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Six black figures whose faith shaped public life

Six black figures whose faith shaped public life

As Black History Month comes to an end, here we highlight six black people from the past, whose faith has been key in their engagement in public life. 01/11/2023

Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu acted at the intersection between justice and peace. Accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, he said, “when there is injustice, invariably peace becomes a casualty”.  Advocating nonviolence to protest injustice, Tutu criticised church hypocrisy during apartheid and called for action through “methods that could withstand the harsh scrutiny of history”. 

Having campaigned for the rights of Black South Africans as the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, in 1995 Mandela appointed Tutu chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Investigating human rights violations during apartheid, the TRC’s tripartite aims were confession, forgiveness and restitution. Tutu introduced restorative justice to the TRC, emphasising the importance of long–term healing to achieve true reconciliation. 

Tutu was a mediator, peacemaker and disciple who acted on the incalculable value of human life. He believed in returning power to people, reportedly dancing for joy when he first cast a vote. 

Mary Seacole

Through nursing, writing and enterprise, Mary Seacole (1805–1881) practised continued resilience despite adversity. Nicknamed ‘Mother Seacole’, she determinedly pursued nursing as a vocation, firstly as a herbalist doctress having been trained by her Jamaican mother, and then as an attendant to soldiers during the Crimean War. 

After her nursing expertise was rejected by officials on the outbreak of war in 1853, likely due to her mixed–race heritage, Seacole collaborated with Thomas Day to open a British Hotel near British soldiers in Balaklava, Crimea. In her later autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, she described her aim to create, “a mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers”. 

Seacole was received into the Catholic church at the age of 55 in 1860. Having come to faith after the publication of her autobiography, little is known about her religious motivations. Nevertheless, Seacole remained dedicated to caregiving throughout her life. Her autobiography is a vibrant account of her explorative travels and was the first autobiography published by a free black woman in the British empire. 

War reporter W.H. Russell commended her courage, saying: “If singleness of heart, true charity, and Christian works; if trials and sufferings, dangers and perils, encountered boldly by a helpless woman on her errand of mercy in the camp and in the battle–field, can excite sympathy or move curiosity, Mary Seacole will have many friends and many readers.”

Ottobah Cugoano

Born in modern–day Ghana, Ottobah Cugoano was sold into slavery at a young age, “snatched away from [his] native country” (in his words) and forcibly transported to Grenada. He worked on the plantations there until an English merchant bought and took him to England, where he secured his freedom. He became a servant in the household of Richard Cosway, a royal artist, learnt to read and write, and gradually gained a reputation as a respected figurehead among London’s black community.

He gained traction as an abolitionist through his treatise Thoughts and sentiments on the evil and wicked traffic of the slavery, which offered thorough arguments for abolition and against attempted religious justifications of slavery. He called radically not just for partial de–escalation of the slave trade but full abolition of the trade and slavery itself. 

At a time when institutions like the church are increasingly negotiating the complex legacies of slavery with which their history is entangled, Cugoano reminds us of the need to interrogate our own belief systems and complicity with the evils of the world. 

In commemoration of the 250th anniversary of his baptism in St James’ Church Piccadilly, a series of paintings was commissioned from the Trinidadian artist Che Lovelace. They hang near the entrance of the church and are available for the public to see.

Olaudah Equiano

In The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Equiano writes: “O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice?” 

In piercing rhetorical questions, Equiano demands his readers to examine their conscience and reflect upon the wickedness of slavery. He is incredulous that those who call themselves Christians could fail to take seriously that most central of biblical tenets – do onto others as you would have them do unto you.

Equiano is perhaps now best known for this narrative, a text that was pivotal in disseminating information about the horrors of slavery and calling for its abolition. In his autobiography he relates that he was born into a powerful Igbo family, then kidnapped and sold into slavery at a young age. He was passed around between several owners but gained an education and eventually bought his freedom in 1766. 

Settling in London, he emerged as an integral part of the anti–slavery movement, becoming a member of the ‘Sons of Africa’, a group of 12 black abolitionists. He died before Parliament passed a bill to abolish the slave trade in 1807.

Martin Luther King Jr

Martin Luther King is perhaps the most famous civil rights campaigner of all time. The march on Washington and especially his oft–quoted ‘I have a dream speech’ given at the march, are moments that resonated around the world.

On 15 January 1929, King Jr was born in Atlanta, Georgia. At birth his parents named him Michael King Jr, but his father, a Baptist pastor, changed both their names after visiting German sites associated with Martin Luther. King Sr also came across Nazism during this time and developed the strong dislike of discrimination which he would go on to be known for. 

From the mid–1950s, and onward, Martin Luther King Jr was prominently involved in the civil rights movement. Inspired by the non–violent approach of Mahatma Gandhi, he began leading protests. In December 1955, he led the bus boycott, which lasted over a year, and was ultimately successful – leading to a Supreme Court ruling the laws requiring segregation on buses unconstitutional. He would continue in this fashion, eventually winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, aged just 35.

His strong stances against discrimination were always inspired by his Christian faith, which provided the ideals towards which his activism sought to achieve. His nonviolence was driven by Jesus’ urge to turn the other cheek and his strong belief in equality was based on what he called Jesus’ ‘extremist’ love.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman is famous for her utilisation of the Underground Railroad – after escaping slavery herself, she made several missions to free other slaves, missions which were so dangerous that failure meant likely death. She also would become the first woman to lead men into battle in the American Civil War. 

She was born in Maryland, however, her date of birth was not accurately reported – as was common for slaves in that time period. Born into slavery, she suffered frequent whippings and sickness. Worse still, she suffered a severe head injury when a metal weight was thrown in her direction as an adolescent. This brain injury led to her experiencing visions and dreams, which she interpreted as visions from God – leading her to be devoutly religious, in keeping with the Methodist faith in which she grew up.  

Her faith was evidently influential throughout her life. She prayed for her slave owner to change his ways before eventually running away, with the help of the Underground Railroad, which also had many Quakers. Once free, she eventually returned to Maryland several times to free others – becoming known as Moses, due to the parallels to the famous Bible character in how she helped others escape. In these dangerous journeys, she credited listening to God as being the factor that ensured her success.


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