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Durham University

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Pieces of Black History: Did You Know?

Lilian Bader: Pioneering Black Woman to Join the British Armed Forces

Born in 1918, Lilian was one of the 3 children of Marcus Bailey, a Barbadian born migrant, and of an English born, Irish raised woman (whose identity has not been openly documented).

When she was young, Lilian and her siblings were orphaned and were separated from each other; and at the age of 20, she was still living at the Convent she joined as a nine year old, for the simple reason that no one was willing to hire her for work.

The outbreak of World War Two in 1939, however, would be a surprisingly positive point for Lilian who found work as a Canteen Assistant at NAAFI, Catterick Camp. It took only seven weeks for Lilian to be disappointed, as she was sacked from her role due to the fact her father was born outside of the UK. Determined not to let her background be a stumbling block, Lilian found work again in January 1940. Based on a farm near RAF Topcliffe, Lilian was once again feeding soldiers who ventured outside of the base.

In 1941, an opportunity to join the Armed Forces reached her: “I heard some West Indians being interviewed on the radio… They’d been turned down by the Army and accepted by the RAF.”

Lilian was accepted into the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force on 28th March, 1941 and was sent to York. She embarked on a twelve-week training course, qualifying her as an Instrument repairer; a relatively new job that had been made available to women in 1940.

Her academic prowess and personable nature shone through and after passing several exams, Lilian graduated as a First Class Airwoman and was soon in Shropshire where her skills saw her being promoted to Corporal and leading Aircraftwoman.

Lilian would go onto marry serviceman, Ramsay Bader in 1943; and in 1944, she was granted compassionate leave as she left to start a family with Ramsay. Her achievements did not stop once she left the army. Now a mother of two children, she sought it necessary to go back to school, achieving the necessary ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels to secure a degree at University of London; a degree that would let her go on to be a teacher.

Lilian Bader passed away in March 2015 at the age of 97.

Source: Adapted from Omar Alleyne Lawler’s article published on Black History Month.org

Ira Aldridge: One of Britain’s First Black Shakespearean Actors

Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge moved to England aged 18 after he was beaten in racist attacks and the theatre he performed at was burnt down. He began his UK career in London, famously playing Othello in Covent Garden, where he was "extremely well received" according to a critic from The Times.

Gradually he developed into other roles and went on to play Richard III, Shylock, Iago and even King Lear and Macbeth. He toured the English provinces extensively and stayed in Coventry for a few months, during which time he gave a number of speeches on the evils of slavery. When he left, people inspired by his anti-slavery speeches went to the county hall and petitioned for its abolition.

Source: Adapted from the BBC News website

Fourah Bay College and Durham University's first black graduate

Founded by Anglican missionaries in 1827, Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone was an affiliate college of Durham University between 1876 and 1976. The College benefitted from a rich linguistic environment as many of the local population were from many nations as they were either rescued slaves or their descendants. This led to it developing a reputation as the literary and linguistic workshop of West Africa; and it was at Fourah Bay that grammars, dictionaries and translations were begun for Yoruba, Hausa, Foula, Ibo, Mende and Kanuri. Languages such as Latin, Arabic and Hebrew were also taught and the College became known as the Athens of Africa.

After negotiations with several other universities, Fourah Bay was affiliated to Durham University on 16 May 1876. Durham’s decision was severely criticised in the racist press of the time. However, according to C.E. Whiting in his 1932 history The University of Durham, the College went on to produce “four bishops, eight archdeacons, nine members of the College staff, and over 300 clergy and ministers.”

It was also Whiting who made the claim that Nathaniel Davis, a Fourah Bay College graduate, was the first black person ever to graduate on African soil. Little was known about Nathaniel, but information submitted to the Alumni Relations Office show that he was a descendant of the well-known Akabi-Davis family from Sierra Leone. He was a tutor at the college and gained the Licentiate in Theology on 21 October 1879, with his ordination sometime shortly afterwards.

Source: Adapted from Durham First, Issue 30 Spring/Summer 2011. Special thanks to the Development and Alumni Relations Office and to Archives and Special Collections