October was Black History Month, a month for recognising and celebrating the contributions of Black people to the UK over many generations. In this blog we profile a selection of Black practitioners who have been pioneers in healthcare, education, social care, mental health, and criminal justice. Their stories bring light to their role in shaping the sectors in which Cordis Bright works, as well as helping us to better understand the social and political history of these sectors.
Mary Seacole (1805 to 1881) was a pioneering nurse and businesswoman who provided sustenance and care for victims of cholera and yellow fever epidemics in the Caribbean and for British soldiers on the frontline during the Crimean War.
Seacole (born Mary Jane Grant) was born in colonial Jamaica in 1805. Her father was a Scottish soldier. Her mother was a free Black Jamaican woman who ran a lodging house and who was also a healer, using traditional Jamaican medicines. Seacole learnt about traditional Caribbean medicine through her mother and through travels to Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas, and about European medicine during a two year stay in London in 1823. In the early 1850s she nursed victims of cholera and yellow fever epidemics in Jamaica and Panama. She was subsequently invited to supervise nursing services at the British Army’s headquarters and re-organised her mother’s lodging house to function as a hospital.
When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, Seacole travelled to England and approached the British War Office, asking to be sent as an army nurse to the Crimea, where she had heard the medical facilities for wounded soldiers were poor. She was refused, and instead funded her own trip to Crimea where she established the British Hotel with Thomas Day, a relative of her late husband. The British Hotel provided care and respite for injured and sick soldiers. Its proximity to the frontline meant that Mary could visit the battlefield to nurse the wounded. After the war, Mary returned to Britain with very little money, but service personnel held a four-night fundraising gala for her in 1857, to which 80,000 people are said to have attended – a testament to her popularity and the gratitude felt towards her.
Mary Seacole was an entrepreneurial, creative, and independent woman who found a way to provide nursing care without the support of the state and in a time when there were no schools of nursing in Britain. Her autobiography published in 1857 became an instant bestseller, but her story was then largely lost to history until the 21st century. A statue of Mary was unveiled at St Thomas’s Hospital in June 2016, the first bronze statue to a named Black woman in the UK. The NHS Seacole Centre opened in May 2020, a new temporary community hospital for patients recovering from Covid-19.
Harold Moody (1882 to 1947) was a doctor in Peckham and founder of the League of Coloured Peoples.
Moody was born in Jamaica in 1882 and travelled to England in 1904 to study medicine at King’s College London, finishing top of his class in 1910. However, once qualified he was repeatedly refused work because of his skin colour and eventually resorted to setting up his own practice in Peckham in 1913. Without a state-funded healthcare system at this time, healthcare was expensive and so many would go without. Moody therefore treated poor children free of charge. He also opened his home to Black travellers who were denied lodgings elsewhere, as he had been.
Alongside his medical work, Moody was a civil rights campaigner and founded the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931. In his role as President, he lobbied politicians, trade unions and the civil service in the fight for equality, addressing issues including rights for Black seamen, lifting the colour bar in the British Armed Forces, and fair wages for Trinidadian oil workers.
Dame Jocelyn Barrow (1929 to 2020) was a teacher, pioneer of multicultural education and race equality campaigner who served in many public roles.
Dame Jocelyn Barrow was born in Trinidad and Tobago. After completing teacher training she travelled to Britain to study an English degree at London University followed by postgraduate studies at the Institute of Education. Barrow taught English in schools in Hackney, and later trained teachers at Furzedown teacher training college in Tooting, promoting multicultural education throughout her career. She also established Each One Teach One, a local project to help Black children and their families support each other educationally.
However, Dame Jocelyn Barrow’s work to create a more equal society extended far beyond education. She was general secretary and co-founder of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (Card) in the 1960s, which helped to create the conditions for the 1965 Race Relations Act, which made racial discrimination illegal in Britain for the first time. As a member of the Parole Board (1983-87) and as the first Black female governor of the BBC (1981-88) she initiated programmes that encouraged young Black people to fulfil their potential. As non-executive director of the Whittington Hospital NHS Trust she worked for better employment conditions and development opportunities for auxiliary nurses and carers. As her last major intervention, she led a nationwide consultation in 2005 into the role of underperforming would-be Academy schools, which found that the 20 schools in the study were discriminatory in various degrees on the grounds of race.
Betty Campbell (1934 to 2017) was a community activist, Wales’s first Black headteacher, and pioneer of multicultural education in the UK.
Campbell was born in Butetown, Cardiff, in 1934 to Welsh Barbadian and Jamaican parents. In 1960, already mother to three children, Campbell enrolled at Cardiff Teacher Training College as one of only six female students. After her first teaching post in Llanrumney, she returned to Butetown to teach at Mount Stuart Primary School, where she taught for 28 years. Campbell faced hostility from some parents due to her skin colour, but in the 1970s she became headteacher of Mount Stuart Primary School and the first black headteacher in Wales. In her role as headteacher she began teaching children about slavery, Black history and South African apartheid regime.
