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Black History Month: 6 inspirational figures

Chef and businessman Levi Roots, hosting an Age Uk cookery class

Pioneers to be celebrated

Emma Sutton, Policy and Research Officer at Age UK, profiles 6 Black Britons whose lives and experiences provide positive inspiration.

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This month marks Black History Month, a time to learn and celebrate the great achievements Black British people have made to our society. In the third of our articles this month, Emma Sutton, Policy and Research Officer at Age UK, discusses 6 individuals whose examples continue to inspire.

Read CEO Steph Harland's article introducing Age UK's Black History Month content.

Dr Paul Stephenson, OBE (89)

Bristol’s first Black social worker and prominent advocate for Black people’s rights. In 1963, inspired by Rosa Parks, Paul led a bus boycott against the Bristol Omnibus Company because of their refusal to employ Black or Asian people in public-facing driver or conductor roles. The boycott soon gathered pace, attracting the support of thousands of Bristolians, including local MP Tony Benn and Labour Leader Harold Wilson. Success came when, after 60 days, the bus company revoked their ‘colour ban’, soon employing the first person of colour in a public-facing role.

If you were a young Black person living in Britain, you couldn’t be a policeman, an ambulanceman or fireman. You couldn’t go into pubs, hotels, swimming pools, and now you couldn’t drive on the buses. I had been watching the amazing things that Martin Luther King had been achieving in America, and now I thought something had to be done here too.

Dr Paul Stephenson, OBE

In 1964, Paul received further nationwide attention when he refused to leave a pub until he was served, protesting the ‘No Blacks’ policy it had in place. He was arrested, but the court later dismissed the case. Paul’s arrest and both of his campaigns became instrumental in paving the way for the first Race Relation Act 1965, which made racial discrimination unlawful in public areas.

In 2009, Paul received an OBE for his services to equal opportunities and he’s been awarded honorary degrees from the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England in recognition of his pioneering work in race relations.

Dame Linda Dobbs, DBE (69)

Born in Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1951, and having moved to the UK aged 7, Dame Linda was called to the Bar in 1981.

This did not come without its challenges as a Black woman; for example, she often faced discrimination from her own clerks. After practising for several years, Dame Linda eventually specialised in fraud and white-collar crimes before being appointed to the Queen’s Counsel in 1998.

Dame Linda received several appointments during her career, including committee chair for both the Professional Standards and Race Relations Committees. In 2004 she became the first person of colour to be appointed to the High Court of England and Wales, where she became the Senior Liaison judge for Diversity among other positions.

I felt – and I hope it doesn’t sound pompous – I felt a sense of duty to take on the job. And knowing that I would be the first Black High Court judge, I thought that would open up the floodgates.

Dame Linda Dobbs, DBE

Unfortunately, the floodgates Dame Linda evisioned weren't to be, with the next BAME appointment not arriving until 7 years later.

Dame Linda continues to advocate for a more diverse judiciary through mentoring young lawyers from diverse backgrounds. She holds 6 honorary doctorates in law, is a Senior Fellow in the Law Department at SOAS and is involved in a number of charities aimed at helping disadvantaged young people and promoting diversity.

Levi Roots (62)

Born in Jamaica in 1958, Levi was the youngest of 5 siblings. His grandparents brought him up after his parents moved to England and settled in Brixton.

Life was not easy for Levi in Jamaica – he lived in poverty and didn’t go to school. Levi was the last of his siblings to leave Jamaica when he moved to England, aged 11, where he went school for the first time.

In his twenties Levi served time in prison but credits this as a pivotal point in turning his life around. Before turning his hand too food, Levi had a successful music career, performing with the likes of James Brown and Maxi Priest. He went on to be nominated for a MOBO award in 1998 for Best Reggae Artist.

After appearing at a food trade show, Levi was approached to pitch his sauce on the TV show Dragon’s Den. Appearing in 2007, he secured £50,000 of investment for a 40% share in his business. Shortly after the programme aired, a large food retailer announced they would be stocking his sauce in their stores.

Reggae Reggae Sauce and its charismatic inventor have since become household names and the brand is estimated to be worth £35 million.

Margaret Busby, OBE (75)

In 1967, Ghanian-born Margaret co-founded Allison & Busby publishing with Clive Allison, making her Britain’s youngest and first Black woman publisher. She served as Editorial Director for 20 years, helping to bring a number of writers from the African Diaspora to the public’s attention.

