Black History Month – History you should know

Black history is a time to reflect on the importance of Black communities, and the importance of Black figures throughout history both at home and internationally.

It’s also a great time, however, to educate ourselves, and learn something new. The British curriculum has faced recent criticism in regards to teaching Black history. 

Before reading ahead, try and answer these five questions:

  • When was slavery made illegal in the British Empire?
  • What was the Bristol Bus Boycott?
  • What era was the first Black Briton from?
  • Who was Mary Seacole?
  • Who originally sang the song ‘Hound Dog’?

If you’re struggling don’t worry; a worrying lack of information is taught in British schools surrounding Black history. Below is a brief answer to each, and access to resources where you can learn more about Black History in the UK.

When did slavery end in the British Empire?

Slavery officially ended in the British Empire in 1833, giving ‘freedom’ to 800,000. However, in reality, it was closer to 1838, as those formerly enslaved had to serve an “apprenticeship”. This meant that many still had to work for little to no pay, for 45 hours a week, and in conditions akin to that of when they were slaves. 


The British Empire were responsible for transporting nearly 3.1 million slaves, with a reported 400,000 dying en-route. Not only this, but 46,000 slave owners were compensated nearly £20 million; equivalent today to roughly over £20 billion:

“The compensation of Britain’s 46,000 slave owners was the largest bailout in British history until the bailout of the banks in 2009. Not only did the slaves receive nothing, under another clause of the act they were compelled to provide 45 hours of unpaid labour each… In effect, the enslaved paid part of the bill for their own manumission.” – The Guardian

What was the Bristol Bus Boycott?

The Bristol Bus Boycott, 1963, arose when Black employees were denied the opportunity to work as bus crews, despite there being an employment shortage. Discrimination within the Bristol Omnibus Company was considered an ‘open secret’, and in 1955 it was revealed that the Transport and General Workers Union, or the TGWU, had passed a resolution stating “coloured” workers should not work as bus crews. 


“The TGWU in the city had said that if one black man steps on the platform as a conductor, every wheel will stop.” – Black History Month


The boycott, organised by youth worker Paul Stephenson and the West Indian Development Council (initially composed of Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown), lasted for four months, and was supported by people nationwide, from those at Bristol University to politicians Tony Benn and Fenner Brockway. 


The boycott officially ended on the 28th of August, and on September 17th Raghbir Singh became the first non-white bus driver. 

The Bristol Bus Boycott set a precedent across the UK in fighting racial discrimination. It was believed to be influential in creating the Race Relations Act of 1965, which made “racial discrimination unlawful in public places”, and subsequently the Race Relations Act of 1968, which extended the provisions to employment and housing.

What era was the first Black Briton from?

Referred to as the ‘The Ivory Bangle lady’, she is the earliest proven Black woman in the British Isles. Discovered in 1901 in York, the remains have been traced back to the 4th century, during Roman rule. 

The skeleton of the Ivory Bangle Lady was found alongside ivory and jewelry, indicating she was affluent, and there is strong evidence that she is of north African descent. This challenges stereotypes associated with the Roman Empire and in turn ancient Britain. 

Research indicates she was born and brought up in the south of Britain, and she passed away between the ages of 18-23. Inscribed bone was found next to her, reading “Hail, sister may you live with God.”

“It puts into question assumptions that black people have never been aspirationally wealthy or had any kind of wealth”- The Black Curriculum

Who was Mary Seacole?

Mary Seacole, commonly referred to as Mother Seacole, was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. She was a nurse and business woman, and is widely believed to be as influential as Florence Nightingale. 


She set up a ‘British Hotel’ during the Crimean War, where she tended to thousands of British soldiers. She was known to ride on horseback into the battlefields, even when under fire, to nurse wounded men from both sides of the war. 


Over her career, she contracted cholera, battled racism, and overcame ill-health to keep helping those in need. 


Her legacy stretches further than her nursing, however, and her book, theWonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’, was the first ever autobiography published by a free black woman in the British Empire. 


Seacole was recognised at the time as a hero, receiving medals from governments across nations, and a charity gala for her in 1857 was attended by over 80,000 people. However, her legacy was lost to history until 1980, until rediscovered by historians. 


Her statue outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London is recognised by many to be the first in the UK to recognise the achievements of a Black woman.

Who originally sang the song Hound Dog?

Hound Dog, popularised by Elvis Presley, was actually first performed by Big Mama Thorton. This isn’t the only example of covers becoming more popular than the original; take Tainted Love by Soft Cell, originally performed by Gloria Jones, as an example. However, it does highlight a lack of history taught around popular music in the UK and abroad.

A majority of Western music popular today has roots deep in black culture. Rock is a derivative of blues music, which originated in the Deep South of the United States. It later became popularised by artists such as The Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. Jazz music gave birth to swing and big band music, popularised by artists such as Frank Sinatra and Artie Shaw. 

Popular, mainstream, black artists have existed since the birth of records. However, so often you see a trend of white artists becoming more renowned, due to them being more marketable, and as a result black music history discredited.