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5 Fascinating Black People from Wales

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

In this week’s Wales blog, we look to the past but also to the present. In light of the current protests against police brutality across the US since the unlawful death of George Floyd, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, this week we are looking at the black population of Wales and the significant contributions that they’ve made over the years, both at home and abroad. Similar protests have occurred in Wales as well in recent days, with major demonstrations taking place in central Swansea, Cardiff's Bute Park and in front of the Senedd in Cardiff Bay.

As of the most recent national census, 0.6% of the Welsh population is black. That figure is unsurprisingly higher in the capital city of Cardiff due to his longer history of diverse immigration during industrial times, being 2.4%. Somewhat surprisingly, that figure is still quite low in the second biggest city, Swansea, where the percentage is only 0.3%. Wales has the smallest demographics of people of African or Caribbean heritage of any region of Britain. That percentage is far higher in England (3.5%), and in Scotland it is slightly higher than Wales at almost 1%.

Wales, and especially Cardiff, has a long tradition of black and ethnic minority communities going back to the 1800s. When Cardiff was one of the leading ports of the UK and the biggest coal-exporting port in the world, it was a haven of diverse communities and one of the most multi-ethnic areas of the UK. Due to the prevalence of jobs and opportunities in Cardiff at the time, working in shipyards, on railways, on canals, and on trading ships, people flooded into Cardiff from around the world, from Ireland, Norway (hence the Norweigian Church, of course), southern Europe, even the Middle East and Somalia, and settled in the Tiger Bay area (now Cardiff Bay). By the First World War there were people from over 50 different countries living fairly harmoniously in Tiger Bay. Descendants of these immigrant communities remain in Cardiff today, and the city is believed to have the biggest population of Somalia-descended people in the whole of the UK, with 10,000.

People from the Caribbean had been brought to Cardiff to work from as early as the 1880s already, and thousands more also made their way to Britain in the First World War to fight, with many entering work in the merchant navy or war industries, and again due to the Second World War. The Windrush generation is also responsible for a sizable proportion of Wales’ Afro-Caribbean community; those that had been born British subjects that arrived in the UK before 1973, (so named after the Empire Windrush, the ship that brought one of the first groups of West Indian migrants to the UK in 1948).

Wales’ black population has made huge contributions to society across the country. We have had politicians and diplomats of African and Caribbean descent, our national rugby and football teams have had black captains, and many have become leaders in areas such as education, entertainment and athletics. So, as usual, in no particular order, here are five influential or famous black Welsh people, who have either played sizeable roles in the country in some way, or made unique developments in their given field, and also have interesting stories. Unsurprisingly, Cardiff dominates among those mentioned...

1. John Ystumllyn

We start with one of the first black people to have lived in Wales, a man named John Ystumllyn, also known as Jac Du and Jack Black. He was brought to Wales back in the eighteenth century, and is believed to have been the first black person to have married a local woman.

As a boy of eight years of age, he was believed to have been captured in West Africa while playing by a stream, potentially in what is now Sierra Leone, which was a prominent location for slave-traders at the time. Alternatively, the young boy could have arrived in Wales from the West Indies, as the word India appears on the headstone of his grave, which is a listed monument today at St Cynhaearn's Church, Ynyscynhaiarn.

Following his abduction in the 1740s, he was brought to Ynyscynhaiarn, in Gwynedd, north Wales. He was taken to Plas Ystumllyn, to the home of the Wynne family and became a servant to the family, while still unable to speak a word of Welsh or English at the time. However, he would later learn to speak both languages and mainly worked as a gardener for the family, and additionally as a craftsman. He was even baptized by the Wynne family, either at Ynyscynhaiarn or the church at Criccieth.

He was seemingly very much accepted by the community, well liked in the community and faced little prejudice by all accounts, and was even quite sought after by the young women of the area as well. At Ystumllyn John fell in love with one of the maidservants, Margaret Gruffydd, who was subsequently employed at Criccieth. Here they courted in secret, until John left Ystumllyn, and the two were married sometime about 1768. They had seven children, five of which survived, and descendants of his are said to live in north Wales still today.

Eventually they returned to Ystumllyn, and his former “employer”, Ellis Wynne, provided them with a cottage and garden, close to the church, in recognition of his long service with the family. It was here, in July 1791, John died, possibly of jaundice, aged about 46. He wassurvived by Margaret, who would live another forty years.

We even know what John, not his original name of course, looked like, as a portrait of him was painted 11 May 1754, when he was 16 years old.

2. Elizabeth (Betty) Campbell

Betty Campbell will be well known to people from Cardiff, especially in the Butetown and Cardiff Bay areas of the city. She’s also set to be immortalised in Cardiff Central Square with her very own statue, making her the first woman to have her own outdoor statue in the city. The unveiling of that statue would have already taken place were it not for the Covid-19 pandemic.

So why is Betty gaining such recognition? She was a local councillor, activist, MBE and most notably of all, she was Wales’ first black headteacher of any school, at Mount Stuart Primary School in Butetown. She achieved this in the 1970s having overcome negativity from the parents of many students, who were not comfortable with the idea of a black teacher. Nonetheless Campbell strove to teach her students about the civil right movement in the US, apartheid in South Africa and slavery.

