Black History Month series - part 3

05 November 2020

October is Black History Month and Jason, a member of Independent Futures, our consultants with lived experience, is exploring what it means and shares the stories he has picked up along the way. This week he tells us more about Mary Seacole.

This is the final part of my series on Black History Month 2020. It’s been really interesting and has given me a new passion for writing - thank you for reading! 

Last night I watched ‘In the shadow of Mary Seacole’ on ITV catch-up. According to the Radio Times Mary Seacole is “One of the Victorian heroines you don’t hear about.” 

I disagree with the Radio Times, and I never considered writing about Mary. I believe she is one of the figures of black history that has been highlighted in the media, and I believe her story and achievements are increasingly well known. I say this because I have seen several documentaries about her, and that my son covered Mary Seacole as a topic at his primary school.

This pleases me, as I do not think that even 10 or 15 years ago this would have happened - historically her white counterpart Florence Nightingale was given all the attention.

However, this particular programme was very different to the others I have seen. It was as much about her and her story, as it was about the fight to have her recognised and remembered. It focused on the 12-year long struggle (including mass petitions) to have her statue erected in London.

Before I discuss what this brought up for me in light of Black History Month, I will give a VERY brief history of Mary Seacole.

Also known as Mother Seacole, Mary a nursing pioneer. She was a Jamaican (of African and Scottish descent) who went to care for soldiers behind the battle lines in the Crimean War. She did this independently, after being rejected by the War Office to be a member of the formal nursing group.

When she got there, she set up the ‘British Hotel’ to care for the wounded and sick. She quickly became popular with the soldiers. So much so in fact, that they raised money for her after the war, because she faced destitution and poverty on her return to Britain.  

As I said that was a VERY brief history, which doesn’t do Mary justice, so for the fuller picture you can head to:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Seacole  and 

https://www.maryseacoletrust.org.uk/learn-about-mary/

What really piqued my interest is the amount of opposition, and the  difficulties that the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal had to overcome. The statue was the first of a black woman in the UK. 

What made it so hard to get it erected? Why would anyone oppose such a thing? How many statues are there of black people in the UK? In Bristol? How many were publicly funded and how many like Mary’s were funded privately through fundraising or other means or private firms?

The short answer is I could not find out because there are no central recordings of statues. I discovered that BBC news also tried to look into this –check out their findings at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/53014592

I realised that the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol and others like it around the country, has brought memorials and lack of diversity to the public’s attention. The Mayor of London said recently “Rather than simply removing statues, new monuments should be erected to commemorate the role minorities have had on British history, including the Windrush Generation and murdered schoolboy Stephen Lawrence.”

This got me thinking about why history and remembering is important: personally for me, as a dual heritage individual and for everyone in general.

Writing these pieces for black history month has been uplifting, finding out things I never knew and having the opportunity to discover other’s histories while reflecting on my own. It brought up memories, some of them painful and even mad. I realised all of my past, both the good and the bad, has made me who I am today.

Overall, it has been an emotional rather than intellectual journey, with a sprinkling of facts and figures. The past is relevant, not just as a beating stick but as a learning tool. Reflection allows for a better future.

In today’s world, we don’t even have to leave our homes to have access to a wide range of information and historical facts, and when we do venture outside we are surrounded by statues, blue plaques, artwork and an abundance of museums and galleries. Sadly most of these are lacking in the true diversity of our areas.

I hope that what I have written of Black history month has inspired some of you to look further into black history and our shared British history.