History - Honour black Britons

25th January 2013 at 00:00
The stories of these home-grown heroes should be taught all year

Most people would consider it a good thing that we have Black History Month, which takes place in October every year. And as an author and historian who specialises in the subject, I am delighted to visit schools and museums to enlighten people about our home-grown heroes. But I would argue that it is preferable for black history events to be held throughout the year, providing a greater understanding of black Britons and the contributions they have made to British society since the 1500s.

My own inspiration has been Esther Bruce, my adopted aunt - a black Londoner born before the First World War, who died in 1994 aged 81. I co-authored a biography of her, Aunt Esther's Story, in 1991. It was the first book to document the life of a black working-class woman in Britain.

Mainstream publishers have been reluctant to publish books about Britain's black communities. It took me eight years to find a publisher for Mother Country, a book about black Britons on the home front during the Second World War. Two years later, in 2012, the History Press published The Motherland Calls: Britain's black servicemen and women, 1939-45 and it has just commissioned a third title from me about Britain's black community during the First World War.

So perhaps the climate is finally changing. But I am concerned that schools and teachers are not aware of a broader range of British black role models - and teaching resources - that go beyond the familiar stories about Crimean War nurse Mary Seacole (the subject of recent curriculum controversy) and First World War army officer Walter Tull.

Schools are encouraged to teach young people about African Americans from history, such as post-war civil rights activists Dr Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. But should only African Americans be held up as role models? Surely the time has come for the lives of black Britons from history, such as Mary Prince, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Learie Constantine and Una Marson, to be taught in our schools.

And why is the concept of a black British civil rights movement so difficult to comprehend? It is different from the US's, certainly, but no less significant. Dr Harold Moody, founder of the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931, has been described as Britain's Dr Martin Luther King. And the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 - which arose from the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company to employ black or Asian bus crews - has more relevance to our youth than the story of Rosa Parks.

Stephen Bourne is a historian of black Britain. www.stephenbourne.co.uk

What else?

Find out about celebrated black scientists with this "Who am I?" puzzle shared by vnspence.


Teach pupils about black history, including the fight for civil rights, immigration into the UK and apartheid South Africa, using videos from BBC Learning Zone Class Clips.


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