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Black History Month: Three Black Women Who Totally Smashed It

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As Black History Month continues, we’ve got a superb podcast for you tomorrow – where our presenter Sakinah Lenoir will be exploring her own black heritage, and how it relates to her British and Muslim identities.

But we thought we’d take a jump even further back in history and highlight three amazing black women, their groundbreaking work, and the mark they made on Britain. Chances are, you probably didn’t study them at school and haven’t heard of them!

Althea Gibson

Tennis champion

Although most people assume that the Williams’ twins were the first black women to be at the top of their tennis game, it was actually Althea Gibson who first won Wimbledon in 1957. She was the first black person – male or female – to win the championship, succeeding in both the single and doubles titles.

Britain, for Althea, was a space for her to shine in the global sporting world and show that she could become a champion – as a woman, as an ethnic minority, and as an African American.

Born in South Carolina in 1927, Althea grew up in Harlem. She really pushed the boundaries when she became the first black tennis player to be allowed to compete in the U.S. National Championship (U.S. Open) in 1950, in a sport that was especially segregated during this time.

Althea was still alive when Serena Williams won the US Open in 1999.

“One of her friends told me she wanted to see another African American win a Slam before her time is up,” said Serena. “I’m so excited that I had a chance to accomplish that while she’s still alive.”

Althea Gibson passed away in 2003 in New Jersey.

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Mary Jane Seacole

Nurse and business owner

Mary Jane Seacole was a savvy businesswoman who used her position to help the sick and wounded. She was a Jamaican-born woman of Scottish and Creole descent, who was incredibly proud of her black ancestry.

Mary learned most of her nursing skills from her mother. She learned about herbal medicine in the Caribbean and more about European medical ideas throughout her many travels.

What’s interesting about Mary is how she stood side by side with British soldiers, helping to bring about a system of care in the middle of war. During the Crimean War, which lasted from 1853 to 1856, Mary put aside her gold-mining business to try and join the contingent of British nurses in Crimea. Having been refused sponsorship to travel, she made plans to finance the trip and she opened the “British Hotel” on her own there. She used this platform to help all who were in need, whether they were hungry, cold, wounded or sick.

After the war she returned to England and she died in 1881.

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Claudia Jones

Editor and campaigner
Claudia Jones has recently been recognised as the founder of the Notting Hill Carnival – or the first roofed carnival in the UK. But she wasn’t all about street parties. She spent most of her life campaigning for race and gender equality, both in the United States and Britain.

Originally from Trinidad, Claudia excelled at her work and studies, and joined the American Communist Party of Harlem to fight for the rights of black and working communities. She was then deported and came to Britain, where she was able to set up one of the first black newspapers in the UK – The West Indian Gazette. Despite financial problems, the newspaper was crucial in the fight for equal opportunities.

The Notting Hill Festival, which Claudia launched in 1959, was intended as an annual showcase for Caribbean talent, and continues today as a huge celebration of arts and culture in West London.
Claudia Jones died on Christmas Eve in 1964 and she was buried to the left of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery in North London.

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There are so many other wonderful personalities to remember this month, most of whose stories are finally being recognised now. So this is a really exciting time for black history, and we’re happy to be a part of the remembrance! Don’t forget to hit our podcast page on Wednesday at 6pm UK time for our special podcast.


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