The stories that matter in Black History Month

By Rev. Virginia Thomas, St Andrew’s Healthcare Assistant Chaplain

Mental health is stigmatising already, but if you are from a black or ethnic minority its weight can feel trebled. So as I move through the wards at St Andrew’s Healthcare in my role as a multi-faith chaplain, I often think about what I can do to make a difference. But more than that, I think about the role everyone could play in lessening this inequality.

As we enter Black History Month there’s a lot to be said for giving a positive view about black people’s lives and black people’s pioneers. These are stories of individuals who are outstanding and inspiring on their own, but have also withstood extraordinary challenges of prejudice, inequality and at times persecution. This is about turning the status quo on its head. It’s about celebrating people’s identity, building self-esteem and sharing the amazing accomplishments that black people fought to achieve. It is about recognising that we all have a part to play in Black History Month, even if that is to educate ourselves on just one of these remarkable stories.

Mary Seacole was a woman whose achievements rivalled Florence Nightingale, yet whose identity was relatively obscured for most of modern history. Her name is often spoken St Andrew’s, where a ward treating women with personality disorder and complex mental health needs is named in her legacy.

Born in 1805 to a Scottish father and Jamaican mother, Mary became a notable saviour on the battle front during the Crimean War. Although the War Office had denied Mary access to the front, she travelled to France and set up a base to safely nurse injured British soldiers. Already 50 years old at the time, she fearlessly tended to the wounded and even entered the battlefields to administer life-saving care to countless men. So how was it that Mary left the war ill, destitute and unrecognised?

After the War Office refused Mary’s bid to help, Mary not wanting to give up had approached an assistant of Florence Nightingale to offer her services. Again her offer was declined, leading Mary to ponder in her autobiography ‘Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?'. This is a question that we should all, especially now, take stock of.

We can all play an important role in Black History Month by recognising our own bias and prejudices (which we all have), and overcoming them. We can do this by learning as much as possible about pioneers of colour and culture – pioneers who, just like Mary Seacole, may have had their identities shrouded by history.

History isn’t always fair, especially in terms of black history but we cannot underestimate what these stories have to say. By knowing these stories, recognising them and reflecting on them, we do a very important thing. We help to validate all people, their faith and their culture. We empower them and we empower ourselves to discover that everyone has value, and everyone has a purpose.

So in that Black History Month becomes a bit of launching point, an opportunity to take steps to become more educated about other cultures. It becomes an opportunity to challenge ourselves to find out something we don’t already know. To recognise that culture is powerful, and that by knowing about other cultures and what they have contributed to our society, we become infinitely richer.

To start you off, here are seven black pioneers whose stories might just surprise and inspire you:

  • Lewis Howard Latimer
  • Daniel Hale Williams
  • Sojourner Truth
  • Charles Drew
  • Elijah McCoy
  • George W Carver
  • Harriet Tubman