Celebrating Black History Month

This October we have been celebrating Black History Month. Colleagues from across the Law Centre have chosen their most inspiring Black Heroes from a variety of different time periods and backgrounds. Some are well-known, some are less well-known, all are important.  

Kimberley Motley is an international human rights and civil rights attorney from Wisconsin. She was the first foreign lawyer to practise in Afghanistan, and has been involved in many high-profile cases. One such case involved two children who had been taken illegally to Afghanistan by their father and had been missing for two and a half years. With the support of the Western Australian Family Court and Legal Aid, Ms Motley was able to get the support of Afghan authorities to find and retrieve the children. 

“The laws are ours, and no matter what your ethnicity, nationality, gender or race, they belong to us.”

Kimberley Motley

Akala is a prominent rapper, poet, author and motivational speaker. Artistic Director of the Hip-Hop Shakespeare company, he is a BAFTA and MOBO award-winning hip-hop artist. He is the author of the book Natives, a part biography, and part polemic on race and class, which aims to find a way to liberate of all humanity from oppression and exploitation.  

Mary Seacole, a nurse during the Crimean War, did not have formal British nursing qualifications or training, but relied on her skill and experience as a healer and a doctress from Jamaica. Her application to help with nursing in the Crimean War was refused by the War Office, so she travelled independently and set up her own hotel where she tended to the battlefield wounded. Her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, is one of the earliest autobiographies of a mixed-race woman. She is often cited as an example of hidden black history; her story having been overshadowed by that of Florence Nightingale.  

Stephen Bush is a British journalist and political editor of the New Statesman. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast and has written for the Guardian and the Financial Times. He was the first political commentator to predict Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September 2015 and has appeared on the BBC’s current affairs programme Newsnight, commenting on UK politics. In June 2020 Bush was appointed to chair the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ commission on racial inclusivity within the Jewish community. 

“The interesting thing about Stephen is that he’s funny, very smart and intellectually curious. He revisits his opinions when the facts change or when history has proven him wrong.”

Jeinsen, Housing Solicitor

Mo Farah is the most decorated athlete in British athletics history. Having spent his early life as a refugee, Farah moved to Britain, speaking barely any English. Whilst in school, he worked part-time at McDonald’s. In 2011, Farah launched the Mo Farah Foundation which aims to provide aid to people affected by the drought and famine in east Africa, particularly in Somalia, where Farah was born, and inspiring projects in the UK. 

Toussaint Louverture was the most prominent leader of the Haitian Revolution. Born a slave, Louverture was a leader in the slave rebellion in Haiti (formerly Saint-Domingue) of 1791. Using political and military tactics, Louverture was able to transform the slave insurgency into a revolutionary movement. He is now known as the ‘Father of Haiti’. 

“I took up arms for the freedom of my color. It is our own – we will defend it or perish.”

Toussaint Louverture

Gary Younge is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, as well as a British journalist, author and broadcaster. Gary was appointed the Guardian’s US correspondent in 2003, writing first from New York and then Chicago. In 2015 he returned to London where he became the Guardian’s editor-at-large. His most recent book, ‘Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives’ (2016), focuses on the stories of ten American children and teenagers, ranging from the ages of nine to 19, killed by gun violence within a 24-hour time period on 23 November  2013. ‘Another Day in the Death of America’ won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize from Columbia Journalism School and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. In the 2020 Powerlist, Younge was listed in the Top 100 of the most influential people in the UK from African/African-Caribbean descent.  

“…in a sector which is often very white and middle class he is a unique voice which stands out not only for the quality of his writing but more importantly for what he is actually saying. Gary’s writing is often a call to hope that a better future is possible and in my opinion his voice is a vital one.”

Jeinsen, Housing Solicitor

Fashion designer, Ozwald Boateng is known for his trademark twist on classic British tailoring, with a high-end modern design focus. Having dressed celebrities such as Mick Jagger, Jimmy Paige and Spike Lee, he set up his own design studio on Portobello Road. In 1994 Ozwald Boateng became the first tailor to have a catwalk show at Paris fashion week and in 1996 he won the Award for Best Menswear Designer at the Trophées de la Mode in Paris. He continues to frequently dress high-profile celebrities, such as Will Smith and Daniel Day Lewis. 

