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11 Historic Firsts That Changed The Political Landscape For Black Britons

Michelle Martin
·Freelance writer
·8-min read

In 1987 Labour’s Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott and Paul Boateng became the first Black members of British parliament. But prior to that historical event very little is known or documented about the other Black Britons who helped shape the country’s political landscape.

As the UK’s Black History Month comes to an end, HuffPost UK celebrates 11 firsts that changed the political landscape for Black Britons.

1. Ignatius Sancho – first Black person recorded to vote in a UK general election

Ignatius Sancho in a painting dated 1768 by Thomas Gainsborough (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Ignatius Sancho in a painting dated 1768 by Thomas Gainsborough (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Charles Ignatius Sancho was a British writer and composer. Born in West Africa in 1729, Sancho was an orphan by the age of two. Taken to Britain, he was forced to work as a slave in a house in Greenwich, south-east London. During that time he befriended the 2nd Duke of Montagu, who encouraged his education and after the Duke’s death Sancho persuaded his widow to employ him as a housekeeper.

Sancho later met and married a West Indian woman. They started a family and went on to open a grocery store in Westminster. Sancho soon became a well-known cultural figure maintaining an active social and literary life.

As a financially independent male householder, Sancho became eligible to vote.

He made history by becoming the first Black person to vote in a British general election. Sancho also became the first Black person to have his obituary published in British newspapers after his death in 1780.

2. Mary Prince – first woman to present a petition to parliament

Born in Bermuda in 1788, Prince was enslaved by a family who travelled to England in 1828, where she eventually ran away and found freedom.

As a free woman she campaigned tirelessly against the horrors of slavery and working with the Anti Slavery Society she made history by becoming the first women to present a petition to Parliament. She did so at a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote.

Prince was also the first Black woman to publish an autobiography, titled The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave.

3. Olaudah Equiano – abolitionist who helped establish the Slave Trade Act of 1807

Portrait of Olaudah Equiano (Photo: Heritage Images via Getty Images)
Portrait of Olaudah Equiano (Photo: Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Olaudah Equiano was born in Nigeria in 1745 and sold into slavery at the age of 11. He eventually bought his freedom in 1766 and went on to write about his experiences as an enslaved man.

He became a prominent figure associated with the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. He was part of the abolitionist group Son’s of Africa and in 1780 he published the book The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, which depicted the horrors of slavery. His book was the first influential slave narrative published and was instrumental in helping to establish The Slave Trade Act 1807 which abolished the slave trade.

4. John Stewart – first elected MP of African descent

Born the illegitimate son of Tory MP John Stewart and former slave Mary Duncan in 1789, Stewart is noted as being the first person of African descent to be elected as an MP in the UK, when he won the seat of Lymington in 1832.

After his father’s death he inherited his estate, which included enslaved people and sugar plantations in Grenada and Demerara (Guyana).

During his election he defended his record as a slaver and rebuffed arguments that slaves on his estates were treated cruelly. On winning his seat he presented a petition to the Commons against the abolition of slavery and often spoke in defence of West Indian plantation owners.

Although his ethnicity was never mentioned during his tenure as an MP, there were many references to him as “a man of colour” and the “first coloured Member of Parliament”.

5. William Cuffay – first Black cofounder of a political party

William Cuffay (Photo: HuffPost UK)
William Cuffay (Photo: HuffPost UK)

William Cuffay was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1788 to an English woman and man who had been enslaved on the Caribbean Island of St Kitts.

Cuffay trained as a tailor and moved to London in 1819. He started to involve himself in politics after he lost his job when the New Tailors Union encouraged their members to go on strike.

Cuffay was convinced that the workers needed to be represented in parliament. In 1839 he helped form the Metropolitan Tailors Charters Association.

By 1842 he was elected as president of the London Chartists. During that time Cuffay was often referred to as “the Black man and his party”.

In 1848 Cuffay was charged with conspiracy to lead an armed uprising against the government. He was convicted, found guilty and sentenced to be transported Australia for 21 years.

Three years after his conviction Cuffay was pardoned but chose to remain in Australia where he became involved in radical politics and trade union issues which included helping to amend the Master and Servant Law in the colony.

6. Allan Glaisyer Minns – first elected Black mayor

Allan Glaisyer Minns (Photo: Crown Copyright 2008, Norfolk Record Office.)
Allan Glaisyer Minns (Photo: Crown Copyright 2008, Norfolk Record Office.)

