This week we'll be looking into examples of York’s Black history, highlighting sections of the city’s past and its wider impact on both UK and world history.
York is one of the oldest cities in the UK with an array of rich, lived histories. While many immediately think of Romans or Vikings, York also has a fascinating Black history - whether it’s the creation of the booming chocolate industry of the 19th and 20th centuries, the beginnings of a boxing legend's career or one of the oldest known examples of a person of African descent living in Roman Britain.
The city of York continues to grow and strive to be a centre of diversity in the UK. We do that by sharing these moments in history and encouraging you to do the same.
Ivory Bangle Lady
Based in the heart of York, the Yorkshire Museum contains the remains of a woman from the second half of the 4th century in their Roman York Gallery.
This woman has become known as the Ivory Bangle Lady as a result of the ornate jewelry buried with her. Research points to her being of high status in society but also of North African descent - therefore it is believed she is one of the earliest Black people to have lived in Britain. Read more from the York Museums Trust.
Making history profiles
This week we've highlighted some examples of York’s connection to Black history. This month isn’t always about looking to the past: we've asked some York alumni how they have been making history in their own way, to inspire you to look to you own future.
Having studied English in Education at York and always having an interest in education, equity and social mobility, I've always made an effort to ensure that my efforts impact these areas. I was the face of Teach First's Black History Month campaign and after my successful campaigning, Teach First will begin to call for exam boards to ensure that at least a quarter of authors in their GCSE English Literature specifications are from ethnic minority backgrounds.
This Summer, I launched my education research Instagram account @educationcubed where I share interesting news, research and resources from the world of education, equity and social mobility. I also - after exactly 1,000 hours of teaching, 17,881 words across three assignments, 12 observations, countless meetings, a week-long placement, LOTS of tears and more - gained my Qualified Teaching Status from UCL!
I'm a Nigerian woman who came to the UK in 2007 through the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP). Little did I know that my skills will not be recognised and my options will be limited only to low skilled jobs. It was a dent on my self-identity and a drain on my self-confidence.
I decided to re-train, enrolling for a postgraduate programme and graduating with Merits. But even that didn't change my situation - some employers considered me overqualified for entry level jobs, others considered me underqualified due to lack of UK working experience. I was determined to research the immigration and employment challenges of professional Nigerian women and enrolled for a PhD at York's Centre for Women’s Studies.
My research journey was a roller-coaster ride. I was warned that the intellectual intensity of a PhD programme is not for everybody and that as a mother of three I didn't stand a chance of completing such a herculean project. The bit that got under my skin was when some “well meaning individuals” scornfully explained that even with a PhD, I would end up with low skilled jobs! I was resolute, determined and ready to work hard. My research was an eye opener - there are many immigrant women with huge human capital, battling depression and mental illness because of under-utilisation of their skills.
Today, my story is different. I am presently a lecturer at the Leeds Business School, Leeds Beckett University. You can do this.
I studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University from 2013 to 2016 and to say those years flew by would be an understatement! As quick as those years came and went, I remember that I made a conscious choice to embrace university and show York what Black excellence can look like.
During my time at university I:
- was a recipient of the Chancellor's Leadership Prize given to only three outstanding students
- won the Vice-Chancellor's Award
- co-founded York's first ever student-led teaching organisation
- published a research paper
- was selected as one of the 'Top 10 Black Students in the UK' 2015
- was gighly commended for 'Outstanding contribution to student life' award by the Students' Union.
Embracing what university had to offer allowed me to land my graduate job at Barclays Investment Bank and my role working for Uber. My time at York gave me the confidence to start my own startup WEKA, a digital lending and credit analysis platform for small businesses in Africa. The startup is backed by Google for Startups, Cambridge Businesses School and Clifford Chance among others.
