October marks Black History Month in the UK, an event that has been celebrated nationwide for over 35 years to recognise the contributions that people of African and Caribbean backgrounds have made to the UK over many generations.
This year’s theme is ‘Saluting our Sisters’, highlighting the crucial role that black women have played in shaping history, inspiring change, and building communities.
Our Chief Executive Dr Linda Harris OBE has spoken about her own black heritage; Linda said, “I had a pretty ordinary upbringing in Mansfield, near Nottingham, but my mother and father came from quite different backgrounds and were glued together by their commitment to the NHS. My mother is Jamaican-Chinese and came to the UK in the 1960s, when there was a lot of intense emigration from Commonwealth countries. Within weeks, she met her husband – they were both trainee nurses in Colchester – and the rest is history. Regular topics around the dinner table were healthcare management and patient care, so that’s how I became interested in working for the NHS. It was very much what my parents did; they aspired to a lifelong commitment to the NHS.”
Linda’s nursing hero is the pioneering Black-British nurse Mary Seacole, born in 1805 in Kingston to a Jamaican mother and Scottish soldier father. Born at a time when many black people in the Caribbean were forced to be slaves, Seacole was a ‘free person’, due to being mixed-race. Seacole’s mother was a healer who used traditional Caribbean/African medicine to treat people, teaching many of these skills to her daughter.
Seacole became one of the first nurses to recognise and practise modern nursing (despite her lack of formal education) including the use of hygiene, ventilation, hydration and rest. Seacole’s mother and other Jamaican nurses were practising the use of good hygiene almost a century before Florence Nightingale wrote about its importance.
In 1850, Seacole nursed people during the cholera epidemic in Jamaica which killed around 40,000 people – 10% of the island’s population at the time. When the Crimean War began, she offered her services to the British Army, but her application was rejected by the British War Office. Undeterred, Seacole funded her own trip to Crimea and established a hotel near Sevastopol that housed sick and recovering soldiers. She also rode on horseback into the battlefields to nurse wounded soldiers on the front lines.
Seacole died in London on 14 May 1881. In 2004, more than 10,000 people voted her as the Greatest Ever Black Briton. Aside from her medical achievements, Seacole will be remembered as a brilliant woman who combated the racial prejudice she experienced in her lifetime – becoming an inspiration for generations that followed.
For more information on Black History Month, visit www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk.