Into the limelight at last: search begins for the hundred greatest black Britons of all time

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The African-born Roman emperor Septimius Severus, who first set foot on British soil 1,800 years ago, was a hard act to follow. One of the first Africans to visit Britain, Septimius rebuilt Hadrian's Wall and by the time he died from pneumonia in York AD211 he was the most powerful man on the planet.

Since then millions of people who were either born in Africa or have antecedents from the continent have made their home on these islands. They have included the fastest man on the planet (Linford Christie), the best heavyweight boxer(Lennox Lewis), as well as great writers (Ben Okri), performers (Shirley Bassey) and public servants (Baroness Scotland of Asthal).

Last night Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, launched a search for the 100 Greatest Black Britons to mark the achievements of people of African descent who have lived in the United Kingdom.

The exercise, which began yesterday with the proposal of 100 contenders for the final list, is a response to the BBC's high-profile 100 Greatest Britons project last year, which did not include a single black face. Patrick Vernon, who has organised the contest for the Mayor, said: "The only person you could describe as 'ethnic' [on the BBC list] was Freddie Mercury, who was born in Zanzibar."

What is more, the BBC competition coincided with Black History Month in British schools and appeared to be "a direct contradiction at national level" of the message that many teachers were attempting to convey to children on black contributions in society.

Mr Vernon said: "I thought this was fundamentally wrong. We were not being recognised even though we are citizens and residents. A lot of people were quite angry and wrote letters to the BBC."

The Mayor's list takes a broad view of the description of "black Briton", particularly when it comes to some of the historical figures. Douglas Lee, of the department of classics at the University of Nottingham, said that Septimius was only in Britain because he was fighting the Caledonian campaign and that, although he was born in what is now Libya, he was not especially dark skinned. "I would be very hesitant about claiming him as a black Briton," he said. In some respects, the advisory top 100 - which includes the Hot Chocolate singer Errol Brown and Floella Benjamin, who presented the BBC'sPlay School - is an indication of how few black Britons have held positions of real influence.

But the Mayor's adviser on race, Lee Jasper, (who is also on the proposed list) said the project would be an important resource for schools in recognising the contribution to society of black communities.

Michael Eboda, editor of the New Nation newspaper, said the contest (in which the public can cast votes on the internet) would help to change the perceptions of both black and white people. "I think it's important for people to know that my ancestors were more than just slaves," he said.

According to the 2001 census, there were 565,876 people who described themselves as black Caribbean, 485,227 black Africans and 97,585 black other. A further 677,117 defined themselves as "mixed". In total these groups made up 3.2 per cent of the UK population. But significant black populations have existed in Britain for 400 years and among those proposed for the top 100 are the 19th-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the 18th- century author and former slave Olaudah Equiano and the Chartist William Cuffay.

Cynics might regard the exercise as an attempt by Mr Livingstone to gain the support of black voters, but Muhammad Anwar, of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick, backed the initiative. "Similar exercises should be done for other ethnic groups," he said.

100 Great Black Britons: The Contenders

George of Lydda, saint

Queen Charlotte, monarch

Septimus Severus, emperor

Mary Seacole, nurse

Queen Philippa, first black queen

Olaudah Equiano, activist

Baroness Howells of St Davids, activist

Harold Moody, politician

Mary Prince, publisher

Lennox Lewis, boxer

Niger Val Dub, King of the Picts

Stephen Lawrence, victim of racial attack

Learie Constantine, cricketer

Bernie Grant, MP

Paul Boateng, MP

Diane Abbott, MP

William Cuffay, activist

Cleo Laine, singer

Lord Pitt, activist

Bill Morris, trade unionist

Henry Sylvester Williams, activist

Professor Stuart Hall, broadcaster

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, poet

Robert Wedderman, activist

Claudia Jones, carnival founder

John Edmonstone, taxidermist

Kanya King, Mobo awards founder

Val McCalla, The Voice founder

Herman Ouseley, campaigner

Dame Jocelyn Barrow, educationalist

David Lammy, MP

Oona King, MP

Jennette Arnold, politician

John Archer, politician

Lord Taylor of Warwick, peer

Baroness Scotland of Asthal, minister

Baroness Amos, minister

George Bridgetower, violinist

Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson's assistant

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poet

Jazzy B, producer

Ira Aldridge, actor

Ottobah Cugoano, former slave

Shirley Bassey, singer

Daley Thompson, athlete

Craig David, singer

Colin Jackson, athlete

Trevor Phillips, chairman of CRE

Martin Offiah, rugby player

John Barnes, footballer

Ellery Hanley, rugby player

Ian Wright, footballer

Trevor McDonald, broadcaster

Lenny Henry, comedian

Linford Christie, athlete

Ignatius Sancho, writer

Bruce Oldfield, designer

Yvonne Brewster, theatre founder

David Case, commando

Tessa Sanderson, athlete

Peter Herbert, activist

Mike Fuller, director

Willard White, singer

Sade, singer

Phil Lynott, singer

Joan Armatrading, singer

Seal, singer

Des'Ree, singer

Errol Brown, singer

Lee Jasper, policy adviser

Moira Stewart, newscaster

Rudolph Walker, actor

Gabrielle, singer

Naomi Campbell, model

Goldie, musician

Mica Paris, singer

Angie Le Mar, comic

Beverly Knight, singer

Oswald Boateng, designer

Courtney Pine, musician

Zadie Smith, writer

Ms Dynamite, singer

Ben Okri, writer

Denise Lewis, athlete

Sir Clyde Walcott, cricketer

Jeremy Guscott, rugby player

Chris Offili, artist

Paul Ince, footballer

Nigel Benn, boxer

Chris Eubank, boxer

John Conteh, boxer

Viv Anderson, footballer

Benjamin Zephaniah, poet

Janet Kay, singer

Carol Thompson, singer

Desmond Douglas, table tennis champion

Patrick Berry, radio station boss

Linton Kwesi Johnson, poet

Dounne Alexander, businesswoman

Brendan Batson, football administrator

Randolph Turpin, boxer

Floella Benjamin, television presenter

Nana Bonsu, activist

Len Garrison, historian

Bishop Wilfred Wood, bishop

Dr O A Lyseight, church founder

Arthur Wharton, footballer