Mary Seacole – a brief biography

Mary SeacoleA keen traveller, the young Mary journeyed widely with her parents, including two trips to Britain, expanding her medical knowledge.

In 1836, she married Edwin Horatio Seacole, a former guest at her mother’s boarding house. Edwin Seacole was believed, without substance, to have been either an illegitimate offspring of Lord Nelson and his mistress, Lady Hamilton, or Nelson’s godson (hence his middle name). A sickly man, he died eight years later in 1844. Despite several offers, Mary never married again. As a couple, the Seacoleshad maintained the boarding house established by Mary’s mother and, as a widow, Mary Seacole’s work intensified in 1850 when a cholera epidemic struck Jamaica, killing over 30,000 inhabitants.

In 1851, Mary Seacole journeyed to Panama to visit her half-brother and while there, witnessed another cholera outbreak. Again she went to work and took a leading role in treating the sick. Among her patients were 350 American soldiers commanded by the future Union general and US president, Ulysses S. Grant. The following year she returned to Jamaica but had to wait for a British ship to take her home as the American ship she’d planned to sail on refused to take her – Seacole believed it was on account of her race.

Crimean War

In October 1853, war had broken out on the Russian peninsula of the Crimea, between the British, French and Turkish on one side and the Russians on the other. In 1854, Seacole travelled to England where she asked various institutions, including the War Office, permission to work as a nurse in the Crimea. But her request was refused by all. Again, race may have played its part.

Mary Seacole ChallenHowever, the resourceful Seacole raised the necessary funds for herself and made her way independently to the Crimea, where, near the front line, she set up the ‘British Hotel’, improvised with scrap wood and discarded building materials. Opening in 1855, the ‘hotel’sold food, medicaments and supplies to soldiers (anything, to use Seacole’s words, ‘from a needle to an anchor’); and provided meals,warmth and somewhere to sleep. Florence Nightingale, although she later praised Mary Seacole’s work, initially thought the British Hotel as little more than a brothel.

Dressed in brightly-coloured outfits, Seacole became a familiar figure as she visited the military hospitals and the battle front, assisting the wounded and dying, including Russians, moving about with two mules, one carrying medical supplies, the other food and wine.

The Crimean War ended in 1856 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 30 March. Within four months the peninsula had been completely evacuated of Allied troops. Mary Seacole was left with a fully supplied hotel without customers and was forced into selling her stocks and provisions at artificially low prices to pay off her debts.

Wonderful Adventures

She returned to England in a poor state, both physically and financially. While being applauded and awarded, she was declared bankrupt. Living in London, she fell ill and became destitute. A press-led campaign organised a festival in Seacole’s benefit, the Seacole Fund Grand Military Festival, which attracted 40,000 people. The same month, July 1857, Seacole published her memoirs, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which sold well enough to help, along with the proceeds from the festival, to alleviate her financial woes.

Seacole returned to Jamaica in 1860 but came back to London a decade later where she kept the company of esteemed military men and members of the royal family.

Mary Seacole died 14 May 1881, of ‘apoplexy’, at her home, 3 Cambridge Street, Paddington, aged 76. An obituary, published in The Times a week later, wrote, ‘strange to say, she has bequeathed all her property to persons of title’.

A disgrace to the serious study of history?

Mary Seacole’s place in history had been largely forgotten until the last fifteen years. Now, all UK schoolchildren know her name and she has become lionized as a positive black role model. In 2004, she was voted the greatest Black Briton of all time. Seacole herself did not necessarily view herself as black but ‘only a little brown… a few shades duskier then the brunettes you all admire so much’.

St Thomas’ Hospital, near London’s Houses of Parliament, is planning an 8-foot (3 metrebronze statue of Mary Seacole due to be unveiled this year, costing £500,000. The idea of the statue is, in the words of St Thomas’, to ‘reflect the scale, stature and achievements of Mary Seacole, encapsulating the sentiment of Mary as a Crimean War nursing heroine.’ (It was at St Thomas’ that in 1860, Florence Nightingale established her nursing school.) Seacole herself had no association with the hospital and indeed never stepped foot in the place.

Some historians are now beginning to question the legitimacy of Seacole’s recent status, especially when it directly mirrors the decline in the reputation of Nightingale. Guy Walters describes Seacole’s status as a role model ‘good politics, but poor history.’ Walters, in his article for the Daily Mail, quotes a spokesman for the Crimean War Research Society who states, ‘The hype that has built up surrounding this otherwise worthy woman (Seacole) is a disgrace to the serious study of history.’

