Why do we celebrate Black History Month in the UK?
In the UK, October marks Black History Month and is a month which annually recognises the history, contributions and achievements people of African and Caribbean descent have made over several generations in Britain. This month originates from the US, where in 1926 Carter G Woodson sent out a press release to mark the first Black History Week. Woodson was the son of a former slave and although access to opportunities was restricted, he obtained several qualifications including a PhD in History from Harvard University. During his life, he continued to raise awareness to promote Black history in schools.
Black History Month was first celebrated in the UK in 1987 and aims to promote knowledge and understanding of Black History nationally and internationally, and acknowledge the positive role of Black people in shaping the communities we live in. Since its introduction, over 6,000 events take place annually to celebrate Black history in the UK. Due to the prominence of the global Black Lives Matter movement, greater attention has been placed on educating others about Black history and promoting more diverse and inclusive environments for Black people.
“Firms have become more proactive in advocating for diversity…especially for Black aspiring lawyers”
According to a 2020 study conducted by the SRA, Black lawyers make up 3% of the workforce in England, Scotland and Wales – which is a 1% increase since 2014. Although this number not as high as it should be, there has been some progress in the recognition of the lack of diversity of Black lawyers in the industry and the need for the recruitment and retention of Black lawyers. Firms have become more proactive in advocating for diversity through their recruitment process including CV-blind contextual processes to eradicate unconscious bias. Firms have also started hosting professional events focusing on the importance of diversity and inclusion, especially for Black aspiring lawyers.
Recently, top City law firms have set aspirational ethnic minority recruitment targets for their trainee solicitors to improve Black and minority ethnic representation across its ranks. Some networks are available to support aspiring and existing Black solicitors in the UK, such as the Black Solicitors Network, which is the primary voice of Black solicitors in England and Wales since 1995. This is promising for aspiring Black lawyers such as myself, where diversity and inclusion are paramount to our progression and success as lawyers.
Christian Frederick Cole: England’s first Black barrister
Born in a village in Sierra Leone in 1852, Cole’s parents helped him obtain a scholarship to attend a prestigious college in sub-Saharan Africa. Cole’s principal encouraged him to apply to Oxford University and was accepted after passing exams in Greek, Latin, arithmetic and algebra. Cole arrived to the UK in 1873, at the height of British colonialism, where Black people were seen as educationally inferior to their white counterparts. He relied on his uncle for financial support, but his limited income forced him to return home. By 1879, his friends in Sierra Leone raised enough funds for him to return to London to attain his career ambition as a lawyer. In 1879, Cole became the first Black African member of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple. By 1883, he was called to the bar as the first African barrister to practise in the English courts. He was unable to secure any chambers in Britain and secured a role as a barrister on a small island in Tanzania.
More Black professionals are needed in the legal industry
As an aspiring Black lawyer, the importance of diversity and inclusion initiatives for the recruitment and retention of Black lawyers is key. Hundreds of aspiring Black legal professionals, including myself, aspire to train and qualify at a company that fosters an inclusive culture. Personally, seeing Black legal professionals across all ranks in law firms and businesses is inspirational to me as it shows that I can attain my career ambition. Since the Black Lives Matter movement, it is encouraging to see firms being ambitious to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce. Albeit more Black professionals are needed in the legal industry for proper representation of Black lawyers, the global Black Lives Matter movement has been a wake-up call to law firms and businesses for the need to have more Black lawyers in their places of work. Hopefully, they will deliver on their promises in the years to come.