Black History Month 2022
Time for Change: Actions Not Words
Black History Month – People You Should Know
Black History Month is an important time to celebrate the contributions and achievements of Black people in the UK, and to reflect on the past, present and future. We have highlighted people who you may not have heard of, but who have done or are doing important work. We hope you enjoy reading these profiles.
Dame Linda Dobbs
Dame Linda Dobbs was born in Sierra Leone before moving to the UK at 7 years old. She read Russian and Law at the University of Surrey before going on to study at the London School of Economics, gaining both a master’s degree and doctorate in juvenile justice in the Soviet Union.
Called to the bar in 1981, Dobbs specialised in criminal law, predominantly focussing on serious fraud, sexual offences and customs and excise cases. Dobbs took silk in 1998, and in 2004, became the first non-white high court judge in the UK.
Since retiring in 2013, Dame Linda has maintained an active role at the forefront of the judiciary. She has been an acting judge in the Grand Cayman, a Judicial Commissioner under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 and an Independent Assessor of Justice Compensation.
Dame Linda’s influence has been felt globally. Dobbs is a patron of various charities, including the African Prisons Project, the chair of the UK – Sierra Leone Pro Bono Network and she was previously the President of International Lawyers for Africa. She currently holds the position of Director of Training at the Judicial Institute for Africa based at the University of Cape Town, where she also holds an honorary professorship.
You can find out more about Dame Linda Dobbs here.
Dr Harold Moody
Dr Harold Moody was born in Jamaica in 1882, and immigrated to Britain to study medicine at King’s College London in 1904. His early experiences in Britain were tainted by the colour bar: he was refused lodgings and struggled to find work despite his medical qualifications.
Moody founded his own GP practice in Peckham in 1913 which provided free treatment for poor children, and Moody also shared his home with Black travellers who found it difficult to obtain lodgings or find work.
Moody’s influence in the Black community culminated with the founding of The League of Coloured Peoples (the “League”). A core aim of the League was to improve race relations and protect the social, educational, economic and political interests of its members. Crucially, the League held a three day conference in July 1944 to draw up a ‘Charter of Coloured People’ – this Charter demanded self-governance for Britain’s colonies, called for equal rights and pushed for an end to discrimination in employment and public spaces. Some of its members included Jomo Kenyatta, Una Marson and Paul Robeson. Moody served as President and founder of the League until his death in 1947.
Today, Moody’s life is commemorated with a blue plaque at the site of his former home and medical practice.
You can find out more about Dr Harold Moody here.
Connie Mark was a Jamaican-born community organiser and activist. She was recruited to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1943 at the age of 21, where she served as a medical secretary in the British Military Hospital in Kingston, Jamaica during the second world war. She was tasked with typing up the medical reports of the people who had been injured in the war, including documenting the horrific injuries they had received from bombings and combat, where she would often be on call 24 hours a day.
Mark was quickly promoted to Corporal in just 12 months, but she was denied a pay rise and even when her commanding officer recommended her for a British Empire Medal, her recognition was denied. Despite this, she still continued to work hard and campaign for Black women, specifically for them to be recognised for their service to the British Military and contributions to the war effort.
Mark joined the West Indian ex-Servicemen's Association and pressed for them to add women to the title of the organisation, and in 1989 she began lobbying for the inclusion of West Indians and women in the remembrance services for the fiftieth anniversary of the war's outbreak. She also co-founded the Mary Seacole Memorial Association to bring recognition to the accomplishments of the Jamaican nurse.
In 1992, Mark finally received her British Empire Medal and she was awarded an OBE in 2001. Mark continued her activism, until she was no longer physically able to do so.
You can find out more about Connie Mark here.
Ira Aldridge was an African American actor, best known as the first ever Black Shakespearean actor and the first African American actor to achieve success on the international stage.
Aldridge was born in New York on 24 July 1807. His early exposure to theatre included viewing plays from the high balcony of the Park Theatre in New York, working backstage at Chatham Theatre and seeing productions of Shakespeare's plays at the African Grove Theatre.
Aldridge moved to Liverpool, UK in 1824 at the age of 17 with limited acting experience and no media presence. Despite this he was able to make his European debut at London's Royal Coburg Theatre on 10th October 1825, which made him the first African-American actor to establish himself professionally in a foreign country. He played the lead role of Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam, 'A Slave's Revenge'. This was soon followed by his role as Gambia in The Slave, and most famously his role of Shakespeare's Othello, where he appeared at Covent Garden in 1833.
Aldridge battled with prejudice throughout his acting career. Despite this he developed into other roles and went on to play Richard III, Shylock, Iago, King Lear and Macbeth, becoming hugely successful in continental Europe, particularly Russia where he became one of the country's highest paid actors.
Aldridge pushed social boundaries as he often choose to directly address the audience on closing nights, where he would speak on various social issues and he was known to have spoken passionately about the injustice of slavery.