Reality Check

Historian, Lynn McDonald, writing in History Today, states, ‘Keenness for a heroic black role model is understandable, but why the denigration of [Nightingale]?’ McDonald accuses St Thomas’ of perpetuating a ‘makeover myth [that does] not survive a reality check.’ McDonald has even written a 270-page book on the subject: Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth.

Crimean MedalFor example, McDonald talks about the Crimean medals worn by Seacole. (In the images above of Seacole, taken around 1873, and Seacole’s comforting portrait painted in 1869 by Arthur Charles Challen, she can be seen wearing miniature versions of three medals, including, on the left, the Crimean Medal). Seacole never won the medal, nor, in her writings, did she ever claim to have done so, saying she was, by wearing the medals, merely displaying her solidarity with the veterans of the war.

Such is the concern over the misrepresentation of the Seacole story, that the Mary Seacole Information Website aims to redress the balance: So much misinformation about Seacole is now available in print, on websites (including those of highly reputable organizations) and in the social media that a source using reliable, carefully documented,material is badly needed.’ 

They go on to say, ‘Mary Seacole, we believe, deserves recognition for her work. A fine bronze statue [at St Thomas’] is a laudable means. However the campaign for Seacole should not be based on misrepresentation of her life and work, or a vilification campaign against any other person, certainly not Florence Nightingale. Our complaint is not with Seacole, however, but with the supporters who misrepresent her, and, so often, in the course denigrate Nightingale.’

But despite these caveats, Mary Seacole deserves her place in our history books and certainly deserves to maintain her place within the curriculum but within the proper context. As Simon Woolley, Director of Operation Black Vote, told The Independent, Seacole was one of the only black people in British history whose life was not talked about ‘through the prism of racism It is fantastically important to have people such as Mary Seacole taught in our classes’.

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Nat Turner – the Slave Who Killed For God

There were as many as 250 slave revolts in the American South during the antebellum period before the American Civil War. But it was the uprising in Southampton County, Virginia, led by Nat Turner that, by the scale of its ferocity, caused the greatest shock.

Born a slave on 2 October 1800, the young Nat delighted and astounded his fellow slaves by describing events from before he was born. He was given the surname, Turner, from his original owner. The boy, his parents exclaimed, was a prophet. The son of Nat’s master taught the young Nat to read, and he grew up a pious, God-fearing man, influenced by visions or messages from God. He devoured the bible, prayed and fasted and became convinced that God had chosen him to lead his fellow slaves out of servitude.

Listening to God

Aged 21, Turner ran away from his master but voluntarily returned after a month having received God’s instruction to ‘return to the service of my earthly master’.

In 1830, Turner was sold to a new master, Joseph Travis, whom Turner described as a kind master. But however ‘kind’ he may have been, Travis would not survive the coming bloodbath that Turner, with God’s help, was now planning.

An eclipse of the sun in February 1831 was interpreted by Turner as the hand of a black man covering the sun, a sure sign that the time had come. Having enlisted the help of four fellow salves, Turner prepared, only to fall ill. His people would have to wait and endure a while longer.

Six months later, however, he received a second Holy prompt – another solar eclipse. Again, Turner confided in his most trusted companions and again he made his plans. This time there was to be no turning back.

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Marcus Garvey – a brief biography

On 18 May 1940, Marcus Garvey, the once ostentatious and extravagant Black Nationalist, read an obituary of himself in the Chicago Defender. Garvey, who had been living in London since 1935 and residing in Talgarth Road, W14, was recovering from a stroke when he read,

Marcus Garvey“Alone, deserted by his followers, broke and unpopular, Marcus Garvey, once leader of the greatest mass organization ever assembled by a member of the Race, died here during the last week in April.”

The shock was so much that he did indeed die – a month later on 10th June.

Born in Jamaica on 17 August 1887, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914. Its purpose, according to its 1929 constitution, was “to do the utmost to work for the general uplift of the people of African ancestry of the world”. But frustrated by the lack of progress in Jamaica, Garvey left his homeland, travelled around Central America, moved to London, where he preached on Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner, before finally settling in New York in 1916.

Black Is Beautiful

Basing himself in Harlem, Garvey declared that “Black Is Beautiful” and campaigned for the repatriation of African Americans, his “Back to Africa” campaign, extolling the virtues of the continent, despite never having stepped foot on it, and advocating the removal of European influence. Continue reading

The Sharpeville Massacre – a brief outline

The Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960, which left 69 unarmed black South Africans dead and more than 180 injured, drew the world’s attention to the evil of the apartheid system practiced within South Africa.

