, writer and publisher who is best known for his work on BBC radio 5 Live. He was the music editor of The Voice newspaper and has written for Pride Magazine, New Nation and mainstream publications such as The Guardian and The Times. He founded Black publishing company X Press in the early 90s whose titles included Yardie and the Baby Father series; and also produced the Skank magazine.

Patrick Vernon OBE

 

He is the social commentator and political activist who founded the ‘100 Great Black Britons’ campaign and successfully lobbied the government to institute the 22nd June as ‘Windrush Day’. The annual observed day acknowledges migrant contributions to British society.

 

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