The top 10 black Britons (but one may not be)

The first poll of the greatest black Britons of all time honours musicians, politicians and media figures. And, controversially, England's first black Queen. Steve Bloomfield reports
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The Independent Online

It's a list that includes the first black Queen of England and the first prince of British jazz; a slave who shocked the world with a book detailing her brutal life, and "finally", a television newsreader.

Some of the names may be unfamiliar and some famous faces may be absent, but they have been voted the greatest ever black Britons. The list is in no particular order as yet, with the final results being announced tomorrow.

Two years ago the BBC's high-profile hunt for the 100 greatest Britons failed to find a single black face. The omission drove Patrick Vernon, who runs a black history website, to set up a similar poll exclusively for black Britons. The search was launched in Black History Month last October and since then more than 10,000 people have voted and there have been more than a million visits to the website, www.100greatblack britons.com.

"Black history hasn't been recognised," said Mr Vernon. "We didn't just come here at Windrush [1948] - we've been here for a thousand years. We've influenced and shaped Britain."

Jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine, one of five people on the list still alive, agreed. "The poll shows that we have made a contribution to British culture. We do exist." Pine said he was honoured to be named. "That tops an OBE!"

Sir Bill Morris said he was "deeply flattered". He said: "When they had the debate about the greatest Britons the black community's contribution was totally overlooked.

"If by this exercise young black kids get some inspiration then it's worth it."

Other political leaders recognised included Olaudah Equiano, a slave who became a leading abolitionist, and Bernie Grant, the radical Labour MP at the forefront of numerous campaigns against police racism.

His widow, Sharon, said she was proud of her husband's achievements: "He just told the truth about the black experience in Britain. He was pretty uncompromising about it. It won him brickbats, but it also won him huge acclaim. At last, here was somebody who told it like it was."

Historical figures in the top 10 include the Crimean War nurse Mary Seacole and England's first black queen, Queen Philippa.

However, there is some confusion as to whether Queen Philippa was actually black. Historians at Queen's College, Oxford - which was set up in her name - are convinced she was white and all the paintings of her show a white woman.

Yet records from the 14th century make clear reference to her brown skin, and it was not unusual for black historical figures to be "whitened up" in official portraits.

Not everyone was entirely happy with the list. Sir Trevor McDonald questioned his own inclusion. "It's terribly flattering and equally undeserved," he said. "A media profile tends to exaggerate one's importance. All these people have contributed a great deal to society - I'm just a hack who happens to appear on television. Don't get me wrong, though, I'm very proud."

Sir Trevor called on television to take more interest in black historical figures, and said that he himself should do more to highlight such people. "I do think these programmes should be done - people would find them fascinating. I know it's something that I should do.

"I was so moved when I first heard of Mary Seacole. We know so little about these people. I think it's time some of us were a little more vocal."

Sir Trevor McDonald

Britain's most famous newsreader. Knighted in 1999, Sir Trevor rose through the ranks at ITN after joining in 1973 as a reporter. He presents the news five times a week, as well as ITV'sTonight with Trevor McDonald.

Mary Seacole

Though less well known than Florence Nightingale, Seacole was the original "lady of the lamp", travelling to the Crimea on her own funds to treat wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War. She could not enlist with Nightingale.

Professor Stuart Hall

A cultural studies professor with the Open University, Hall changed the way social scientists thought about culture in the 1980s. His criticism of Thatcherism and the new right reached far beyond the academic world.

Bernie Grant

Labour MP for Tottenham from 1987 until his death in 2000, he was a constant thorn in the side of the police and the Tory governments of the 1980s and 1990s. A tireless campaigner for racial justice. More than 5,000 attended his funeral.

Sir Bill Morris

Until his retirement last year, Sir Bill was general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union. He campaigned against racism and is now leading an inquiry into how the Metropolitan Police deals with complaints.

Queen Philippa

Philippa married Edward III in 1328 after Bishop Walter de Stapeldon told his father, Edward II, that although she was "brown of skin all over" she was "pleasant enough". Paintings, however, portrayed Philippa as a white woman and some historians question her ethnicity. She successfully pleaded with her husband to spare the lives of six men during the Hundred Years War.

Olaudah Equiano

Born in Africa c1745, he was sold into slavery, later buying his freedom. A leader of Britain's black community, he worked to abolish slavery with Granville Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson. His autobiography was one of the most important literary contributions to the abolition campaign.

Courtney Pine

One of Britain's best-known saxophonists and, at 39, the youngest person on the list. Pine has released nine albums and been awarded an OBE. His music has won plaudits for bringing jazz to a new audience, and Pine has also carved out a successful career as a presenter on Radio 2.

Dame Shirley Bassey

In a career spanning six decades, the glamorous Welsh diva has sung more Bond theme tunes than anyone else. Songs such as "Diamonds are Forever" and "Hey Big Spender" have become karaoke classics. Now a grandmother and living in Switzerland, Dame Shirley recently performed on the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary 2.

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