Pass Laws

The protest at Sharpeville, a black township about forty miles south of Johannesburg, on 21 March 1960 was part of a campaign against the so-called Pass Laws. The law required South Africa’s black population to carry around at all times an identity book which contained pertinent information about themselves, such as name, address, employer details and even their tax code. Those caught without the books were liable to immediate arrest.

The demonstrations against the Pass Laws were organised and led by the PAC (Pan-Africanist Congress), an off-shoot of the ANC (African National Congress). The march on Sharpeville was to be the first in a series of non-violent actions due to take place over a five-day period. Participants on the march were to present themselves at the police station at Sharpeville without their pass books and demand to be arrested. If enough blacks were arrested and kept from going to work, the country’s economy would collapse. That, at least, was the theory according to Robert Sobukwe, leader of PAC.

Sobukwe fully informed the police beforehand of the Sharpeville demonstration, emphasising the non-violent intention of the marchers.

Down with the passes

And so on the morning of 21 March 1960, a Monday, 5 to 7,000 people (although cited numbers vary) converged on the police station at Sharpeville. Many, according to witnesses, were cajoled by PAC members who threatened to burn their passes unless they joined the march. Nonetheless, most joined the demonstration willingly and the march was good-natured, with the unarmed marchers singing songs, dancing and chanting ‘Down with the passes’. Continue reading

Malcolm X: a brief biography

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on 19 May 1925, the fourth of eight children. The family lived in Omaha in Nebraska where his father, a Baptist minister, Earl Little, was a prominent member of the local branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and an ardent supporter of Marcus Garvey. Rev Little’s prominence brought the unwanted attention of the local Ku Klux Klan. Such was the level of harassment, the family moved to the town of East Lansing in the state of Michigan. It was 1929; Malcolm was four years old. There, unfortunately, the harassment was, if anything, worse. Soon after moving into their new home, the house was set on fire. Malcolm later recalled, bitterly, how fire fighters arrived on the scene but, on seeing that it was a black family, refused to help.

Malcolm XIn 1931, Malcolm’s father died in mysterious circumstances, run over by a streetcar. Although it was never proved, the suspicion remained that he had been killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The police recorded the death as suicide, thereby annulling Earl Little’s life insurance.

Malcolm Little

Left poverty-stricken, Malcolm’s mother struggled to make ends meet for her large family. The pressure took its toll and in 1937, six years after her husband’s death, she was committed to an asylum. The children were farmed out to various foster parents and homes. Malcolm went to school where a teacher asked the vulnerable Malcolm what he wanted to be. Malcolm answered, a lawyer. The teacher scoffed, told him to be realistic and recommended, instead, he become a carpenter. Disillusioned, he dropped out of school at the age of 15 and went to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella.

Detroit Red

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Rosa Parks – 10 things…

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post. But here you can read it without all the distracting ads.

1. Parks had been thrown off the bus a decade earlier by the same bus driver – for refusing to pay in the front and go around to the back to board. She had avoided that driver’s bus for twelve years because she knew well the risks of angering drivers, all of whom were white and carried guns. Her own mother had been threatened with physical violence by a bus driver, in front of Parks who was a child at the time. Parks’ neighbor had been killed for his bus stand, and teenage protester Claudette Colvin, among others, had recently been badly manhandled by the police.

Rosa Parks2. Parks was a lifelong believer in self-defense. Malcolm X was her personal hero. Her family kept a gun in the house, including during the boycott, because of the daily terror of white violence. As a child, when pushed by a white boy, she pushed back. His mother threatened to kill her, but Parks stood her ground. Another time, she held a brick up to a white bully, daring him to follow through on his threat to hit her. He went away. When the Klu Klux Klan went on rampages through her childhood town, Pine Level, Ala., her grandfather would sit on the porch all night with his rifle. Rosa stayed awake some nights, keeping vigil with him.

3. Her husband was her political partner. Parks said Raymond was “the first real activist I ever met.” Initially she wasn’t romantically interested because Raymond was more light-skinned than she preferred, but she became impressed with his boldness and “that he refused to be intimidated by white people.” When they met he was working to free the nine Scottsboro boys and she joined these efforts after they were married. At Raymond’s urging, Parks, who had to drop out in the eleventh grade to care for her sick grandmother, returned to high school and got her diploma. Raymond’s input was crucial to Parks’ political development and their partnership sustained her political work over many decades.

