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Black History Month – A Look Back

Black History Month

The end of October brings Black History Month to a close for another year. What began in 1987 as a niche interest in direct response to the climate at the time is now a nationally recognised event, celebrated and endorsed across the political divide and by the Royal Navy, British Army and RAF.

My office became operational in January 2016 and I started this blog that same month. Since then I have used it in two ways:

  1. To inform, in a direct but more conversational way, anyone interested in the work of my office (whether civilian or Service personnel) about relevant matters of concern – from our “Bullying or Banter?” blog to discussing, in an open and transparent manner, the current backlog within our office and what we are doing to address it.
  2. To express, in a more personal way, my thoughts on wider topics of interest, but which still have relevance to the work we do.

So, how is Black History Month relevant to the work we do? It is relevant because the enduring purpose of Black History Month will always be to work towards building a truly inclusive society. It is about educating people and challenging preconceptions, harmful stereotypes and misinformation. It is about listening to the lived experiences of Black people, celebrating achievements and continuing to work to eliminate racism and discrimination in all its forms.

Some people might ask “Why do we need Black History Month? Isn’t it divisive? Doesn’t it separate instead of unite?” In some ways I can see the force of this argument. Black history is British history and should be looked at in this light.

However, for too long this didn’t happen and this gave rise to harmful stereotypes and attitudes over the years. Most people don’t know that there has been a Black presence in the UK since the 1500’s (and also much earlier if looking at Roman Britain) and the many and varied contributions made in those centuries. It’s everybody’s history – it’s just not well known.

Many people know that in 2004 Sergeant Johnson Beharry was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), the Armed Forces’ highest award for valour, but how many people know that the first Black recipient of the VC was William Hall, RN, in 1857? Able-Seaman Hall was a member of one of four gun crews aboard HMS Shannon heading to India to “relieve a British garrison which was under siege”[1].

Sergeant Johnson Beharry. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia(Sergeant Johnson Beharry. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

How many people know the story of Walter Tull? A professional football player before World War I, he joined the Army in 1914. Despite the prevailing attitudes of the time, he demonstrated patience, humility, fortitude and bravery in the face of racism and hardship, and his ability and strength of example saw him selected as an Army officer. In fact, he was the first ever black officer to command white troops. He was mentioned in dispatches for bravery but was killed in action on the 8 March 1918.

Second Lientenant Walter Tull. Photo courtesy of BBC(Second Lientenant Walter Tull. Photo courtesy of BBC)

Another example is the distinguished service of Squadron Leader Ulric Cross in World War II which, although well recognized by the RAF, is not as widely known in the general population. As a Pilot Officer he was superb navigator and was joined the elite Pathfinder Force. Promoted and decorated during the War for his contributions, he refused to be rested and completed more than 80 missions by the end of the war. Following his retirement from Service, he went on to lead a successful legal career, being appointed as a High Court Judge in Trinidad and later serving as High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago in London.


Of course the contributions don’t end with these historic examples. There have been many black Service personnel since who have made, and continue to make, extraordinary contributions to defence.

In addition to providing this opportunity to look back and shine a light on parts of history that people may not know about, Black History Month has particular resonance for me this year. 2018 marks both the centenary of the end of World War I and the creation of the RAF. It highlights the achievements of individuals like William Hall, Walter Tull and Ulric Cross – all whose stories are far greater and richer than the space I have to give them here and which I urge you to look up and learn more about. 2018 is also the 70th anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush from the Caribbean, which marked the beginning of post-war migration to the UK. Many of those onboard were former Servicemen hoping to rejoin the Services or find other employment in the UK – all people committed to contributing to the rich tapestry of our society.

Society has come a long way in that time. We have even come a long way since Black History Month was introduced in 1987. But we still have a long way to go, and a rich history to learn about and learn from.

So, as Black History Month draws to a close for this year, I hope that people of all races will have had the opportunity to learn more about each other, and the contributions the Black community, like every other, have made to British history generally and to the defence of this country we all call home.

[1] http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/medals-decorations/canadian-victoria-cross-recipients/william-hall