30 Years: Black History Month
This month sees the celebration of the 30th year of Black History Month (http://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/section/news-views/). This blog post aims at celebrating the contribution that black people have made to British history and the fact that this is finally beginning to filter into mainstream British historical contexts.
The Blue Plaque scheme
The Blue Plaque scheme, now run by English Heritage, began 150 years ago with the first plaque erected to commemorate the poet Lord Byron at his birthplace, 24 Holles Street in 1867. There are now more than 900 plaques across London and the type of people celebrated continues to be expanded. English Heritage has recently “recognise[d] the need to increase the racial diversity of the [Blue Plaque] scheme in order to properly reflect London’s cosmopolitan and culturally vibrant history” (http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/themes/londons-black-history/). Currently, there are 9 individuals listed on the ‘Celebrating London’s Black History’ page.
One such individual celebrated on this page, whose plaque I was fortunate enough to see whilst on a walking tour of Soho recently, is Mary Seacole. What makes Seacole stand out perhaps from others celebrated, is not only was she black, but she was also a woman, and a woman who lived in London comparatively early in celebrated Black British History (1805-1881). The significance of these dates, as it has been recognised by critics on the Black History Month Website linked above, is that;
“The lives and impacts of Black Georgians, Victorians and Edwardians are so far outside the comfort zone of many that we prefer the kinds of history showcased during the month of October: histories locked within the narratives of African American experiences and the entertainment industry…The message is clear. Black history (apart from the arrival of the SS Windrush in 1948) occurred elsewhere.”
As suggested by this quote, Mary Seacole and her story is quite unusual in its time frame, therefore possibly making her an even more important character in British history.
Mary Seacole lived in London for many years of her life and is commemorated by a blue plaque at 14 Soho Square, where she started to write her autobiography. She was a pioneering nurse and ‘a heroin of the Crimean War’.
During the 1840s and 1850s she nursed cholera patients in Jamaica and Panama. She helped to organise the medical care in a British military camp during an epidemic of yellow fever in Jamaica. When Seacole heard of the outbreak of the Crimean War she left the Caribbean for England. Her efforts to be recruited as a nurse were rebuffed by the team who worked under Florence Nightingale due to the colour of her skin. Determined, she set out for the Crimea on her own. Once there, she set up the British Hotel between Balaklava and Sevastopol with money paid by officers and those who could afford it. She provided food and medicine for all, as well as tending to the injured. There are even reports of her tending to the wounded whilst under fire on the front line. She was the first woman to enter Sevastopol after it fell to the Allied siege in 1855. Lord Rokeby, the British commander-in-chief, praised her work and she was celebrated in British media at the time.
Similar to Mary Seacole in terms of date, is the history of Ira Aldridge (1807-1867), whose Blue Plaque is located at 5 Hamlet Road, where he lived towards the end of his life having established himself as a respected stage actor.
Ira Aldridge was the first black actor to play Othello on London’s West End Stage in 1833. Throughout his career as an actor in Britain, he faced opposition and hostility. In 1825, he made his debut on the West End, where The Times attacked his pronunciation owing to ‘the shape of his lips’. Despite this, his run was extended and he spent the next 8 years touring the provinces. When Aldridge became the first black actor to play Othello, his performance was again attacked by critics with racial prejudices to the point where his run was cut to only two performances. This was at the same time as when the bill to abolish slavery was passing through parliament.
Facing racially motivated pressure, he once again had to return to the provincial circuit. Over the next 19 years he played diverse roles, including non-black parts such as Macbeth and King Lear. When he returned to the London stage in 1848, his reputation was assured by these roles. His success continued in the 1850s, where he toured internationally in Belgium, Prussia, Austria-Hungary, Sweden and Russia.
What these plaques represent, and what English Heritage themselves note, is that these are the beginnings of recognition for the important role that black people have made in British history. This is a recognition that should and will continue to be expanded so that one day, we may see black history throughout the country intrinsically linked with white British history.
By Helen Simmons, Project Manager
Featured Image: (http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/aldridge-ira-1807-1867)