4. Many of Parks’ ancestors were Indians. She noted this to a friend who was surprised when in private Parks removed her hairpins and revealed thick braids of wavy hair that fell below her waist. Her husband, she said, liked her hair long and she kept it that way for many years after his death, although she never wore it down in public. Aware of the racial politics of hair and appearance, she tucked it away in a series of braids and buns — maintaining a clear division between her public presentation and private person.

5. Parks’ arrest had grave consequences for her family’s health and economic well-being. After her arrest, Parks was continually threatened, such that her mother talked for hours on the phone to keep the line busy from constant death threats. Parks and her husband lost their jobs after her stand and didn’t find full employment for nearly ten years. Even as she made fundraising appearances across the country, Parks and her family were at times nearly destitute. She developed painful stomach ulcers and a heart condition, and suffered from chronic insomnia. Raymond, unnerved by the relentless harassment and death threats, began drinking heavily and suffered two nervous breakdowns. The black press, culminating in JET magazine’s July 1960 story on “the bus boycott’s forgotten woman,” exposed the depth of Parks’ financial need, leading civil rights groups to finally provide some assistance.

6. Parks spent more than half of her life in the North. The Parks family had to leave Montgomery eight months after the boycott ended. She lived for most of that time in Detroit in the heart of the ghetto, just a mile from the epicenter of the 1967 Detroit riot. There, she spent nearly five decades organizing and protesting racial inequality in “the promised land that wasn’t.”

7. In 1965 Parks got her first paid political position, after over two decades of political work. After volunteering for Congressman John Conyers’s long shot political campaign,

Parks helped secure his primary victory by convincing Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Detroit on Conyers’s behalf. He later hired her to work with constituents as an administrative assistant in his Detroit office. For the first time since her bus stand, Parks finally had a salary, access to health insurance, and a pension — and the restoration of dignity that a formal paid position allowed.

Black History in an hour28. Parks was far more radical than has been understood. She worked alongside the Black Power movement, particularly around issues such as reparations, black history, anti-police brutality, freedom for black political prisoners, independent black political power, and economic justice. She attended the Black Political Convention in Gary and the Black Power conference in Philadelphia. She journeyed to Lowndes County, Alabama to support the movement there, spoke at the Poor People’s Campaign, helped organize support committees on behalf of black political prisoners such as the Wilmington 10 and Imari Obadele of the Republic of New Africa, and paid a visit of support to the Black Panther school in Oakland, CA.

9. Parks was an internationalist. She was an early opponent of the Vietnam War in the early 1960s, a member of The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and a supporter of the Winter Soldier hearings in Detroit and the Jeannette Rankin Brigade protest in D.C. In the 1980s, she protested apartheid and U.S. complicity, joining a picket outside the South African embassy and opposed U.S. policy in Central America. Eight days after 9/11, she joined other activists in a letter calling on the United States to work with the international community and no retaliation or war.

10. Parks was a lifelong activist and a hero to many, including Nelson Mandela. After his release from prison, he told her, “You sustained me while I was in prison all those years.”

 

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The Montgomery Bus Boycott – a brief history

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African American seamstress, seated in a segregated bus, refused to give up her seat to a white man. It sparked the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott and resulted in an early and significant victory for the Civil Rights movement. It brought to national attention a 26-year-old recently appointed Baptist reverend by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Three years earlier, in 1952, the US Supreme Court declared that segregation on interstate railways was unconstitutional, and, two years later, also outlawed segregation on interstate buses. However, the practice was not barred on state-run bus services and persisted in many southern states.

Whites Only

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The Zong Massacre – a brief history

On 29 November 1781, Captain Luke Collingwood of the British ship, Zong, ordered one-third of his cargo to be thrown overboard. That cargo was human – 133 African slaves bound for Jamaica. His motive – to collect the insurance. The case was brought to court – not for murder, but against the insurers who refused to pay up. This is the cruel story of the Zong Massacre.

The slave ship, Zong

On 6 September 1781, the Zong, a slave ship, left the island of São Tomé, off the west coast of Africa, bound for Jamaica. The ship was cruelly overcrowded, carrying 442 Africans, destined to become slaves, accompanied by 17 crew. The human cargo was manacled and packed so tightly, to have no room to move. But for the captain, Luke Collingwood, the more Africans he could squeeze in, the greater the margin of profit for both the ship’s owners and himself.

For Collingwood, previously a ship’s surgeon, this was his first and last assignment as captain. Planning to retire, he hoped for a generous bounty to help him in his retirement. The greater the number of fit slaves he delivered to Jamaica, the greater his share.

Captain Collingwood’s decision

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