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A Hidden History: African women and the British Health Service, 1930-2000 by Olivia Mason

In a standout piece from Olivia Mason of the Young Historians Project, we hear about the latest project of the group: A Hidden History: African women and the British Health Service, 1930-2000.

The Young Historians Project is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the development of historians of African and Caribbean heritage. The necessity of this project becomes clear when you begin to consider how there were less than 10 Black PhD students studying history in 2016, how only 0.6% of professors were Black in 2018 and how, even more alarmingly, only 25 of these Black professors were female.[1] Combine this with the infrequency with which our stories are competently told and it is possible to grasp why history as a subject must be redefined within the field of academia. By increasing access to Black British history and highlighting the often overlooked roles that our communities have played, we are not simply celebrating our stories; we are also combatting erasure and changing the narrative about who is qualified to exist within academic spaces.

Our current project in particular – funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund – commemorates the contribution of African women to the development of Britain’s healthcare service between the years 1930 – 2000. Despite the crucial role these women have played, most notably during the formative years of the NHS, their stories have been greatly overlooked and their hard work has been met with little recognition. In fact, even though the role of West Indian women in British healthcare has been acknowledged through both books and documentaries, the same cannot be said for these women whose involvement can be regarded as equally important. It was for this reason exactly that we thought it was so important to highlight their achievements – especially considering the recent 70th anniversary of the NHS.

Thus far, our project has involved a diverse range of efforts in order to accurately record this social history. For example, we have conducted oral histories with notable women like Dame Elizabeth Anionwu and Dr Lola Oni who have been kind enough to offer us an insight into their lives; we have conducted research utilising both primary and secondary sources; we have hosted various different workshops in order to develop the self-confidence of our members and much, much more. As a result of this work, we have uncovered a number of interesting insights and have begun to piece together what life was like for the average African woman working within British healthcare. These range from early life experiences of being fostered out to British families, recruitment into British healthcare, experiences with colour bars and a number of other significant factors and events.

Going forward, we hope to continue with the uncovering of these previously untold stories. By the end of our project, we aim to have compiled our findings into an eBook, online exhibition, podcast series, documentary as well as a series of  commemorative murals at Charing Cross Hospital. If members of Women’s History Network are interested in supporting the work we are doing at YHP, this can be done by donating to our cause or simply spreading awareness. Moreover, if members are aware of any continental African descended women who have worked under any role in the British health service (1930 – 2000), it would also be helpful to refer them to us as we are still looking for women to interview. Not only do these stories deserve to be told, but they deserve to be celebrated.

To see YHP’s journey so far, click here to watch ‘Uncovering the History of African Women and the British Health Service (1930-2000).

Olivia Mason is a 20 year old student, studying psychology at the University of Sussex. She joined the Young Historians Project in April 2019 out of a personal interest for Black British History and, since then, has contributed towards the organisation’s publicity and research departments.If asked to describe her favourite part of volunteering for the organisation, it would be conducting oral history interviews with Black women who have worked within British healthcare. She believes that there is a lot to be learned from these conversations and that they always prove to be interesting. In the future, she is looking forward to the release of the Young Historian Project’s documentary, where these interviews will be compiled.

[1] See ‘Young Historians Project: About Us’, and Nicola Rollock ‘Staying Power: The career experiences and strategies of UK Black female professors’ UCU report, February 2019. (both websites accessed 1st October 2019).

Image one: Princess Tsahai, third daughter and fourth child of Emperor Haile Selassie and Empress Menen Asfaw of Ethiopia at Great Ormond Street Hospital, 1936 © Great Ormond Street.

Image two: Members of YHP interviewing Dame Elizabeth Anionwu © YHP.