He left a lasting impression - Aldridge is the only African American to have a bronze plaque among the 33 actors honoured at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and Howard University has a theatre named after him.
You can find out more about Ira Aldridge here.
DAVID PITT, BARON PITT OF HAMPSTEAD
David Pitt was born in Grenada in 1913. He was the second peer of African descent to sit in the House of Lords, and is one of the longest serving Black parliamentarians. His journey to becoming a British Labour Party politician, political activist and general practitioner began when he attended the Grenada Boys' Secondary School where he won the Island Scholarship. This allowed him to pursue his career in medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He eventually returned to the Caribbean to begin his medical career by opening his own general practice in 1941. At the same time, his passion for social justice led him to become a founding member and leader of the West Indian National Party, a socialist party which advocated for political autonomy across the Caribbean.
In 1947, Pitt returned to Britain where he opened his own medical practice in Euston, London, and in 1959, he became the first person of African descent to become a parliamentary candidate, standing as the Labour Party candidate for Hampstead. Despite his unsuccessful campaign, which was marred by racist criticism and death threats, Pitt was elected to the London County Council in 1961, and in 1974, he became the first Black chair of the Greater London Council.
David Pitt became a member of the House of Lords in 1975; he played a key role in campaigning for the Race Relations Act 1976 and the movement against apartheid in South Africa. Pitt was also appointed President of the British Medical Association in 1985, a position he regarded as the pinnacle of his career.
To honour Pitt’s life, in 2004, he was named as one of '100 Great Black Britons' as part of Black History Month and was commemorated by a plaque in Camden, London where he worked as a doctor from 1950 to 1984.
You can find out more about Lord Pitt here.
HORACE OVÉ, CBE
Horace Ové, CBE is a Trinidad-born British filmmaker, photographer, painter and writer. He is one of the leading Black film-makers to emerge in London in the post-war period, and achieved worldwide acclaim for his films, Pressure and Playing Away. Pressure, which showcases three generations of a Trinidadian family living in West London, was the first feature-length fiction film by a Black director in Britain.
Ové also directed stage plays, including in 1973 Blackblast by Lindsay Barrett, which was the first Black play to be shown at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, and The Swamp Dwellers, by the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka.
Ové has spent a large part of his career documenting, as a photographer, Britain’s Black diaspora community. He also documented the emergence and development of the Notting Hill Carnival. Importantly, Ové’s work captures the heart the British Civil Rights movement: he has photographed several notable figures including Darcus Howe and Michael X, the founder of the British Black Panthers. Alongside this, Ové has photographed key figures in Black British literature, such as Sam Selvon, Andrew Salkey and John La Rose.
Ové’s work has been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, London’s V&A Museum, the Barbican and the Tate Britain.
You can find out more about Horace Ové here.
Phyllis Opoku-Gyimah, also known as Lady Phyll, has been a powerful force for change in the LGBT+ community and is considered to be one of Britain's most prominent activists. Born in Islington in the 1970s, she has said she was seen as a "trouble maker" at school because she questioned why her history lessons avoided discussion of colonialism and slavery. That same conviction and passion has continued to inform her activism as she has brought to the fore vital conversations about the intersection of race and sexuality: as recently as 2017, YouGov found that a third of Black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT people had experienced a hate crime or incident in the previous year, compared to one in five white LGBT people.
16 years ago, inspired by informal gatherings and community building within the Black lesbian community, she co-founded UK Black Pride, Europe's largest celebration for African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Caribbean-heritage LGBT+ people. She is also the executive director of Kaleidoscope Trust, a UK-based charity focused on fighting for the human rights of LGBT+ people across the Commonwealth. In 2016 she famously refused an MBE, observing that "LGBTQI people are still being persecuted, tortured and even killed because of sodomy laws" imposed by the British Empire. An icon in the LGBT+ community, Lady Phyll has already done much to make the world a better place.
Natasha Brown is a writer whose first novel Assembly was published in June 2021. Assembly is commendable not just for its story – which chronicles the experiences of a professionally successful black British woman – but its style. Its condensed prose borders on (and occasionally ventures into) poetry: a series of short tales weaved together to paint a frightening picture of a life enduring the personal and structural impacts of colonialism.
Brown's background as an author is unique: after studying Mathematics at Cambridge University, she embarked on a career in finance, and subsequently devoted time to reading foundation texts on linguistics and semiotics before winning a 2019 London Writers Award. One can only speculate about the extent to which Brown's own life informs her novel, but there is no doubt that the devastating accounts of discrimination faced by Assembly's narrator are profoundly relatable to many.
Key to the novel is the narrator's assertion that “nothing is a choice", and whether or not intended by Brown, the book serves as a strong metaphor on passive allyship, and the need for a more dynamic (and arguably angrier) approach to facing down injustice.
You can find out more about Natasha Brown here.