Betty was born in Butetown in 1934, the daughter of Welsh-Barbadian and Jamaican parents. Her father died in battle during the Second World War and she dropped out of school when she became pregnant at 17. Despite ultimately having four children, and even her teachers in school telling her that girls like her don’t become teachers, she would eventually achieve her goal, and then some.

In 1960, she discovered that Cardiff Training College was taking on female students to train as teachers. She was accepted and her first teaching post was in Llanrumney. Eventually she returned to her roots in Butetown at Mount Stuart Primary School, where she was based for 28 years.

Mount Stuart Primary School’s reputation grew due to her profile. In 1994, Prince Charles attended the school's annual St David's Day eisteddfod and in 1998, Campbell was invited to meet Nelson Mandela on his only visit to Wales. She was a board member of BBC Wales in the 1980s, and was even made an honorary fellow of Cardiff Metropolitan University. In 2003, she was awarded an MBE for services to education and community life, and she was also honoured by Unison Cymru’s Black Members’ group in 2015 with a lifetime achievement award for her contribution to black history and Welsh education

On top of all of that, she served as a Butetown councillor on Cardiff City Council, from 1991 to 1995, and again as an independent Councillor for Butetown on Cardiff Council from 1999 to 2004.

Following her death, on 13 October 2017, having been ill for several months, hundreds of people lined the streets of Cardiff to pay their respects. Hopefully, having won the BBC vote to have a statue in the city, it will be erected sooner rather than later.

3. Shirley Bassey

Dame Shirley can be considered one of Wales’ most famous people of all time irrespective of gender and skin colour. She is one of the first names people think of when they think of Wales. Also, as the only person to perform three James Bond theme songs, among many other achievements in the entertainment industry around the world, her legend is safely secured.

Bassey hails from Cardiff, and has a very similar background to that of Betty Campbell. She was born in 1937 on Bute St, in the heart of Butetown, but grew up in nearby Splott. Her father was Nigerian, her mother was from Teesside, in the northeast of England, and she was the last of their seven children.

She attended Moorland Road School in Splott and showed promise as a singer from a young age, although didn’t always get the encouragement that her successful career would suggest. In 1952 Bassey left school at the age of 15 to work in a local factory, and began her singing career the following year. In 1955 she left Cardiff for London, after being discovered by Jack Hylton. He invited her to feature in Al Read's ‘Such Is Life’ at the Adelphi Theatre in London's West End.

In early 1957 her debut single The Banana Boat Song reached the top 10. It was followed by Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me, and in 1959 the girl with the big voice became the first Welsh person to gain a Number one single with As I Love You.

In October 1964, she stormed the charts in the US, as well as the UK, with ‘Goldfinger’, the first of her three James Bond themes (the others being ‘Diamonds are Forever’ and ‘Moonraker’). Further hits in the 1960s included I (Who Have Nothing), Big Spender and No Regrets. With consistent popularity right through the 1960s and 70s, Shirley combined her trademark vocal delivery with elements of jazz, funk and soul. She performed material penned by some of the industry's biggest names, including Andrew Lloyd Webber.

In 2000, Bassey was appointed a Dame for services to the performing arts. Bassey is considered one of the most popular female vocalists in Britain during the second half of the 20th century, and even played Glastonbury in 2008 at the age of 71, while wearing diamante encrusted wellies!

Today, Dame Shirley Bassey has sold more than 135 million records during her seven-decade international career and now lives in Monaco. However, she still visits Wales from time to time and was most recently seen in the capital accepting the freedom of the city in a ceremony at City Hall in spring 2019.

4. Colin Jackson

This list could arguably be made with sports people alone, or at least be dominated by the likes of Eddie Parris (Wales’ first black football international), Rugby League legends Colin Dixon and Barry Boston, and Hal Robson Kanu, the scorer of, arguably, Wales’ best and most famous ever goal in 2016. However, if this short list is to be limited to only one sportsperson, it would have to be Colin Jackson

He may have never won the big one, an Olympic gold in the 110 metres hurdles, but he had a glittering career dominated by medals and incredible consistency. He won his first major medal, a silver, at the age of 19 at the 1986 Commonwealth Games and won his last, gold at the European Athletics Championships in Munich, in 2002. In between featured medals at European and World Indoor championships. He won the European Championships (outdoor) gold medal four times in a row in 1990, 94, 98 and 2002, as mentioned. On top of that came his biggest honours, World Championship gold in 1993 and 1999, as well as medalling also in 91, 95 and 97, an Olympic silver medal in 1988 and the world record for the 100m hurdles of 12.91s, which he held from 1993 until 2006. He still holds the world indoor record in the 60m of 7.30 seconds, set in 1994.

