Refusing to be airbrushed from history


“Black people only came here in the 60s to drive the buses and work in the factories. You did not attend the University of Oxford.”

This shamefully ignorant comment by a member of the public to Pamela Roberts belies the truth about the Black community in the UK, both the historical legacy and the wealth of its contribution. Such ignorance spurred Roberts, an Operation Black Vote alumna, to become the founder and director of a radical project entitled Black Oxford Untold Stories.

Black Oxford Untold Stories celebrates the contributions and legacies of the University of Oxford’s Black Scholars from the turn of the 20th century to the present day. Last month at the Old Bailey in London, Black Oxford screened a unique film featuring the story of Christian Frederick Cole. Cole is a name not widely known of, despite his historic significance and only brought to light by the exceptional and pioneering work of Roberts. Not a place often associated with film screenings, the Old Bailey’s iconic dome, Pomeroy’s Lady Justice was the ideal venue to host this rare film entitled, “Christian Frederick Cole – England's first Black African Barrister’.

Born in Sierra Leone in 1852, Christian Frederick Cole, was the first Black African student at the University of Oxford. Cole enrolled at University College as a non-collegiate student in 1873 to read for an Honours degree in Classics. He became a member of University College in 1877 and in 1879, was made a member of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple and called to the Bar in 1883. He then progressed to practise Law in an English Court in 1884, being the first Black African to do so.

Cole’s significant historical achievements are unquestionable, even writing some important publications. In his thoughts on the Anglo - Zulu war of 1879, entitled Reflections on the Zulu War, By a Negro, BA., of University College, Oxford, and the Inner Temple, he wrote:

“Ye white men of England
Oh tell, tell, I pray,
If the curse of your land,
Is not, day after day, To increase your possessions
With reckless delight,
To subdue many nations,
And show them your might.”

However, his student life at the University of Oxford shows that other students perceived him as a bit of a curio. He was given the nickname ‘Old King Cole’ by his fellow students at Oxford and portrayed in a series of disparaging caricatures.

Furthermore, despite his acheivements and historical firsts, the difficulties and challenges he encountered as an outsider within the establishment, meant that his pursuit of a legal career may have contributed to his early death at a mere 33 years old.

The Hon Mr Justice Hilliard, who hosted the event said,

There is a very obvious importance of Christian Cole, not least as we are engaged in a struggle to see that our institutions and professions are representative of and relevant to the diverse communities we are here to serve. “

Dame Linda Dobbs DBE, the first black High Court Judge in the UK said,

It was with great pride that I learned that the first black barrister was a fellow Sierra Leonean. I was also privileged to know Frances Wright OBE, the first Sierra Leonean woman to be called to the English bar.”

Roberts’ work has contributed to the debates on African elites and education, the early black presence in Victorian England, black scholars at the University of Oxford, memorialisation and celebration, colonialism and decolonising the curriculum. Significantly, Roberts’ pioneering work to reveal a new narrative on Black students has resulted in the acquisition and unveiling of a plaque at University College to honour Christian Frederick Cole.

Mr Justice Hilliard, himself an Oxford University alumnus as Cole, added,

Pamela is to be congratulated on all the important work she has done in shining a light on some things which are not as well known as they should be. She will be pleased to know that I went on a walk round Oxford last Saturday and the guide talked about Christian Cole who had studied there. I’m sure that would not always have happened in the past.”

Roberts’ work has clearly illuminated the University's wealth of archives and encouraged other colleges to reframe their narrative about how the University has traditionally been perceived. Most importantly, this work is ensuring BME contributions will not be airbrushed from history.

By Francine Fernandes

Note: ‘Christian Frederick Cole – England's first Black African Barrister’ is a short historical period film aimed at engaging young people and aspiring lawyers. Produced for the global law firm Linklaters, it is a fictionalised dramatic piece rooted in historical fact, interweaving archival material and presented in an accessible format to engage a broad audience. Educational institutions and cultural bodies wishing to gain access to this film should contact Black Oxford Untold Stories.