From Jamaica to London, and into Black British history: Remembering the life of Yvonne Connolly

in


This week we've seen countless tributes for Yvonne Conolly, the Windrush generation pioneer who became the England's first black female headteacher.

She was 81 at the time of her death but the significance of her life, and role in helping to to develop the image of black leaders in education is one which continues to resonate even till today.

Only last year, she was made Honorary Fellow of Education by the Naz legacy foundation, and was presented with the honour by the Secretary of State, MP Gavin Williamson. Yet, even at the point of being honoured, her outlook on the meaning of her achievement and what it meant for her community was not lost on her.

When speaking of her pride at receiving the reward, she made note to add a significant comment, stating: “It is great that finally after over 40 years the contribution the black community has made to the field of education in the UK is finally being recognised”.

The statement itself is curious because for most, the moment would likely have been cause for individual celebration - and it would have been entirely merited too. The decision to frame her achievement around the recognition of black contribution to education speaks to a type of conscious leadership which is often overlooked, one which rests on both perspective and humility.

There’s a part of you that wishes that she would centre herself in receiving the award because like too many before her she received her flowers too late.

Maneuvering uncharted waters

Connolly had already gone through three years of primary school teacher training in Jamaica before eventually arriving in England. Albeit elsewhere, she had experience and was able, but the racial tensions of the 60s meant that first steps in education were marked ones.

I was very aware that there were racial tensions at quite a number of schools. I would turn up and somebody would say - I suppose without meaning it - ‘but you’re black’. And of course my reply was ‘yes I am, but I’m also a supply teacher’. So there were small, silly things, nothing dangerous but enough to cause discomfort.”

Her initial intention was to stay in the UK for only three years, but this would soon change. Upon showing her capabilities, she received a permanent teaching job. Soon after, her curiosity to know what interviews for the role of headship were like would be the gateway for her transition to leadership. “After six years i applied for headship and i just wanted to see what interviews at this level might be. I was absolutely amazed when my name was called”

She would become a headteacher, taking the helm at Ring Cross Primary School in Islington, North London, where she would lead from 1969 to 1978.

In an ideal world her elevation would have been cause to celebrate, but history has shown us repeatedly that leadership, and especially black leadership is often thwarted with its own set of drawbacks and for Yvonne Connolly this took a distinctly racial profile.

She was subject to intimidation in her role, and the inability for many to comprehend the fact that a black woman could in fact educate as a leader by merit of her work was clear.

Threats were made to burn the school down, and newspaper articles crossing out her face and imploring her to go back to Jamaica were sent to the Ring Cross.

Part of this confusion and unease was also seen within black communities. Last year she spoke frankly about the letters she received when the announcement of her headship was made.

“I was bombarded with quite a number of letters. There were letters from people pointing out that as a black person I shouldn’t be here. I also had letters from members of the black community who felt that I had sold out to the white establishment and they reminded me in no mean terms I was only here for the black children.”

The letter said:

Dear black sister, we are writing to congratulate you on your appointment of a headmistress of a whiteman’s school. But we are asking, no [we are] demanding that you use your position for the acknowledgment of the black race in this country."

“The racism was coming both from the white side and the black side.”

Looking back she said that the responsibility she had to the children in her school regardless of race, or religion, and her awareness that the differences they shared were less than the commonalities meant that they had to ‘get on with it’.

Yvonne’s role as the head of Ring Cross would end in 1978, and she retired from teaching altogether in 2001. Before her passing, she used her voice as part of the home secretary’s advisory council on race relations and formed the Caribbean Teachers Association to help Caribbean teachers find leadership in education.

She leaves behind a powerful legacy, and is rightly being remembered as a trailblazer.

Mayowa Ayodele

.....................................................................................................................


A call to action...

For 24 years OBV have fought to ensure black and minority ethnic participation and representation in civic society. Efforts in continuing to do so though, relies on your help. That way we can continue this fight for greater race equality. What would give us a tremendous boost is if today, you made that small donation yourselves, but even more importantly if you encouraged others to do likewise.

4000
3000