To commemorate Black History Month, we’re taking a look at some of the inspirational Black educators who influenced UK history.
Britain’s First Black Head Teacher
Tony O’connor is believed to be Britain’s first Black head teacher.
He took up the post at Bearwood Primary School in 1967 in Smethwick, West Midlands amidst rising racial tensions. Peter Griffifths, who became Smethwick’s MP in 1964, was elected on arguably one of the most racist campaigns in British history.
The local council, who feared an adverse reaction, initially kept Mr O’Connor’s appointment a secret. Within days of the news becoming public, the school walls were defaced with racist slogans and swastikas.
In spite of this, Mr O’Connor remained a bastion of strength and integrity.
“I don’t care if I am the first, second, third or 250th West Indian headmaster”, he was reported saying in The Times. “I am only interested in carrying out the instructions of the committee which appointed me - to take care of the school and the education of the children.”
News reports at the time declared that parents of the children at Bearwood Primary School were “very satisfied”, and grateful to Mr O’Connor for his dedication.
He worked there for 16 years.
I don’t care if I am the first, second, third or 250th West Indian headmaster. I am only interested in carrying out the instructions of the committee which appointed me
Betty Campbell MBE
Wales’ First Black Head Teacher
Besides being the first Black head teacher in Wales, Betty Campbell was an important activist and community figure.
Born in Butetown, Cardiff in 1934, Campbell won a scholarship to attend Lady Margaret High School for Girls, where she expressed an interest in teaching. When communicating her intentions at school, she was told that the hurdles she would face as a Black woman would be ‘insurmountable’.
The setback only made her more determined.
In 1960, when Cardiff Teacher Training College began admitting women for the first time, Betty enrolled, becoming one of just 6 female students to attend. In spite of the discrimination she faced, Mrs Campbell went on to become the first Black head teacher in Wales, securing the post at Mount Stuart Primary School in the 1970s.
Here, she became an advocate for Black heritage and multicultural education, implementing teaching on subjects such as Black history, slavery and South Africa’s apartheid system. It was this pioneering leadership that helped put her school’s reputation on the map, and made Betty’s curriculum a model to be emulated across the country.
As well as her various teaching posts, Mrs Campbell sat on the UK government’s race relations board, became a member of the Home Office’s race advisory committee and even helped create Black History Month.
In 1998, Betty Campbell was invited to meet Nelson Mandella on his only visit to Wales and in 2003, she was awarded an MBE for services to education and community life. A monument to her has recently been erected in Cardiff city centre, (the first statue of a non-fictional woman in Wales) as recognition of her achievements.
David Olusoga OBE
Historian, Broadcaster and Professor
Professor David Olusoga OBE is a British-Nigerian historian, broadcaster, writer, presenter and filmmaker.
Born in Nigeria to a Nigerian father and British mother, David migrated to the UK as a young child and grew up in Gateshead. His home was attacked several times by the National Front over the course of his childhood, and his family were eventually forced out. His decision to study the history of slavery stemmed from a ‘desire to make sense of the forces that [had] affected [his] life’.
He has since become a successful producer, presenter and author, working on programmes such as The World's War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire, A House Through Time and Civilisations, which he presented alongside Simon Schama and Mary Beard.
As a historian and broadcaster, his work on race, slavery and empire has been widely lauded: Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, the documentary series presented by Olusoga which sheds a disturbing light on the abolition of slavery in Britain, won a BAFTA in 2016.
He is now a Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester and contributes regularly to the Guardian, Observer, New Statesman and BBC History Magazine.
David has written numerous books, including the award-winning Black and British: A Forgotten History, which examines the complex relationship between Britain and the people of Africa and the Carribean. His most recent work, Black and British: A Short Essential History, is a revised edition for younger readers, designed to teach children aged 12+ the important history of the Black experience.
In 2019, he was awarded an OBE for services to history and community integration.
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE
Award-Winning Space Scientist
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE is an award-winning space scientist, broadcaster and science educator. Her groundbreaking work has helped inspire the next generation of space enthusiasts and make science more accessible to the masses.
Born in London in the 1960s to Nigerian parents, Maggie was fascinated by space from a young age, and cherished dreams of becoming an astronaut. Transferring between 13 different schools across her childhood and struggling with dyslexia, Maggie found joy in local telescope-making classes.
After completing an undergraduate degree in physics at Imperial College London, Maggie continued on to obtain a PhD in mechanical engineering. She has since worked on some of the world’s most cutting edge space telescopes and space-based instrumentation.
She is also an impassioned science educator, working tirelessly with children across the UK (primarily in inner-city schools) to get them excited about space.
A drive to address inequality, challenge stereotypes and make science available to general audiences has led to her founding her own company, Science Innovation Ltd, whose mission is to change the demographics of scientists and increase diversity within the industry. In pursuit of this goal, Dr Aderin-Pocock has given talks to around half a million people across the world.
Since 2014, Maggie has also presented The Sky at Night, The BBC’s long-running astronomy programme.
In 2009, she received an MBE for services to science and science education.
The opportunity to present The Sky At Night is like completing a circle... As a child I would beg my parents to allow me to stay up late and watch the programme. It even inspired me to go to night school at a young age to make my own telescope mirror, which I lovingly crafted and gave me my first glimpse of the breath-taking spectacle above us.
Dr Kehinde Andrews
UK’s First Black Studies Professor
Professor Kehinde Andrews is an academic, activist and writer.
He was the first Black Studies Professor in the UK and was instrumental in establishing the first Black Studies programme in Europe, at Birmingham City University.
Raised by ardent activist parents, Kehinde encountered stereotyping at his predominantly white school, and struggled with his identity as he sought to fit in with his peers.
He now teaches Black Studies at Birmingham City University, an endeavour he describes as ‘an experiment’, an attempt to ‘colonise the university’ and reap the resources necessary to further Black education and justice.
A vocal critic of educational institutions, Dr Andrews’ has nonetheless used his platform to undertake much essential work.
He is currently the director of the Centre for Critical Social Research, founder of the Harambee Organisation of Black Unity and co-chair of the Black Studies Association at Birmingham City University. He also helped launch the website Make it Plain, the self-proclaimed ’home of Black radical thought’.
Dr Andrews is a prominent voice on issues such as race, slavery, colonialism and Black culture.