Here's why Mary Seacole and other inspiring black figures should stay on the curriculum

Why can't children learn about a black woman not through the prism of slavery, colonialism or the Civil rights movement, but as a great Victorian?

Share
Related Topics

Reading that Daily Mail headline on the penultimate day of the 2012 filled me with great dismay:

‘The black Florence Nightingale and the making of the PC myth: One historian explains how Mary Seacole’s story never stood up.’

That ‘historian’, William Curtis, went on to say that ‘the hype that has built up surrounding this otherwise worthy woman is a disgrace to the serious study of history.’

There have been a small, but vocal number of Mary Seacole detractors such as Curtis, and notably the former editor of Radio 4’s Today programme Rod Liddle, who almost cannot bear the fact that the exploits of Mary Seacole were being optionally taught to seven and eight year-olds as one of many great Victorians. Top of a long list of the spurious gripes, Liddle was questioning why she inspired black people, when according to him, ‘she was white. At least three quarters’.

Given that Seacole was never mandatory to the curriculum one wondered what all the fuss was about.  Nevertheless, it seems that by the latter part of last year, Gove had been persuaded to dump her from the curriculum notes, along with the slave abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. The leaked report suggested that students get back to basics and learn about key figures such as Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill, instead of promoting 'politically correct social themes'.

My own seven year-old son had come home months earlier waxing lyrical about both Seacole and Florence Nightingale. ‘Dad’ he said, ‘this woman travelled miles, and miles on her own to care for the sick soldiers in the Crimean war. Wasn’t she brave?' His mum and I spoke about it being very significant. ‘It’s wonderful’, we reflected, ‘that our son is being taught about a black woman not through the prism of racism-slavery, colonialism or the Civil rights movement - important as they all are - but rather as a great Victorian.’

And she was great. With no title and no statue her exploits attending the sick and wounded were recognised not only by the great and good, including royalty, but also 80,000 British citizens who came out to pay respects to her in her lifetime.  When was the last time 80,000 people - the size of the Olympic stadium - came out to pay tribute to a nurse? The esteemed Times war writer Sir W.H. Russell wrote of Seacole in 1857:

‘I trust England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded..and who performed the last offices for some of the illustrious dead’.

On reading the proposals to scrap Seacole I and a small group of activists, including Lester Holloway, Patrick Vernon and Professor Elizabeth Anionwu from the Mary Seacole Trust, decided to start a petition on Change.org. Within a week 5,000 had signed. That was significant in itself, but the comments that came with it were more telling us much more: black people would say: ‘enough is enough.  Is there nothing they won’t do to our people?’ ‘Why should our children be denied these heroes’. Others would say: ‘I’m white, and me and my family love Seacole’s story. She is a strong, great woman’.

Within two weeks nearly 30,000 had signed, including the African American Civil Rights icon Rev Jesse Jackson, and best selling author Zadie Smith.

A spokesperson for Gove’s curriculum reform suggested that ‘teachers should decide for themselves what they teach.’ We vociferously argued without direction to the rich diversity of British history our children will predominantly be taught about powerful white men and a few Queens.

The Deputy Leader Nick Clegg raised the stakes of the debate claiming that on his watch, ‘Seacole would not be removed’.  Would he really make another education pledge and not keep it, we thought?

Fortunately, for Clegg that will not now be tested. Michael Gove, for all his infamy of being an ‘ideologue’ and someone who ‘just doesn’t listen no matter how reasonable’, responded personally stating:

‘I agree that it is important that our children learn about the difference that these figures have made, and it is right that we do more, not less, to make subjects relevant to the lives of our children.’

Sadly, though we are not are not home and dry.

While it’s true that Mary Seacole has gone from being in the guidance notes, to nearly being erased, to finding herself centre stage along with Olaudah Equiano, other key aspects of the curriculum seem to have disappeared. In particular the present instruction to teach African civilizations before the slave trade.  

This latter part is critically important. African history lessons that start with European conquest not only denies black children of their complete true heritage, but also shockingly distorts the view of Africans to white students, too.

Unlike others we will not be ‘kicking’ Minster Gove while he’s politically down. Our challenge then as it is now has never been about taking political sides, it has only ever been about ensuring our children have the opportunity to fully tap into the rich and diverse national and international history. 

Great Black Britons might be looking down saying ‘well done, but the job is only half finished.’ Like us, they'd probably want to ensure that all our students, black and white, get the rich history lessons they so deserve.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album