Black, Scottish & Proud; UNSUNG HEROES WHO BROKE THE RACIAL MOULD MORE THAN A CENTURY AGO

Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland), October 16, 2010 | Go to article overview

Black, Scottish & Proud; UNSUNG HEROES WHO BROKE THE RACIAL MOULD MORE THAN A CENTURY AGO


Byline: Craig McQueen

NURSE Mary Seacole risked everything to serve her father''s country.

When the War Office refused her request to be sent to treat the fallen during the Crimean War, she borrowed money to fund her own 4000-mile mission of mercy.

The daughter of a Scots army officer, she stood out not only for her bravery and dedication - but because she was black.

The Jamaican worked alongside Florence Nightingale and she was fiercely proud of her roots, writing in her autobiography that she had Scottish blood.

She is one of the little-heralded black figures who left a big mark on Scotland's history.

They include eminent doctor James McCune Smith, taxidermist John Edmonstone, who taught Charles Darwin, international footballer Andrew Watson and slave Joseph Knight, who won a groundbreaking fight for freedom.

Now the organisers of Black History Month want their names to become as familiar as other great Scots, such as Adam Smith, John Logie Baird and Robert Burns.

The programme of events, running throughout this month, features everything from culture and the arts to explorations of Scotland's links with the slave trade in the Caribbean.

Figures from the past now coming under the spotlight include America's first black doctor, James McCune Smith, who studied medicine at the University of Glasgow in the 1830s.

Described as "an exceptionally bright student" from an early age, his brilliance didn't protect him from the racism and divisions that split 19th-century US society.

Born in New York in 1813, his mother was a former slave and his father a white merchant.

After graduating from high school, he applied to several US colleges to study medicine but was refused by all of them due to the colour of his skin.

His teacher suggested applying to the University of Glasgow and helped raise money for the trip. He graduated top of his class. He also joined the Glasgow Emancipation Society, studied statistics and was a prolific writer, using his skills to argue passionately against slavery.

Upon returning to New York in 1837, he devoted himself to treating others from poor backgrounds. He opened a medical practice in Lower Manhattan and spent 20 years as the only doctor at a black orphanage.

The dad-of-five died of heart failure in 1865 aged 52. He was buried in an unmarked grave but his descendants last month erected a tombstone there in honour of his achievements.

Profesor Geoff Palmer, an expert in grain science at Heriot Watt University and an active figure in race relations, insists more must be done to raise the profile of figures such as Seacole and McCune Smith.

He said: "The black community do not know enough about people who have achieved great things and there is no network to help black people access things such as education.

"The fact is we often don't know who these people are. We're celebrating a black doctor who came to Glasgow 175 years ago but Americans are celebrating their first black president.

"Black people aren't going to university in the numbers you would expect and I always say to people that if you want to know how well our diversity policies are working, look around your workplace.

"If you don't see any black people or people from ethnic minorities, you know there is still some work to do. The facts are staring us in the face."

The role of the slave trade in the development of Glasgow, in particular, is also now receiving more attention than ever before. The tobacco lords who built many of the city's finest buildings made their fortunes from plantations in the Caribbean staffed by slaves from Africa.

Historian Stephen Mullen - author of It Wisnae Us, which examines this link - says awareness of Scotland's past needs to be improved.

He said: "The first thing we have to do is acknowledge what has happened in the past and it has become a trend in historical study that more people are looking at this. …

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