Born in The Bahamas in 1858, Mimms followed his older brother to the UK to study medicine at London’s Guys Hospital. He registered with the British Medical Association and moved to Norfolk shortly after.

There he became involved in many civic and political groups and made history by becoming the first Black person to be given a position on Thetford Town Council.

A year later in 1903 he was voted the mayor of Thetford, becoming the first Black mayor elected in the UK. A first that was originally attributed to John Richard Archer who in 1913 was elected the first Black mayor of Battersea London.

7. Learie Constantine – first Black peer

Baron Learie Constantine of Tobago and Nelson at the House of Lords, as he took his seat as Britain's first Black life peer. (Photo: PA)
Baron Learie Constantine of Tobago and Nelson at the House of Lords, as he took his seat as Britain's first Black life peer. (Photo: PA)

Born in Trinidad in 1901, Constantine was a cricketer for the West Indies, as well as a lawyer and politician. He made history by becoming the first Black person to be awarded a peerage in the UK.

After being called to the bar in Trinidad, he went on to become an MP and minister. He returned to the UK in the capacity of High Commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago in 1961, was knighted in 1962 and made a peer in 1969.

Lord David Pitt, the second Black peer, made history as being the longest serving Black parliamentarian.

8. Valerie Amos – first Black female peer

Valerie Amos. (Photo: Doug Peters/EMPICS Entertainment)
Valerie Amos. (Photo: Doug Peters/EMPICS Entertainment)

Born in Guyana in 1954, Valerie Amos became the first Black woman to be given a life peer in 1997 and made history again when she was appointed secretary of state for international development, becoming the first Black woman to serve as a cabinet minister.

In September 2015 Baroness Amos became the first Black woman to lead a university when she became director of SOAS, University of London. In September 2020 Amos became the first ever Black head of Oxford College.

9. Bill Morris – first Black leader of a major British trade union

Bill Morris of the Transport and General Workers Union addresses the TUC annual conference. (Photo: PA)
Bill Morris of the Transport and General Workers Union addresses the TUC annual conference. (Photo: PA)

Born in Jamaica in 1938, Morris came to the UK as part of the Windrush generation in 1954 and by 1958 he had joined the Transport and General Workers Union.

Four years later Morris was elected shop steward. In 1973 he joined the union as a full time official. By 1986 he had been elected deputy general secretary.

When general secretary Ron Todd retired in 1992 Morris took over, becoming the first Black man in history to become a leader of a major British Trade Union. He remained general secretary until his retirement on his 65th birthday in 2003.

10. Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng – first Black MPs

Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott. (Photo: PA)
Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott. (Photo: PA)

Even though John Stewart has officially been recognised as the first person of African descent to be elected a MP in the UK, in 1987 three would-be Black Parliamentarians made history by winning their seats and becoming the first Black elected members of parliament.

Born in London to Jamaican parents in 1953, Diane Abbott won the Labour seat representing the constituents of Hackney North and Stoke Newington, becoming the first Black woman to be elected as a MP.

Born in Guyana in 1944, Bernie Grant came to the UK in 1963 and by 1975 he had joined the Labour party.

Prior to being elected MP for Tottenham in north London, Grant made history by becoming the first ever Black leader of a local authority in Europe when he was elected council leader of Haringey.

Paul Boateng, born in London in 1951 to mixed Ghanaian and English parents, came to prominence when he was elected to the Greater London Council. He then became part of history when he won his seat for Brent alongside Diane Abbott and Bernie Grant in the 1987 elections. In 2002 Boateng become the first male Black cabinet member when he was appointed chief secretary to the Treasury.

11. Eleanor Smith – first Black MP to win the seat once held by Enoch ‘Rivers of Blood’ Powell

Eleanor Smith, third from right with rosette, with other female Labour politicians including Diane Abbott, left, and Marsha de Cordova, centre. (Photo: Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Eleanor Smith, third from right with rosette, with other female Labour politicians including Diane Abbott, left, and Marsha de Cordova, centre. (Photo: Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Born in Birmingham to Barbadian parents in 1957, Smith made history in 2011 by becoming the first elected Black female president of the trade union Unison.

In 2017 Smith won the Wolverhampton South West Seat and became the first person of African Caribbean descent to ever do so.

Winning the seat was historical because it was previously held by Enoch Powell, the anti-immigration campaigner who delivered the infamous Rivers of Blood speech. Prior to Smith’s win, no Black person had ever contested or won that seat.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.