Jackson was born in, believe it or not, Cardiff. He is of Jamaican, Maroon (Africans who escaped from slavery in Jamaica and established free communities in the mountains), Taino (indigenous Caribbeans, pre-European discovery), and Scottish ancestry. His mother was born in Panama, the daughter of Richard Augustus Packer and Gladys McGowan Campbell. Gladys Campbell was from Jamaica, the daughter of a Scottish man Duncan Campbell and his housemaid Albertina Wallace. He grew up in Birchgrove, Cardiff, attending Springwood Primary School and then Llanedeyrn High School. He played football and cricket for the county and rugby union and basketball for his school and also joined the athletics club Birchgrove Harriers.

Following his running career, he has coached two of Great Britain's top Olympic prospects, 400m runner Timothy Benjamin and 400m hurdler Rhys Williams, son of Welsh rugby legend of the 1970s, J.J. Williams. He was also one of the members of the successful London 2012 Olympic bid team and is a key member of the BBC's television athletics coverage. He can still be regularly seen on television during any coverage of athletics by the BBC, and will be missed this summer as the Olympic Games in Tokyo have been suspended.

Already the holder of the MBE that he received in 1990 for his services to athletics, in 1999 he was promoted to OBE and then in 2003 to a CBE. He has also written three books; The Young Track and Field Athlete, from 1996; Colin Jackson: The Autobiography, from 2004; and, Life's New Hurdles, published in March 2008.

Most recently, On 26 August 2017, Jackson came out as gay in a clip on Swedish television promoting the series "Rainbow Heroes", and in December 2018 it was announced he would become Chancellor of Wrexham Glyndŵr University.

5. The Farah Family

Cheating a little for the final entry in this article, we are going to focus on three extraordinary people from the same family. A father, a son and a grandchild from Somalia, and Barry, south Wales.

Abby Farah

We start with the first of the Farah family to arrive in Wales. This Somali seaman crossed the world to work in Barry Docks in the late nineteenth century and eventually set about becoming a community leader. He originally came from the Issa Musse subclan of the Isaaq, one of the biggest Somali clans from the Horn of Africa.

He became to be known as “Father” to colonial seamen who visited not just Cardiff, but also Barry and Newport, becoming the first point of reference for seamen who needed help or advice when they arrived in Wales.

He founded the Cardiff and Barry Coloured Society and the Domino Youth Club in Barry, and also became the president of the Colonial Club in Barry as well as manager of the Colonial Club in Cardiff.

He was awarded the MBE by King George VI for his war time services to seamen. Despite arriving to Cardiff in adulthood, he made south Wales his home and became a pillar of the community between the major ports of Cardiff and Barry.

He is the father of Abdulrahmin Abby Farah, the most famous of the family, and the one we know most about.

Abdulramin Abby Farah

He was dubbed the “Barry Boy that helped free Mandela”, because of his work as a Somali diplomat with the United Nations. He was Deputy Secretary General of the UN between 1979 and 1990 and served as the Permanent Representative of Somalia to the UN from 1965-72, as well as as the Ambassador of Somalia to Ethiopia in the 1960s, to name just some of his prominent roles

Abdulrahim was born in 1919 in Barry to Abby Farah, and an English mother, Hilda Anderson, who jointly ran a boarding house. He was a pupil at Gladstone Primary School in Barry, where he passed the 11-plus in order to attend Barry Grammar. On leaving school at 17, his father sent him to Hargeisa, in what was then British Somaliland, to begin a career in the Colonial Service. He became a magistrate, and during the second world war fought in East Africa as a commando in the British army. After the war he returned to the UK for studies in civic administration at University College, Exeter University and then Exeter College, Oxford, where he met his third wife, Sheila. Despite all his travels, he supposedly never lost his Welsh accent.

From 1969 to 1972, Farah was the Chairperson of the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid, and in 1971 was president of the UN security council. In that role he organised the first ever UN meeting of the security council in Africa, in Addis Ababa in 1971.

In retirement he established an amputee hospital for landmine victims in Somalia and helped many young people to pursue an education through mentoring and financial support.

His death in 2018, at the age of 98, prompted tributes from around the world.

Abdirahman Abby Farah

Nephew of Abdulrahim Abby Farah and grandson of Abby Farah, Abdirahman was born in Cardiff and educated in Barry at Gladstone Road Junior and Barry Grammar Schools. He attended university in Cardiff and Exeter like his uncle before him, and went on to hold top cabinet posts in the Somali Government, becoming permanent secretary in the Foreign Ministry and Chief of the Cabinet in the Somali Government.

In 1969, after a coup d'etat brought General Siad Barre to power in Somalia, Abdirahman began an 18-year career with the BBC in the Somali section of the African Services. He was Somali programme organiser for the BBC in the colonial days of British Somaliland, and was acknowledged for his work when the Queen awarded him an MBE in 1957.

From Somalia to Wales and back again, the Farah family have been making a big contribution to life in both countries for over 100 years.

There were just five, or rather seven, intriguing, successful and interesting black Welsh people who have had successful careers or made valuable contributions to society. For more information about the good works of Wales' black population, Walesonline produced an extensive list a few years ago featuring 100 different personalities from all corners of society.

Thanks for reading. Please comment with your own preferences of public art around the city. If you have enjoyed this blog, make sure to check out our other articles about Wales, Welsh history, culture, traditions and its people on our regularly updated Blog page.


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