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Black History Month: A look at historical black figures in Kent including Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Olaudah Equiano and Walter Tull

October is Black History month in the UK, and given the events of 2020 there is perhaps no more important year to mark the occasion.

In what is a hugely important and trying time, we have taken a look at some of the most influential black figures in Kent's history.

Asquith Xavier

Watch: Plaque commemorating Asquith Xavier is unveiled at Chatham Station

A pioneer for racial equality in the workplace, Asquith Xavier came to Britain in 1958 from his native Dominica in the West Indies.

He rose to prominence in 1966 after he applied to become a guard at Euston Station, but was turned down as British Railways (BR) only employed white people for the role.

Mr Xavier, who lived in Grove Road, Chatham, refused to back down in the face of racial inequality and successfully fought for his right to hold the position.

A plaque remembering the pioneer was unveiled last week at Chatham station.

Walter Tull

Walter Tull
Walter Tull

A man of two worlds, Walter Tull was a war hero, and the second black professional football player in England, appearing for Clapton, Spurs and Northampton.

Born in Folkestone in 1888, he went on to join the army in 1914, before being commissioned as an officer three years later, making him the first black officer to lead white troops into battle.

On the front line in Italy, he twice led his men on night raids, returning without casualties. He was killed in action on March 25 in 1918 while leading his men in an assault on German trenches at Favreuil on the Somme.

A 'peace pitch' has been named in his honour in his home town , while a campaign to award him the military cross is ongoing.

Olaudah Equiano

A photo of Olaudah Equiano from a play at The Historic Dockyard in Chatham, Photo: Rikard Osterlund
A photo of Olaudah Equiano from a play at The Historic Dockyard in Chatham, Photo: Rikard Osterlund

One of the most influential figures in the abolitionist movement, Olaudah Equiano fought to raise awareness of the horrors of slavery.

Born in around 1745, Mr Equiano was stolen by slavers from his home in Nigeria aged 11, eventually buying his freedom decades later for the price of around £5,000 in today's currency.

As a freeman, he worked with Granville Sharp and an abolitionist group called the Teston Circle at Barham Court, near Maidstone.

His autobiography, 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano' was produced internationally and became hugely influential for the abolitionist cause.

William Cuffay

William Cuffay from a drawing made while he was in Newgate Prison. Photo: Medway Archives Stephen Dix
William Cuffay from a drawing made while he was in Newgate Prison. Photo: Medway Archives Stephen Dix

A revolutionary and pioneer against slavery, Chatham-born William Cuffay fought for rights that still form an important part of of residents' lives today.

Born in 1788, possibly at Old Brompton, Mr Cuffay was the grandson of a West African and son of a West Indian slave.

After working as a tailor in London, he became part of the Chartist movement, losing his job after taking part in a strike over working hours and eventually being arrested and tried for conspiring to levy war on the Queen.

He and his wife were eventually transported to Tasmania after he was found guilty, and he stayed there and continued to write and fight as a social activist until his death at 82.

Samuel Crowther

Arnold Awooner-Gordon, with the display depicting his great Grandfather Bishop Samuel Crowther. Picture: Chris Davey
Arnold Awooner-Gordon, with the display depicting his great Grandfather Bishop Samuel Crowther. Picture: Chris Davey

Born in Nigeria in 1807, Samuel Crowther would grow up to become Britain’s first Black bishop.

In a twist of good fortune, Rev Crowther was rescued by the Royal Navy after being forced onto a Portuguese slaver's ship.

Studying at the Church Missionary School in Sierra Leone, he moved to England where he spent time staying with his good friend Jacob Schön in Gillingham.

After being ordained in 1864, Rev Crowther served as the Church of England's first Black bishop for almost 30 years until his death in 1891.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor . Photo: Brian Joyce
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor . Photo: Brian Joyce

Born in London, 1875, Samuel Coleridge-Taylorbecame internationally famous as a music prodigy and composer, as well as a Black Rights figurehead.

Encouraged by his mother – who was born in Dover – Mr Coleridge-Taylor studied at the Royal Academy of Music, and became conductor for the main choir in Rochester Cathedral.

In 1900, he became the youngest delegate to the Pan-African congress, a movement that would grow to be a powerhouse in the fight for racial equality.

Unfortunately, his bright and promising career was cut short when he collapsed at a train station in Croydon, later dying of pneumonia aged just 37.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta

Sarah Forbes Bonetta
Sarah Forbes Bonetta

Born as Omoba Aina, a princess in part of what is now Nigeria, Sarah Forbes Bonetta was rescued from slavery after her family were killed in a battle between warring West African kingdoms.

Her rescuer, Royal Navy Captain Frederick E. Forbes, renamed her after his ship (the HMS Bonetta), and introduced her to Queen Victoria.

Aged just seven in 1852, she charmed and impressed the Queen with her intelligence, and after moving back to Africa until she was 12, she eventually moved back and stayed with Rev Samual Crowther's friend Jacob Schön in Gillingham, where she was visited regularly by the Queen.

She later died aged just 37 in Funchal, Medeira, from Tuberculosis. Her death was documented with some sadness by Queen Victoria in her diaries.

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