We started off with virtually no money and thought we would go into making volumes of poetry accessible and affordable to young people like ourselves. So we printed 15,000 paperback poetry books priced at 5 shillings. Our idea of distribution was stopping people on the street and asking them to buy our books.

Margaret Busby, OBE

Margaret has also released her own writing, including ‘Daughters of Africa’ and ‘New Daughters of Africa’ which have been noted as landmark anthologies by women of African descent, highlighting the strength and variation in the experiences of Black women.

In the 1980s, Margaret was a founding member of GAP (Greater Access to Publishing), campaigning for increased representation in British publishing. In 2005, she received an OBE for her services to Literature and Publishing. More recently, she was appointed chair of the 2020 Booker Prize judges, and continues to promote diversity within publishing.

Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu (73)

Born in Birmingham in 1947, Dame Elizabeth was placed in care when her stepfather refused to accept her. Her experiences being cared for by nuns later inspired her to go into nursing.

During her journey to become a nurse Dame Elizabeth faced many barriers. She was rejected from several London teaching hospitals who all asked for photos with applications, but she never received any feedback as to why she did not get accepted.

Dame Elizabeth’s passion for challenging inequalities led her to travel to the United States to study sickle cell and thalassemia – serious inherited blood disorders which are particualrly common in people with an African or Caribbean family background – as centres were not currently available in the UK.

In 1979, along with Dr Milica Brzovic, she set up the UK’s first sickle-cell and thalassemia counselling centre. Since opening the first centre in 1979, the UK now has more than 30.

In the early 1970s I was a health visitor working in Brent and I had three families with children suffering with sickle cell anaemia. There was absolutely no information available for them. I had not been taught anything about the condition. That left me absolutely fuming and embarrassed that I could not help them.That is when I first realised things had to change and made it my mission to raise the profile of this disease.

Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu

Later in her career Dame Elizabeth became a lecturer at UCL, going on to set up a course for NHS workers who worked with communities affected or at risk of sickle-cell. In 2007 she became Emeritus Professor of Nursing at University of West London where she created the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice and campaigned for the erection of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue at St. Thomas’ Hospital. She became Dame Elizabeth in 2017 and continues to campaign for equality.

Joseph deGraft-Johnson

Joseph isn’t entirely sure why his father brought him to the UK when he was 12, though he suspects it was to help with the ill health he experienced as a child. Joseph was certainly enthusiastic about the move from his native Ghana, having read a book that suggested ‘travel broadens the mind’. Sadly, though, once he started school in the Norfolk village of Hunstanton, broad minds appeared to be in short supply.

While being made a prefect gave Joseph a sense of purpose, his status as the school’s only Black pupil meant he was subjected to continuous racism, which informed his outlook – and would make him worry for his own children going to school years later. “My experiences led me to conclude that White and Black people lived in completely separate worlds,” admits Joseph. “Even though both were on the same planet, they experienced the world differently.”

A picture of a man with glasses, looking towards the camera
Joseph deGraft-Johnson
A picture of a man with glasses, looking towards the camera
Joseph deGraft-Johnson

“I felt racism was hardwired into a lot of White British people from a young age and becomes their norm. They do not see it as something wrong or bad. It was just something one had to accept, or so I thought.”

Thankfully, this belief changed when Joseph went to college in Oxford, a time he has fond memories of, with its multi-racial and multi-cultural providing a reminder that not everyone shared bigoted views. “I was surrounded by students interested in challenging and combatting the racism they were witnessing. Some actively did things like hosting talks, discussions and other seminars to help educate people.”

These pockets of progressive thinking felt fewer and further between for Joseph as the 1970s began, when he moved to Chelmsford in Essex, and structural and overt racism became his reality once more. “I carried on living there because I was studying for an external degree at London University,” he says of why he remained undeterred. “After graduation, I got a job in the UK Civil Service and worked at HM Revenue and Customs.”

Joseph retired in 2013, and is in the process of writing a book about his life.

There was a Black Lives Matter march here in Chelmsford recently. It was really good to see how multi-racial it was because it was evidence that people are starting to question the apparent ‘normality’ that seems to have existed over many years in the UK. People are starting to wake up. One of my sons was organising. I was most proud of him.

Joseph deGraft-Johnson

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Last updated: Oct 16 2020

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