For centuries, people of African descent have visited and lived in villages and towns across the North of England.
Thanks to the African Lives in Northern England project, discover the often untold stories of brilliant and resilient people of African heritage and their roles.
1. The first African community in Britain
People born in Africa lived in Northern England 2,000 years ago when it was part of the Roman Empire. Evidence shows that the first African community was in Cumbria.
Troops protected Hadrian’s Wall from across the Roman Empire. One unit from Mauretania (modern-day Tunisia, Libya and Algeria) in North West Africa lived at Aballava Roman Fort at Burgh by Sands in Cumbria in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
Some soldiers would have had families living outside the fort and may have told their children songs and stories from Africa.
2. The African Emperor, Septimus Severus
Septimus Severus (145 to 211 AD), the Emperor of Rome, was born in Lepcis in Libya. He was of mixed African and Roman heritage.
Septimus came to Britain in the early 3rd century AD and rebuilt much of Hadrian’s Wall, including the fort at South Shields.
He had problems with his two quarrelling sons and ill-health and died in York in 211 AD.
3. Victor, the Freedman in South Shields
Victor, a Moor from Mauretania in North West Africa, is remembered on this tombstone at the Roman fort of Arbeia in South Shields.
He was a servant to a cavalryman, Numerianus, who was devoted to him and provided him with this beautiful tombstone carved by a Syrian stonemason.
4. William Fifefield, a ferryman in Newcastle
William Fifefield, from St Kitts, in the Caribbean, settled in Newcastle in 1794. ‘Well-known and respected’, he worked as a ferryman on the Tyne River.
He and his wife, Margaret Wintrup, lived at Bailey Gate Newcastle, near the Black Gate.
Fifefield later lived at Tuthill Stairs, between the castle and the quayside. He died in 1834.
5. John Kent, Britain’s first Black policeman
John Kent (1805 to 1886), nicknamed ‘Black Kent’, is considered the first Black police officer in Britain. He was a watchman and a parish constable in Maryport, near Carlisle and a constable in Carlisle, Cumbria.
He rescued a 17-year-old from drowning, kept the peace most of the time and fought fires. He worked at Carlisle Citadel railway station as a railway policeman.
He was described as ‘a Carlisle notable’ on his death in 1886.
6. Ira Aldridge, the first Black Shakespearean actor
Ira Aldridge (1807 to 1867), born in New York, USA, started acting at 14. Meeting racial discrimination, he moved to England at age 17.
He performed in Sunderland and at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle in 1827. He was the first Black Shakespearean actor, famous for his performance of Othello. He also played comedies joking on stage about local people.
Popular in Europe, he received awards from the rulers of Prussia (a German state), Russia and Bern, Switzerland. He died in 1867 in Poland, before his planned return performance in the USA.
7. Mary Ann Macham, a worker in North Shields
Mary Ann Macham (1802 to 1893) was sold at 12 years. She escaped enslavement in Virginia, North America and arrived in North Shields on Christmas Day in 1831.
The Miss Spences, a Quaker family, welcomed her. She worked in their household until marrying James Blyth, a local rope-maker.
Macham lived in Nelson Street, North Shields and Benwell, Newcastle. She died aged 91 and was buried in Tynemouth, where she has been commemorated with a memorial stone in Preston Cemetery.
8. Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist
Frederick Douglass (1818 to 1895) spoke against enslavement throughout Tyne and Wear, Northumberland, Carlisle and Darlington in 1846 and 1860.
His lectures were so popular a special train was used so people from Sunderland, North and South Shields could attend his evening lecture in Gateshead.
He often stayed with the Richardson’s in Newcastle and Cullercoats, and in 1847, they bought his freedom from enslavement.
A plaque was erected to Frederick Douglass at the Richardson’s Newcastle home at 5 Summerhill Grove in 2018.
9. Ellen and William Craft, abolitionists
Ellen (1826 to 1891) and William Craft escaped from enslavement in North America, with Ellen dressed in men’s clothes and William pretending to be her ‘slave’.
They fled to England in 1850 to avoid being recaptured.
They wrote a book about their escape and spoke against enslavement in Carlisle, Darlington, and Newcastle in 1851. They later returned to America with 3 of their 5 children after 19 years in England.
10. Samuel Celestine Edwards, a worker and lecturer
Samuel Celestine Edwards (1857 to 1894) was one of 10 children of previously enslaved parents. He left Dominica, aged 12, to become a seaman.
Edwards lived in Sunderland between 1880 and 1882 as a labourer and lecturer. His lectures there, emphasising equality between African and white men, met with great applause.
He was a Christian preacher, student doctor, editor, and writer.
He used his journals and books to challenge racism in Britain and British violent rule in Uganda and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
11. Arthur Wharton, the world’s first Black professional footballer
Arthur ‘Kwame’ Wharton was born in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1865. In 1882, he came to England to train as a Methodist minister at Cleveland College, Darlington, but preferred playing sports.
As a runner, he became the first fastest man by running 100 yards in 10 seconds.
He played football for Darlington between 1885 and 1886 and is remembered as the world’s first Black professional football player. He also excelled in cycling, cricket and rugby and later worked as a miner. Wharton died in 1930.
12. Jimmy Durham, a Black Victorian soldier in the British army
In 1885, the Durham Light Infantry defeated a local army and found a baby in a boat on the Nile in the Sudan, Africa.
The regiment adopted the baby, and at 14, he became the first African allowed to join the regular British army.
Durham lived in Darlington, Tyneside, and Bishop Auckland. He played the clarinet and violin in the army band, strongly supported the Temperance movement, and died in Ireland aged 27 years.
13. Learie Constantine, a professional cricketer in Lancashire
Learie Constantine, MBE (1901 to 1971) played 18 Test Matches and took the West Indies’ first wicket in Test cricket.
He came to England in 1928 as part of the West Indies Team tour and, in 1929, signed a contract to play for Nelson Cricket Club in Lancashire.
He was Trinidad’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and became the UK’s first Black peer in 1969.
He challenged racial discrimination and supported the Bristol Bus Boycott and the 1965 Race Relations Act.
14. Robert Wellesley-Cole, the first African Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons
Robert Wellesley-Cole (1907 to 1995), from Freetown, Sierra Leone, graduated from Newcastle Medical College at Durham University in 1934.
He overcame racism to become the first African Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1944.
He was called ‘the Black doctor’, with popular practices in Denton Burn and Whickham View in Newcastle. He had 5 clinics, including 1 for children, did minor operations, and looked after his patients in the hospital.
He left Newcastle in 1949 and worked as a doctor in Nottingham, a senior doctor and surgeon in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, and an ophthalmologist in London.
15. Martin Luther King Jr, the civil rights activist in Newcastle
Martin Luther King Jr (1929 to 1968) was an African-American Christian minister and a movement leader to give African people equal rights (known as the Civil Rights Movement).
He led enormous demonstrations for civil rights and supported non-violent action and the rights of workers and poor people. He was arrested 29 times and assassinated in 1968.
His statue on Newcastle University’s grounds commemorates his visit to Newcastle in 1967 to receive an honorary degree from Newcastle University.
16. Muhammad Ali, the famous professional boxer in Tyne and Wear
Muhammad Ali (1942 to 2016) won 56 of his 61 boxing matches and was nicknamed ‘the Greatest’.
He refused to fight in the Vietnam War because it was against his religion and principles.
In 1977, he visited youth clubs in Newcastle, toured the city in an open-air bus, and he and his new wife, Veronica, had their marriage blessed at the Al Azhar Mosque in South Shields.