Black History Month: Inspirational Black history-makers

By Ellie Di Matteo

In celebration of Black History Month, we want to bring attention to some inspirational Black people in history who have made their mark on the world. Black History Month is so important, as our history has been whitewashed to ignore the achievements, and even at times the existence, of Black people in our society.

In the UK, state education has failed to teach millions of people about the contributions that Black people have made to our society. Our history syllabus is limited to the transatlantic slave trade and (usually just the American) civil rights movement, brushing over great swathes of Black history.

Black History Month is about celebrating those people whom have previously been silenced and ignored by white supremacy. It is about bringing awareness to the masses that Black is beautiful, Black is excellent, and that Black lives matter.

Awareness through art

In response to the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred earlier this year due to the death of George Floyd, artist Ellie Di Matteo produced portraits of Black individuals who have been victims to police brutality and white supremacy. In their memory, she asks that we all continue to educate ourselves on the racist systems that permeate this world, fight against them, and commit ourselves to upholding anti-racism.

Through this series, Di Matteo aims to highlight that the icons of Black history span all kinds of work. In school, some of the only Black history we ever learn about is the civil rights movement, and even then we only scratch the surface. She believes that it is incredibly important to be able to pinpoint Black pioneers in different areas of work and fields of study.

Ignatius Sancho

(c. 1729 – 14 December 1780)

Ignatius Sancho Ellie Di Matteo Candid Orange
Illustration of Ignatius Sancho By Ellie Di Matteo

Born into slavery, he was the first person of African descent known to have voted in Britain. He became a symbol to abolitionists, as he was a well-known Black figure in the 18th century due to his musical prowess, and was even given an obituary by the British press. A talented writer, his letters were one of the best documented experiences of enslaved people in Britain. 

John Edmonstone

(dates unknown)

John Edmonstone Ellie Di Matteo Candid Orange
Illustration of John Edmonstone by Ellie Di Matteo

He was born into slavery, and taught taxidermy as a skill whilst he was enslaved. With this skill, he taught taxidermy to medical students at Edinburgh University. Through this he taught Charles Darwin how to carry out taxidermy. This great skill enabled Darwin to preserve specimens when on his voyage to the Galapagos Islands. 

Henry Sylvester Williams

(24 March 1867 or 15 February 1869 – 26 March 1911)

Henry Sylvester Williams Ellie Di Matteo Candid Orange
Illustration of Henry Sylvester Williams by Ellie Di Matteo

He formed the Pan-African Association to challenge paternalism, imperialism and racism. After practicing as a barrister in South Africa, he became the first Black man to be called to the bar in the Cape Colony. He was also one of the first men of African descent to be elected to public office in Britain, in 1906.

John Archer

(8 June 1863 – 14 July 1932)

John Archer Ellie Di Matteo Candid Orange
Illustration of John Archer by Ellie Di Matteo

He was the first Black person to be appointed as mayor in London, as the Mayor of Battersea in 1913. He also endorsed one of the first successful Indian MP’s in Britain, Shapurji Saklatvala. He also chaired the Pan-African Congress in London, which advanced the Pan-Afican cause to end colonial rule and racial discrimination.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

(March 20, 1915 – October 9, 1973)

Rosetta Tharpe Ellie Di Matteo Candid Orange
Illustration of Rosetta Tharpe by Ellie Di Matteo

Known as ‘The Godmother of Rock and Roll’, she influenced many of the biggest rock musicians of all time, including Johnny Cash and Eric Clapton. She popularised gospel music with her unique sound.

Paul Stephenson

(born 6 May 1937)

Paul Stephenson Ellie Di Matteo Candid Orange
Illustration of Paul Stephenson by Ellie Di Matteo

He was a key figure in the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963, a protest against the Bristol Omnibus Company, who refused to hire Black or Asian bus crews. The boycott drew national attention to the discrimination faced by BIPOC in the UK at the time. This influenced parliament in putting through the Race Relations Act of 1965. 

Marsha P. Johnson

(August 24, 1945 – July 6, 1992)

Marsha P. Johnson Ellie Di Matteo Candid Orange
Illustration of Marsha P. Johnson by Ellie Di Matteo

She was one of the most important figures of the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York. Her activism also extended to fighting racism and campaigning to end the AIDS pandemic. In February 2020, she became the first LGBTQ+ individual to have a New York State Park named after her.

Olive Morris

(26 June 1952 – 12 July 1979) 

Olive Morris Ellie Di Matteo Candid Orange
Illustration of Olive Morris by Ellie Di Matteo

She co-founded the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent. The struggle of Black women was central to her activism, and she led marches for the Black Workers Movement. She was committed to tackling sexual, racial, and class oppression, and she partook in an incredible array of events contributing to 1970s activism. She died at just 27 years old, but that didn’t stop her from making her mark on Black British activism. 

Margaret Busby

(born 1962)

Margaret Busby Ellie Di Matteo Candid Orange
Illustration of Margaret Busby by Ellie Di Matteo

Britain’s youngest and first Black female book publisher, co-founding Allison & Busby in the 60’s. She worked for diversity within the publishing industry and helped to found Greater Access to Publishing to attempt to increase Black representation in the publishing world. She famously edited the work ‘Daughters of Africa and more recently ‘New Daughters of Africa’, anthologies which showcase and celebrate the works of women of African descent. 

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

(born 1977)

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye Ellie Di Matteo Candid Orange
Illustration of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye by Ellie Di Matteo

She won the Carnegie International Prize for art in 2018. Probably one of the most inspiring painters of today, she was listed in the top 10 of ‘the most influential people of African or African Caribbean heritage in the UK’ in 2020. 

Words and images by Ellie Di Matteo, transcribed and introduced by Izzie Castle. You can see more of Ellie’s work, especially to do with the Black Lives Matter movement, on her Instagram below.

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