Bob Marley, considered one of the pioneers of reggae, is ranked by Rolling Stone as the 11th greatest artist of all time. His message continues to resonate with indigenous communities across the world, and he has evolved into a global symbol of unity. He challenged racism, colonialism, and ‘fighting against -ism and -scism’. Marley is known for promoting peace and freedom through his music.  

Sayce Holmes-Lewis is the CEO of community organisation Mentivity, an inspirational mentoring organisation and alternative educational provision, working with young people in London. He is also a prominent figure in the community advocating for the rights of black people, especially regarding police stop and search and within education. 

“I am determined to make a continual difference by creating inspiring opportunities for our young people within our local and global communities.”

Sayce Holmes-Lewis

Bernie Grant was a British Labour Party politician and Member of Parliament for Tottenham. He was one of the UK’s first African Caribbean British MPs and wore a traditional Ghanaian cotton robe at the State Opening of Parliament in 1987. On the floor of the House of Commons he was outspoken in the cause of eliminating racism both in Britain and around the world. He campaigned against racist policing methods, and deaths in custody, on institutionalised racism in health, housing and education.  

Afua Hirsch is Norwegian-born British writer, broadcaster, and former barrister. She has worked as a journalist for the Guardian newspaper, and was the Social Affairs and Education Editor for Sky News. She worked in criminal defence, public and international law, representing people who relied on legal aid. Within her different career paths, Hirsch attempts to make sense of the injustice and unfairness in the world. She has created conversations about colonial history and historical statues. Her book, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, which talks about dual-identity and being black in the UK, became a Times Bestseller and won the Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Prize. In 2010, Hirsch wrote an article on the South West London Law Centres.

 “She is a fantastic role model. She breaks arguments down and she challenges preconceptions. She stands her ground when challenged. I think so many of the things that Afua Hirsch cares about are discussions this country needs to have.”

Jeinsen, Housing Solicitor

Cordell Johnson is a successful creative director and public speaker. Formally detained as a young person, he now has his own company ‘We Working’. His story shows that you can change your life with commitment and hard work, and as such he is a strong role model for young people today. 

Shirley Thompson is a composer, conductor and cultural activist. She is the first woman in Europe to have composed and conducted a symphony within the last 40 years. Her music has been described as ‘beautiful and powerful’ (Le Figaro) and she has been named in the Evening Standard’s ‘Power List of Britain’s Top 100 Most Influential Black People. Thompson has been commissioned to compose many prestigious pieces, such as the music for the Parliamentary exhibition The British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People and to commemorate 100 days of Barack Obama’s presidency. 

Nelson Mandela, primarily remembered as a South African anti-Apartheid revolutionary, political leader and philanthropist, also made a profound contributed in his work as a lawyer and use of the legal system. At that time, Apartheid laws gave black South Africans need for legal representation. White law firms were often too expensive and many charged black clients higher fees than their wealthier white clients. Mandela focused on providing legal representation for Africans who might have otherwise entered court without representation.  

“What I find inspiring is that, while he had to work within a legal system that was egregiously unfair under Apartheid, he used the system to his and his clients’ favour – pushing the boundaries of the law, and appealing to judges’ and opponents’ sense of fairness, and also using the system to highlight failings within the system.”

Paul, Immigration Solicitor

Walter Tull was an English professional footballer and British Army officer. Orphaned at the age nine, he was brought up in an orphanage in Bethnal Green. Tull signed for Football League First Division team, Tottenham Hotspur, in the summer of 1909 and was the first mixed-heritage professional footballer to play in Latin America. When war broke out in 1914, Tull enlisted into the British Army. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant on 30 May 1917, becoming one of the first mixed-heritage infantry officers in a regular British Army regiment. He was killed in action in 1918.  

Our thanks to all our colleagues at the Law Centre who contributed to this article in support of Black History Month.