Sofia Akel is a cultural historian, producer, writer and host, specialising in Black British History. In this guest article, Sofia celebrates the theme of Black History Month 2023, 'Saluting Our Sisters', by honouring four women who lay the foundations for new generations of Black British women to build upon.
Saluting Our Sisters
With groundbreaking campaigns like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Black women have played integral and crucial roles in many liberation struggles intending to create a society free of racism. This, of course, is the history of America.
At home in the UK, Black women have been behind many of the essential movements that have opened access to the freedoms, protections and rights that we enjoy today. From protesting against police brutality in the UK, to campaigning for cleaner, more breathable air – you will often find a Black woman mobilising, strategising and leading calls for change.
However, their incredible stories do not often make it into the pages of the history books which can render them lost to time. That’s why, this year’s Black History Month focus is Saluting Our Sisters, which celebrates and spotlights Black women in British history.
From the 1900s to the present day, here are four Black sisters who lived passionately, boldly and authentically. These women laid the foundations for each generation to build on their legacies, whilst supporting their communities to prosper, find places of enjoyment and to access better health, education and housing.
1. Una Marson (1905 – 1965) - Poet. Playwright. Campaigner. Broadcaster.
Una Marson was a woman of ‘firsts’. Born in 1905 in Jamaica, she migrated to the UK where her passion for literature, social activism, playwriting and broadcasting left an indelible mark on the Britain that we inherit today. Known most poignantly for becoming the first Black woman broadcaster for the BBC in the 1930s, Una used her platform to bring forward voices from the Caribbean. During World War II, she launched a radio show titled Calling the West Indies, where soldiers from the Caribbean read their letters back home to loved ones on air.
She later developed the show into Caribbean Voices, where West Indian writers would discuss literature and read their works on BBC World Service – this became a huge catalyst for the platforming and celebrating of Caribbean Literature. She was also an avid writer herself, publishing poetry collections that have been described as ‘lyrical’ and ‘emancipatory’.
Outside of her writing career, Una played many key roles in liberation movements, including campaigning alongside the League of Coloured Peoples which fought against the colour bar – racist practices that made access to housing, employment, service, etc dependent upon the colour of your skin colour. Marson’s politics made her an active figure in decolonising, anti-racism, feminist and class struggles. Her legacy remains to this day, inspiring writers, journalists and activists alike as a symbol of resilience and creativity.
2. Pearl Alcock (1934 – 2006) - Artist. Entrepreneur. Joy bringer.
Pearl Alcock left Jamaica and came to the UK – specifically Leeds – in 1958, with just £5 to her name and dream of one day opening her own boutique clothing store. After years of hard work and graft in the factories, including working as a maid so that she could save money, Alcock made her dream come true.
Now in possession of £1,000 – her life savings - she travelled south to London to open her clothing store in the 1970s. Found on 106 Railton Road, she transformed her store into a multi-use space, opening up a shebeen – an unlicensed bar - in the basement of her shop.
However, this was no ordinary juke spot. This was a radical safe space for Black and gay men to escape the traumas and oppressive daily struggles of society. Here they could be their authentic selves, free from racism and judgement. At the time it was the only gay venue in Brixton, making it a special and sacred place for many of those who frequented it.
Sadly, the socio-economic politics of the time reared its head against Pearl’s shebeen. Economic instability, the coming of Thatcher’s Britain and the conservative crackdown on anything seen to evade ‘traditional values’ meant that she was forced to close her shop.
Defiantly, Alcock never stopped creating. She made sure that her community knew they were appreciated. Pearl gifted works of art to those who supported her. Many years later, before she passed, her work was displayed at The Tate.
3. Stella Dadzie (1952 – present day) - Educationalist. Author. Writer. Feminist.
Stella Dadzie is a prominent writer and community organiser who has dedicated her life to social justice. Her unwavering commitment to gender, class and racial equity is evident throughout the many things that she led, was a part of and campaigned for.
Born in London, Dadzie's journey as a feminist activist and author has left a lasting impact on social justice movements. She played a key role in the Black Women’s Movement in the 1970s, co-founding the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent which tackled issues of employment, education, housing, health service, immigration and more.
During this time, Stella also co-authored the ground-breaking book The Heart of the Race: Black Women's Lives in Britain in 1985. This influential work highlighted the experiences of Black women in Britain, addressing issues of intersectionality, racism, and sexism. It continues to be a seminal text in women's and African diaspora studies.
Dadzie's life serves as an inspiration to those dedicated to combating social, racial and economic oppression. Her work continues to shed light on the experiences of marginalised communities and remains a cornerstone of feminist literature and activism in the United Kingdom and beyond. Stella Dadzie's legacy is a testament to the power of words and actions in the pursuit of a more just and equitable society, and her work continues to this day.
4. Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah (unknown – present day) - Clean air. Environmental activism. Saving lives.
Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah is a British environmental activist who has become a prominent voice in the fight for clean air and environmental justice. Her life and work have been heavily shaped by a heart-breaking loss that carved the path to her campaigning and activism.
Adoo-Kissi-Debrah's daughter, Ella Roberta, suffered from severe asthma and tragically passed away in 2013 at the age of just nine. It was later revealed that Ella's fatal asthma attacks were linked to air pollution, specifically high levels of nitrogen dioxide near their London home. Ella was the first person in the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on her death certificate. This devastating loss prompted Rosamund to become a tireless advocate for clean air and public health.
Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah's efforts have included raising awareness about the health impacts of air pollution, campaigning for stronger air quality regulations, and pushing for greater accountability from authorities. Her work has been instrumental in highlighting the link between air pollution and respiratory illnesses, especially in vulnerable communities with higher rates of deprivation and poverty.
She established the Ella Roberta Family Foundation in honour of her daughter to promote clean air and environmental justice. Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah's life stands as a poignant example of turning personal tragedy into a powerful force for change and exemplifies the importance of environmental activism for the well-being of communities and future generations.