Black History highlight - Bill Richmond
Born into slavery, Bill Richmond began to gain fame as a fighter during his teenage years after he beat British solders in a tavern brawl during the American Revolutionary War (1775 to 1783). The general of the British forces in New York arranged fights featuring Bill Richmond for the entertainment of his guests and troops. In 1777 the general arranged for his freedom and passage to England along with an education and an apprenticeship waiting for him in Yorkshire.
After completing his apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker in York, Richmond met and married his wife, a white woman, in 1791 while working around the county. He was well-dressed, literate and a free man which made him very different to most other Black people in Britain at the time but he faced prejudice and harrassment. Historians think the main reason behind this was his marriage to a white woman. He confidently challenged his tormentors to face him in boxing matches and brawls, many of which he supposedly won.
By 1795 Bill Richmond and his family moved to London. He began training and competing in numerous publicised boxing matches. The Pugilist Society (known as boxing today) was established in 1814 and Bill Richmond was likely its first Black member. At the age of 50, he was still fighting and winning matches against opponents half his age. He demonstrated his skills to visiting European royalty and instructed professional and amateur boxers at his boxing academy in the 1820s shortly before he retired. He was even selected to act as an usher at the coronation of King George IV in 1821, proof of his celebrity status.
He passed away at the age of 66 in December 1829. Bill Richmond rose from a slave to a boxing legend, proving that Black people impacted the history of the nation even before the abolition of slavery in the UK in 1833. Bill’s story challenges the narrative of both British early modern history and the history of Yorkshire itself.
Read, watch and listen
Check out these resources to help educate yourself about Black History:
- Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales During the Period of the British Slave Trade by Kathleen Chater. A look into the life of the average Black person in England and Wales: who they were, where they came from and how they fit into society at the time. The book seeks to overturn many assumptions made of the period.
- Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History by Emma Robertson. York has a unique connection to the production of chocolate with Rowntree’s, Fry’s and Terry’s all having their beginnings in the city. This book looks into the dynamics of gender, race and imperialism that created the cocoa chain and how the chocolate families of York fit into this narrative.
- Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman. Sephy is a Cross - a member of the dark-skinned ruling class. Callum is a nought - a 'colourless' member of the underclass who were once slaves to the Crosses. The two have been friends since early childhood - but that's as far as it can go. Highlighting a fictionalised alternate version of prejudice, Noughts and Crosses is a must read.
- Horrible Histories Black History Month special (BBC iPlayer). The Horrible Histories team and Strictly star Oti Mabuse have put together a collection of sketches and songs from the show hightlighting Black history.
- Britain's Hidden Art History (BBC iPlayer). This documentary follows acclaimed artist Sonia Boyce as she prepares to display a new exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery highlighting artists of African and Asian descent who have shaped British art into what it is today.
- Alt History: Black British History We’re Not Taught in Schools (BBC Stories). Writer and historian David Olusoga presents a series of short films exploring critical moments in Black British history from 1919 that have been forgotten or are rarely discussed.
- Black Lives: Past, Present and Future. This podcast from Laudable is releasing short clips from different Black voices to share their experiences and encourage others to share theirs too. They've created this podcast so that this Black History Month we don’t just look back but look forward to improving the future.
- The History Hour - Black British History. A podcast from the BBC World Service looking back at some landmark moments in British Black history to mark Black History Month.
Discover some of the events that're being hosted by the University to mark Black History Month:
The power of fiction: a literary salon on decolonisation
Thursday 22nd October 5.30pm
Join the Department of English and Related Literature's Decolonising Network in this inaugural event to consider and celebrate the power of fiction to decolonise. What role does fiction (in all languages from all literary periods) play in the move to decolonise the discipline of English literature and also the institution of the University more generally?
England's hidden history
Friday 23rd October 7pm to 8pm
Led by Dr Onyeka Nubia, this event seeks to reinvent the way in which we look at British history by looking at the African influence and contribution to the Tudor period of England.
These events are organised by members of the University community and not by the Access and Outreach team. They're provided primarily for University students, so please consider whether the content is appropriate for you or your students as some of the content may be distressing.