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Oxford university's first black scholar revisited

PICTURED: Christian Cole playing the banjo in front of the Mitre Hotel in High St c. 1878

LAST YEAR, Sir Ivor Crewe, Master of University College, the University of Oxford, and I unveiled the first Black Oxford Untold Stories plaque at the college to commemorate the significant historical achievements of Christian Frederick Cole, the University of Oxford first black African student 1873, and the first black African to practise Law in the English High Court, 1884.

The above image of Cole was widely used in the promotion of various media to illustrate his story. But everytime I saw an article about the plaque alongside that image of Cole, I cringed. It made me wonder, why is this the only image of Cole? Who produced it and for what purpose?

Fifty years after the introduction of photography in 1839, and Cole's photographic presence in Oxford was still limited. I considered why his achievements were portrayed in the form of parody when his contemporaries were commemorated through portraits or statues.

I was also interested in the broader issues of race and representation and how Cole's image contributed to the reinforcement of stereotypes and had these stereotypes continued to seep into the unconscious biases and collective psyche of the university.

MEMORABLE: The plaque dedicated to Christian Cole

My initial thoughts, reflections and questions about Cole’s imagery and representation developed into a detailed study. I delved through archives, photographic catalogues of cartoons, caricatures and 19-century portraits to try and locate a non-caricature image of a photograph of Cole.

My research is the foundation for the Re-Imagining Cole symposium, in association with Bodleian Libraries. The symposium will take place on Saturday 20 October at the Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford, from 10.00am – 4.00pm.

It will examine the background, context and depictions of previously unseen caricatures of Cole, exploring why Cole and his historic achievements were only portrayed in the form of parodies. It will also examine the broader issues of race and representation in caricatures and portrait art. Finally, the symposium will pose the question should Cole’s image be re-imagined, if so, why?

The event will include art historians, artists and academic featuring Dr Temi Odumosu (Malmo University), Dr Robin Darwall-Smith (University College, University of Oxford), Robert Taylor (photographer of ‘Portraits of Achievement’), Colin Harris (Superintendent of Bodleian Libraries Special Collections) and Pamela Roberts (Founder and Director Black Oxford Untold Stories).

The event has also been supported by the Art Fund and the Social History Society. Tickets for the events £5.00 (£3.00 concession. Students, unwaged) can be booked at:

Pamela Roberts is a creative producer, historian, author and playwright and Director of Black Oxford Untold Stories.

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