Triumph for a war heroine

13th February 2004 at 00:00
Schools were invited to select their winner from100 Great Black Britons.

Terry Saunders reports on the result

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a candidate. So was William III's wife, Queen Charlotte, Sir Trevor Mcdonald, Ms Dynamite and England's patron saint, St George. But in the end, the winner of the 100 Great Black Britons vote, set up to help schools choose projects for the annual Black History month in October, and to showcase Britain's positive black culture and history, was Crimean War heroine Mary Seacole.

Born in Jamaica in 1805 to a Scottish soldier father and a Jamaican mother, Mary overcame prejudice to travel to the war, at her own expense, to nurse wounded soldiers.

Organiser Patrick Vernon says the 100 Great Black Britons project "reflects the rich, diverse and positive historical background of black Britain that has often been overlooked or neglected". He says there was a terrific response from schools, which used the event as a focus for innovative history and citizenship projects. He adds that Mary Seacole was a clear winner: "Her life and achievements are something we can all admire and celebrate."

One school that will celebrate the result is Farnborough Grange Nursery and Infant School in Hampshire. Pupils decided Mary Seacole would get their vote and they wrote a poem to say why: Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole helped in the war,

because she didn't like the things that she saw.

There was dirt and germs and blood everywhere,

So she put on her apron and tied back her hair.

She helped the soldiers fight disease,

but all of these did not come with ease.

Mary died poor and alone,

but we now remember the things that were done.

She gets our vote for being great,

we must remember her before it's too late!

Headteacher Maggie Bonfield says the school took part as a way of highlighting its pupils' cultural diversity. "We encouraged the children to investigate their own cultural backgrounds, to describe themselves, draw pictures and take photographs. And they investigated their own family backgrounds to show that every-one, wherever they come from, has similarities and differences. The children also looked at ways in which black Britons have contributed to our society, with guided research on the internet. They then discussed possible candidates and chose two - Mary Seacole and footballer Ian Wright - to feature in a debate on achievement before casting their vote in a secret ballot. And there was certainly no doubt about the winner!"

But at Christchurch C of E Secondary School in Finchley, London, the students decided that their vote would go to one of today's leading black personalities - newscaster and journalist Sir Trevor McDonald. The school, with a high population of black students, used the event to explore the democratic voting system. A polling day was organised and students put up special displays and gathered information about possible candidates.

Librarian Collette Brewty, who organised the project, says that taking part increased the students' awareness of the number of successful black people in the country.

"This led to work on role models and resulted in an increase in self-confidence and self-esteem. We also contacted black people in our local community who were not 'famous' but had achieved success in their chosen fields. This highlighted the great importance of pursuing and achieving personal goals."

The students widened the scope of the vote by linking it with a special name day, where everyone wore a name badge.

This encouraged communication and dialogue and provided the opportunity for discussions on the importance of identity - both historically and culturally.

The full list of contenders can be found on the 100 Great Black Britons website and there are links to a large range of resources and contacts, as well as suggestions for school investigations: Terry Saunders is a freelance education journalist and former editor of Junior Education

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