Black History Month takes place this October, but what is it and why do we celebrate it?
First proposed in the early 1970s by academics within Kent state university, Black History Month reached Britain in 1987. It places emphasis on the achievements of people of colour, those often forgotten by our history books due to the colour of their skin. This year's Black History Month strives to ‘dig deeper, look closer, think bigger’, aiming to create an understanding of history that is more inclusive.
This month A Girl For All Time is celebrating the richness and diversity of our history by discussing some inspirational black historical figures.
Mary Seacole (1805-1881)
Born in 1805, Mary Seacole spent much of her life caring for the sick and injured. Before her journey to England, Seacole nursed patients during the 1850 cholera epidemic in Jamaica.
Shortly afterwards in 1853 the Crimean war broke out on the south Russian boarder (now Ukraine) between a coalition of Britain, France and the Ottomans (Turkey- not the furniture!) and Russia. Seacole was determined to help and travelled to England in 1854.
Unfortunately, due to her training in Jamaica and the racism of the time she was not allowed to travel to Crimea with the other British nurses. She therefore raised the money herself to travel there and collected debris to build her hotel which served both guests and the injured. Her care of the wounded and sick gave her the nickname ‘Mother Seacole’ as she regularly attended to the soldiers directly on the battlefield!
Despite being remembered for her compassion and skill as a nurse, Seacole was also a formidable businesswoman and had investments in everything from gold mining to hospitality.
Today Seacole is remembered as a heroine of the Crimean war and in 2004 was voted the greatest ‘black Briton’.
Madam CJ Walker (Sarah Breedlove) (1867-1919)
Born in 1867 Louisiana, Madam CJ Walker was the only child out of six siblings to be born into freedom. She was also orphaned at the age of seven.
To escape abuse from her brother in law, Walker married in 1881 at the age of fourteen. However tragically, two years after her daughter A’Lelia was born in 1885, her husband passed away. Widowed and with a young daughter Walker moved to Missouri and worked in several low paid jobs to ensure A’Lelia received an education.
Whilst working with her brothers in a Missouri barbers and for hair care entrepreneur Annie Malone, Walker became intrigued by the failure of mainstream brands in appealing to black women. It was through this intrigue that she developed her own haircare products specifically for the hair texture of black women, something unheard of in the industry at the time.
In catering to this previously forgotten demographic the ‘Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company’ was a roaring success. Starting her business with only $1.25, Walker is credited as the first black, female self-made millionaire.
She’s also well known for her work promoting education and opportunities for African- Americans.
Lilian Bader (1918- 2015)
Lilian Bader is best known for being one of the first black female Royal Air Force pilots.
She served during World War Two and faced many struggles due to institutionalised racism, being initially rejected from her role in the Navy, Army and Airforce Institute due to her part Barbadian heritage. However, desperate to serve, she was eventually accepted by the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and began a course to become an Instrument Repairer.
Tragically just two weeks into her course Bader received the news that her brother had been lost at sea. Despite this loss, Bader passed her course with a first class and rose to prominence in the WAAF where she served as an acting corporal until 1944.
Often downplayed in traditional histories of World War Two, Bader’s story represents the invaluable contribution of both women and people of colour to the British war effort.
To learn more about Black History Month check out the official website here.