Campbell’s work and influence spread far beyond Mount Stuart Primary School. The school became a model for multicultural education across the UK and Campbell helped to found Black History Month in the UK. She also became a member of the Home Office’s race advisory committee, the Commission for Racial Equality, and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Commission on Education; a councillor for Butetown on the Cardiff City Council; and a board member of BBC Wales. She was awarded an MBE for services to education and community life and a lifetime achievement award from Unison Cymru’s Black Members’ group for her contribution to Black history and Welsh education.
Mollie Angela Hunte (1932 to 2015) was a Black educational psychologist supporting African-Caribbean children in London who played an essential role in the Black parents movement and education movement in the UK during the 1960s onwards.
Immigrating to the UK from Guyana in 1961, Mollie Hunte founded several significant organisations for the African Caribbean communities in London between the 1970s and 1990s. These included the Caribbean Parents Group, the Caribbean Parents Group Credit Union, Westphi Academy, and PEV consultancy. These organisations were created to aid the African Caribbean community in London and ensure that young children and parents were supported through the education system.
Through these organisations and her support of Black families in London, Hunte worked hard to ensure that members of the African Caribbean community were advocated for and that young Black children had the opportunities that many may not have had access to due to racism and prejudice in the education system. In addition to providing support to families, Hunte’s work also involved promoting multicultural education within schools.
Despite her importance to the Black education movement in London, Hunte’s work is relatively unknown. However, in 2018, the Wellcome Trust awarded a grant to the London Metropolitan Archives for a project entitled Magical Mollie, which will catalogue and celebrate her achievements.
Social care practitioners
E R Braithwaite (1912 to 2016) was a Guyanese-American writer, social worker, teacher, and diplomat.
Born in Georgetown, Guyana, Braithwaite attended Queen’s College Guyana and the City College of New York before volunteering for service with the RAF in 1940. After completing a Master’s degree at Cambridge University in 1949, Braithwaite expected to enter the higher levels of his chosen profession of engineering. Instead, he encountered racism, discrimination, and rejection from the British workforce.
Seeking alternative employment, Braithwaite found work as a teacher and then as a social worker for London County Council. His role involved working with immigrant families from the Caribbean, and inspired his book Paid Servant (1962). The book tells the insider story of a Black social worker in London, recruited to promote the placement of Black children with Black families. The narrative focuses on the protagonist’s relationship with his four-year-old client, Roddy, a mixed-race child rejected for adoption by both white and Black families. Braithwaite authored several other books, his most successful being To Sir, With Love (1959), which explored the racial relations between a Black teacher and his white students in an east London school.
In providing an insider’s perspective into the experiences of Black social workers and teachers – and the young people they encounter - Braithwaite’s work provides a powerful insight into the realities of racism for Black migrants in post-war Britain. Using his personal experiences of racism and prejudice, Braithwaite’s work sheds light on the way race and racism shape the experience of social work, for both practitioners and service users.
Patrick Kodikara (1939 to 2021) spent four decades working in senior social services roles across London and was appointed the UK’s first Black director of social services in 1983.
Kodikara was born in Negombo, Sri Lanka and attended school at St Joseph’s college in the capital city of Colombo, before winning a scholarship to study social work at the London School of Economics in 1961. Over the span of his career, Kodikara worked for numerous London boroughs, including Hackney, Southwark, and Tower Hamlets, taking on roles such as social worker, area manager, and assistant director, before being appointed director of social services in Camden.
As a member of the Hackney Community Relations Council, Hackney Asian Association, and the Hackney Committee Against Racism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Kodikara was devoted to working for racial equality. His passion for racial equality was evident in his work as a social care professional, where he pursued the then-radical agenda of ensuring that children were adopted by people of the same race and religion where possible. Kodikara also played a key role in creating new social work training posts for Black and Ethnic Minority social workers.
In 1978, Kodikara was elected as a Hackney councillor. As a Labour activist, he participated in protests and political activism, had led strikes and occupations, and fought tirelessly against racism and fascism in London.
Lennox Thomas (1952 to 2020) was a pioneering psychotherapist who advocated for the transformation of the field of psychotherapy to account for the impact of colonisation, slavery, war, ethnic cleansing, immigration, and assimilation on families and individuals. Though he is remembered for his contributions to the field of psychotherapy, Thomas was also the first senior probation officer of African Caribbean descent in the then Inner London Probation Service.
