7 Black British Women Throughout History That Deserve To Be Household Names In 2019
International Women’s Day is all about loudly celebrating all women and girls across the globe. Unfortunately, however, many women with incredible stories that have paved the way for us have somehow fallen under the radar, and aren’t being written about in history books, or discussed in school classrooms. Recognising women who have lived in-between the intersection of race and gender, and have had to fight two types of oppression for equal rights, can’t be overlooked on this International Women’s Day, so I have put together a list of the black British women in history that deserve to be household names in 2019.
Of all the marginalised group in British history, black women deserve particular attention. Facing both sexism and racism, these hidden figures have fought hard to help liberate other black women coming up behind them, and to carve out spaces in industries tremendously difficult for us to permeate. From publishers and activists to symphony composers and academics, these seven women were trailblazers in their fields. Through their hard work, talent, and resilience, they have opened doors that were once firmly closed.
So, in celebration of International Women’s Day 2019, here are some inspirational black British women who have been instrumental in changing the history of Britain, black activism, and women’s liberation.
1. Mary Prince
Mary Prince was a British abolitionist and autobiographer born in 1788. Her autobiography The History Of Mary Prince was first published in 1831 making her the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography in Britain, as the Independent reports. This was massive at the time because slavery was still legal in England and unrest from abolitionists made her autobiography very popular — selling out three runs in the first year alone. Prince's work documented her brutal treatment as an enslaved person in Bermuda, and it was instrumental in the anti-slave trade movement. Prince, who worked with the Anti Slavery Society, was also the first woman to present an anti-slavery letter to parliament.
2. Claudia Jones
Claudia Jones was an activist and journalist, and, most notably, she helped set up one of London’s most beloved events: Notting Hill Carnival. Born in Trinidad in 1915 before moving to America, Jones was passionate about fighting for the rights of women — especially working-class black women.
Claudia Jones moved to the U.S. as a child, and this is where she became a black nationalist feminist and communist, and where her journalism career started. Jones was eventually arrested and deported to the UK (as she was a "subject of the British Empire") in 1955 for being a member of the Communist Party.
In 2016, a survey revealed that British journalism is 94% white and 55% male, and yet Claudia Jones was breaking into this industry some 60 years prior to that by founding what is considered Britain’s first major black newspaper: the West Indian Gazette.
3. Evelyn Dove
Evelyn Dove was a jazz and cabaret singer born London in 1902, and she was the first black singer to perform on the BBC. Born to a Sierra Leonean father and British mother, Dove studied singing, piano, and elocution at the Royal Academy Of Music before becoming a jazz performer. Dove struggled to get into the world of classical music as a black woman, but had a successful career nonetheless. Dove was a part of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which aimed to popularise black music around the UK. Find out more about the singer by reading Evelyn Dove: Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen by Stephen Bourne, published by Jacaranda.
4. Olive Morris
Born in 1952, Olive Morris was a black nationalist, activist, and community leader from Brixton. Morris was a member of the British Black Panther Party and the co-founder of the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent. Although she sadly passed at the young age of 27, Morris dedicated her life to Civil Rights activism and her work had a tremendous impact on those around her. The Olive Morris memorial award was launched in 2011, which gives bursaries to young black women.
5. Margaret Busby
Margaret Busby is a British publisher, writer, and editor. She is the co-founder of the publishing house Allison & Busby —established in 1967 — making her the youngest and first black woman to set up a publishing house in the UK. Busby also edited Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology Of Word And Writing By Women Of African Descent in 1992, which compiles more than 200 women’s words from the African diaspora.
According to a study taken in 2017, the British publishing industry is 90% white, meaning there is still a massive need for the inclusion of ethnic minorities in editing and publishing. However, thanks to Busby's inspirational work some 50 years prior, some crucial doors have been opened to black women trying to find their feet in publishing.
6. Dr Olivette Otele
Dr Olivette Otele is a French-Cameroonian academic with a British family. In 2018, Otele, a colonial and postcolonial historian, became the first black woman in the UK to become a history professor. On Twitter she commented “May this open the door 2many v hard working women, especially WoC, even + specifically Black women, in academia in general & in History in particular. In strength, peace and love my ppl."
A study by Advance HE shows that, in the 2016-17 academic year, only 25 black women were recorded to be professors out of around 19,000 across the country. Within that number, 14,000 of the professors were white men. The fact that Otele has managed to take up space in academia is monumental, and it will hopefully encourage other black women to do the same.
7. Dr Shirley Thompson
Shirley Thompson is a violinist, composer, conductor, and cultural activist. Thompson became the first woman in Europe to have composed and conducted a symphony within the last 40 years. Born to Jamaican parents, Thompson started off her career in music by playing in youth sympathy orchestras, and has since gone on to compose pieces for the BBC and for the award-winning ballet PUSH.