Six Remarkable Black Women Who Shaped British History


The focus for this year’s Black History Month is the theme ‘Saluting Our Sisters and the #WEMATTER movement.   

Black women have played an important role in British life for centuries, but we don’t know much about them.  Their stories are not told in schools and rarely told in higher education.  It’s time to celebrate their achievements and introduce as many people as possible to the many black women who have not be recognised for so long. 

The Black Lives Matter movement has shone a light on black history in the UK and the Decolonising initiatives that have happened in the education sectors, including the University of Lincoln are beginning to uncover uncomfortable truths as well as campaigning for a change in the narrative more widely.  This is crucial to dismantling systemic racism. 

1948 saw the arrival of the Windrush generation but black women were already in the UK from as early as the 1700s.  What do we know about these women?  We should learn from them and be inspired by their courageous and resilient lives. 

The University of Lincoln libraries provide many resources to research these amazing black women. 

Black history month display pictures.
Images of displays in the main library and the Ross library

Ivory Bangle Lady (4th century AD) 

Ivory Bangle Lady was discovered in York in 1901 when an ancient grave of a woman was found.  A century later it was found that she was of North African descent.  She didn’t have a name but so much could be discovered about where she came from through archaeological explorations.  She was very rich and of a high social status and was buried in imported jewellery made of elephant ivory alongside a mirror, a blue glass decanter and various other objects.  Her existence is proof that society at that time was a lot more diverse than is suggested in mainstream education. 

Databases to explore  

A great place to start a search for historical research is the History Subject guide.  There are lots of databases including bibliographies, journals, dissertations in addition to archaeological sources and primary source databases for ancient and medieval history, early modern history and modern history.

Phillis Wheatley (1753 – 1784) 

Poet Phillis Wheatley became the first ever African woman to be published in Britain and America in 1773. Born in West Africa before being sold as a slave to an American family (the Wheatleys of Boston), Wheatley was taught to read and write as a child and quickly displayed an innate literary talent. She penned her first verse at 14-years-old, and, after moving to England with her son at the age of 20, her first volume of poetry was published. Her work was used as evidence that enslaved people were more than capable of intellectual originality and had a monumental influence on the anti-slavery movement. 

Database to explore 

There are 1,922 results for a search of “Phillis Wheatley” (include the quotation marks when searching databases to narrow down to her specific name) on the database Proquest Dissertations and Theses Global  This database is the most comprehensive collection of dissertations and theses from around the world spanning from 1743 to the present day. 

Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881) 

Born in Jamaica to a black woman and a Scottish army officer, Seacole moved to England in 1854. During the Crimean War, she pleaded with the War Office to send her to the front as an army nurse, and when it refused, found her own way to raise essential funds and travel to the Crimean peninsula. She then set up the so-called British Hotel, a safe space where she nursed wounded British soldiers back to health, just outside Balaclava. Despite her fundamental role in the war, she was overshadowed by Florence Nightingale in the British press. After her death, her work was quickly forgotten. It was not until 1991 that a campaign was launched to acknowledge her remarkable work, and Seacole was awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit. In 2004, she was voted the greatest black Briton in a BBC poll. 

Database to explore 

Do a combined search in the Advanced Search from the main Library website and you can search a collection of health, medicine and social science databases with many articles exploring the impact of Mary Seacole and her work.    

Remember to narrow down by using quotation marks around “Mary Seacole”. 

Kathleen Wrasama (1917–?) 

Ethiopian-born British community organiser Wrasama came to England in 1917. Following a series of traumatic experiences in children’s homes in Yorkshire, she worked as a farm labourer before becoming a founding member of the Stepney Coloured People’s Association – an organisation dedicated to improving community relations, education and housing for black people in the UK – in the 1930s, thus spending her life fighting to better the lives of others with a similar background to her. 

Database to explore 

For Kathleen and for research on any other historical figures it is worth searching Gale Primary Sources for primary materials.  A search for Kathleen includes accounts and correspondence from the Imperial War Museum.

Claudia Jones (1915 – 1964) 

Claudia Jones was the founder of Notting Hill Carnival. A pioneering journalist and political activist, she was born in Trinidad and raised in New York before moving to London. In 1958, she launched the West Indian Gazette – an anti-racist newspaper campaigning for social equality. That same year, she launched the famous Caribbean carnival, which to this day celebrates the beauty of West Indian culture and heritage, in response to the Notting Hill race riots. It was the UK’s first ever indoor carnival, held at St Pancras Town Hall. 

Databases to explore 

Accounts of the West Indian Gazette and Claudia Jones involvement in the Notting Hill Carnival can be found on the various newspaper databases.  Full-text can be found on both Lexis+ UK Newspapers and Nexis Uni 

Adelaide Hall (1901 – 1993) 

Hall was an American-born London-based jazz singer. She had a lengthy career starting in 1921 which spanned more than seven consecutive decades. Despite facing many racial obstacles along the way, she performed in prominent cities around the world including Paris, New York, Los Angeles and Berlin. In 1941, she was crowned Britain’s highest paid female entertainer.

Databases to explore 

The Music and Performing Arts collection includes the Music Periodicals Database and the Performing Arts Periodicals Database.  All can be searched at once on the Proquest platform.  Go to Music Periodicals and select the databases you would like to search.  Results include journal articles about Hall’s life and work plus reviews of albums and features in magazines such as the Black Music Research Journal.


Mohammed, S (2020) 7 Remarkable Black Women Who Shaped British History British. London: Vogue. Available from [accessed 26 September 2023]