Thomas arrived in the UK aged seven, after spending his childhood in St Andrew, Grenada. As an immigrant child, Thomas experienced racism at his school in Nottingham, a city which at the time was rife with volatile race relations. These experiences would inform his work as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, where he sought to address the psychological effects of colonisation, racism, and other oppressions on Black, Asian, and Immigrant populations. In 1992, Thomas published ground-breaking work, Racism and Psychotherapy: Working with Race in the Consulting Room, that explicitly addressed race in the context of the therapeutic relationship between therapist and client.
Over the course of his career, Thomas held numerous posts, such as Clinical Director of intercultural therapy charity Nafsiyat, and co-founded the Refugee Therapy Centre with Dr Aida Alayarian. In addition, he held teaching posts at UCL, Birkbeck, and Queen Mary University of London. Through his work and teaching, Thomas helped provide critical insight into an often-Eurocentric field that has failed to recognise the relevance of social structures, such as race, to internal psychological states. His important work shed light on the racialised social, political, and economic issues affecting Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic, and Refugee patients in the UK.
Rudy Narayan (1938 to 1998) was a barrister and civil rights activist in Britain.
Emigrating to Britain in 1953 from Guyana, Narayan worked in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps for seven years before becoming a barrister.
As a barrister, Narayan demonstrated his commitment to being an advocate for Black communities, specialising in trials arising from conflicts between ethnic minority communities and the police. Narayan defended clients in trials from city uprisings and race riots, such as the Bradford Twelve and many from the St Pauls riot in Bristol.
In addition to representing Black communities at trial, Narayan was committed to transforming the legal profession from the inside. During his career, he led campaigns and legal battles which led to the creation of the Bar Council’s race relations committee in 1984 and an amendment to the Race Relations Act to prohibit race discrimination in the legal profession. He also co-founded the Society of Black Lawyers in 1973 to promote the rights and welfare of minority lawyers.
In 2010, a blue heritage plaque was unveiled to commemorate Narayan at the site of his offices where he practiced law in Brixton, south London.
Stella Jane Thomas (1906 to 1974) was a Yoruba Nigerian lawyer and activist who was the first Black African woman called to the Bar of England and Wales.
Thomas travelled to the UK in 1926 to study law at the University of Oxford and was called to the Bar in 1933. During her time in the UK, Thomas was heavily involved in the civil rights movement and was a founding member of the League of Coloured Peoples, an organisation which brought the interests of African, Asian, and Caribbean minorities in Britain under one banner.
A highlight in her activist career came in 1934, when Thomas challenged the historian Dame Margery Perham following a lecture at the Royal Society for the Arts. Thomas critiqued the notion within Perham’s lecture that Africa’s problems could be solved by imperialist powers, and that Africans should not be involved or consulted in the process. Many underscore the importance of this speech for the Nationalist movement in Nigeria.
Thomas’s trailblazing achievements paved the way for women and the Black community in the legal profession, both in the UK and Nigeria, and she continued to dedicate herself to civil rights activism and the rights of women well into her retirement.
Eric Irons OBE (1921 to 2007) was a campaigner for social justice and the UK’s first Black magistrate.
Irons was born in Jamaica in 1921. After serving in the RAF in World War Two, he settled in Nottingham, where he witnessed and experienced inequality, racism, and prejudice, such as housing and employment discrimination. These experiences inspired his work as one of the leading campaigners for Black people’s rights in the 1950s. Whilst working at Chilwell Ordnance Depot, an Army depot, Irons campaigned for better employment opportunities, health, and education for Black workers. His campaigning work was instrumental on lifting a ban on Black people working for a transport company in Nottingham and helped the city council address issues following the 1958 race riots in St Ann’s.
In 1962, following his contributions to race relations after the riots of 1958, Irons was appointed Britain’s first Black magistrate. Irons sat on the Nottingham bench for 29 year and was awarded an OBE in 1978 for his contribution to social justice.
All 11 of these people have played a vital role in the history of health and social care, education, mental health, and criminal justice in the UK, and in reducing racial inequalities. However, the inequalities that exist in society are also reflected within these professions. For example, Black people account for over one in five of the adult social care workforces in England (Skills for Care 2021), yet 90% of senior local authority adult social care managers and board members identify as White British (SCIE 2020).
Whilst the lives of Mary Seacole, Harold Moody, Dame Jocelyn Barrows and Betty Campbell, Mollie Angela Hunte, ER Braithwaite, Patrick Kodikara, Lennox Thomas, Rudy Narayan, Stella Jane Thomas, and Eric Irons are inspiring, they also remind us of the ongoing need for racial equality, diversity, and inclusion to be embedded into our society and our organisations so that the legacy of their work is continued and more Black practitioners are able to shape their professions and our society for the better.