CONTROVERSIAL: Fears have been raised that education secretary Michael Gove plans to remove Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano from the national curriculum
THOUSANDS OF people have backed a petition to keep well-loved historical figure Mary Seacole in the national curriculum amid fears the government is trying to whitewash history lessons.
Jamaican-born Seacole, daughter of a white Scottish father and a mixed race Jamaican mother, was ranked number one in a poll of 100 Great Black Britons and was added to the compulsory syllabus in 2007, following extensive campaigning.
Like Florence Nightingale, the self-taught nurse treated British soldiers on the battlefield during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) and returned to British shores a hero. A benefit organised for “Mother Seacole” by Queen Victoria in 1857 attracted 80,000 people.
But now Education Secretary Michael Gove is planning to remove her and other black figures such as abolitionist Olaudah Equiano from the textbooks in favour of traditional British figures like Oliver Cromwell, according to a leak.
The Department of Education said it would not comment on the allegations.
The reported move is part of an overhaul of the entire curriculum, which will come into effect in 2014.
This likely decision has provoked widespread fury and more than 28,600 people have added their names to an online petition started by Operation Black Vote (OBV) in less than a week.
OBV’s chief executive Simon Woolley told The Voice: “Seacole is one of the only black figures not taught through the prism of racism, but as a person who achieved incredible feats. This benefits all children.
“Why is it that [white abolitionist] William Wilberforce and Florence Nightingale stay, while the great black Britons are erased? They were not insignificant. It is extremely dangerous to push an all-white narrative of critical moments in British history. It would be like retelling the story of the Olympics, and ignoring the contribution of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis.”
UNDER FIRE: Michael Gove
He added: “The response has been overwhelming as it has touched people on many levels: our nurses, our children’s education and our black history. We have felt very kicked around these past few months on the pitch, by the police and now in education. People are asking, ‘how dare they?’”
OBV is part of a joint campaign including Professor Elizabeth Anionwu, of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal, Sutton councillor Lester Holloway, former editor of the New Nation newspaper, Unison member Khi Rafe and activist Zita Holbourne.
A letter of support for the campaign to the Department of Education has been signed by authors including Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy, journalist Darcus Howe and Labour MPs Diane Abbott and David Lammy among other high-profile public figures.
Hackney councillor Patrick Vernon, founder of Every Generation Media, who ran the 100 Great Black Briton poll, is also involved in this campaign.
He said: “Michael Gove wants to take Britain backwards to the time some of our parents came off the Windrush. It seems to be part of a general government approach to put an end to conversations about race and race equality.
“One minute the Conservatives say they want the black vote, but they don’t want Mary Seacole. Education is at the heart of our community, and the government needs to listen to us on this issue.”
Vernon warned that removing black heroes from the curriculum in primary and secondary school could deter under-graduates from gaining an interest in black history and have a knock-on effect on academic research.
He added: “This is why many of our black academics are working in the US and Canada. This type of thing wouldn’t happen there. We have to wake up, and make our voices heard. We need more black history, not less.”
GCSE history teacher Sharon Yemoh told The Voice why she is backing the campaign.
“Attempts to control the content of the history curriculum is dangerous. History is an investigative subject, not dogma,” she said.
“I would be doing my students a cognitive and moral injustice if I dictated to them a narrow list of who is significant. This is not just about Mary Seacole, but about doing justice to history as a respected academic discipline.”