FEATURE: Betty Campbell

AHEAD OF HER TIME

By Tom Kingsbury

 

In January 2019, it was announced that Betty Campbell, Wales’ first black headteacher and a community activist, had won a public vote held by the BBC’s Hidden Heroines campaign. The campaign sought to erect the first outdoor monument to a historic woman in Cardiff.­

In a time of civil unrest and public scrutiny like never before over who we enshrine for future generations, it is more relevant than ever to examine the figures our public monuments depict.

 

Leaving a Legacy
 

Gair Rhydd talked to the sculptor, Eve Shepherd, about the monument:

“It was a labour of love really. I’m hoping it will give a voice to a lot of people who have never been featured in a public monument – at least, not with dignity.”

“We know about kings and queens but we don’t know about the people that stood up against the system and said ‘Enough. This needs to change.’”

“I think we need to see these people – particularly Betty – and I hope it carries Betty’s message: celebrating difference, education and being curious about different religions, ethnicities and cultures.”

“Something’s needed to be done for a long time, and I think it’s about time that history started to be balanced out and involve more people that helped build it.”

Change is certainly happening, with some members of the public starting to take down monuments they allege to be symbols of oppression and subjugation of minorities.

“It’s very exciting that this wind of change is coming, and we’re getting different voices into the public domain”, Ms. Shepherd stated.

She attributed the change to a more socially and politically active young generation: “It’s down to students”, she said. “This is your time. You’ve been handed a poor deal from generations above. Previous generations have been apathetic, and this generation now is saying ‘Hang on a minute, this is not okay, and we need to change it’”.

She acknowledged the complexity of the situation though, adding:

“We’re still financially benefitting from that horrendous slave trade. I think we need to remember who’s back this wealth came off, and by erasing it I think we’re losing the ability to say, ‘We got it wrong. We got it royally wrong. And we need to sit with our mistakes now’”

While there is much debate over what to do with monuments linked to a darker side of history, monuments such as that of Betty Campbell provide a beacon of light, acknowledging figures who for too long have been overlooked and underrepresented.

What follows is a profile of the life and legacy of Betty Campbell.
 

TIGER BAY, CARDIFF, 1934

 

The once thriving town – a melting pot enticing sailors and dockworkers from around the world – has languished, as the Great Depression grips the country.  Betty Campbell (born Rachel Elizabeth Johnson) is born to Nora and Simon Vickers Johnson.

The Second World War brought tragedy to Betty’s family, when in 1942 a torpedo hit her father’s ship, killing him. Her mother struggled to provide for herself and Betty, sometimes working as an illegal bookmaker. Still she provided important lessons to Betty, who remembered vividly her mantra: “You’re no better than anyone else but then again no beggar’s better than you either.”

From a young age, Betty had a passion for reading. She especially enjoyed Enid Blyton’s ‘Malory Towers’, about a girls’ boarding school, began an exciting chapter of her own education when she won a scholarship to Lady Margaret High School for Girls. One of her keen interests there was tennis. She never had her own racket but got one from the school and loved being on the tennis team.

Even then, Betty knew what she wanted to do when she grew up: she was going to be a teacher. She told her dream to her head teacher at Lady Margaret. Yet despite always being near the top of her class she was met with discouragement, being told: “Oh my dear, the problems would be insurmountable” due to her race.

Though disappointed, she refused to give up. In a typical show of intent, Campbell promised that “it made me more determined; I was going to be a teacher by hook or by crook”.

It was a message she would transfer to the children she went on to educate and inspire – if people doubt you, prove them wrong.

On a bus to a dance in Pontypridd, Betty met Rupert Campbell, who like her father had come to Cardiff from Jamaica. She became pregnant with her first child at 17 while studying for her A-levels, and soon had two more.

“I had my first three children within three years”, she said,” but I’d never given up on my dream of being a teacher”.

In 1960 Betty heard the Cardiff Teacher Training College had started to enrol female students. She applied to go and made it, one of six women to do so. She said, “I had ambitions of running my own school. People would have said it was all pie-in-the-sky but I thought ‘no, let’s have a go’”.

By the time she had started the degree, she had given birth to her fourth child, who had special needs and was prone to seizures. With significant help from her mother, family, and friends she carried on her studies, and eventually found a teaching position in Llanrumney.

But Betty longed to teach in her own community, and when she got the opportunity it was with pleasure that she returned to Butetown to teach at Mount Stuart Primary School.

Though excited to fulfill her dream of being a teacher, she was met with hostility from some parents, who doubted her ability because of the colour of her skin. She noted that “they hadn’t seen a black teacher before. It was as if you could do a job, but if you’re black you weren’t quite as good.”

Fueled by her own struggles and inspired by learning about past contributors to black history such as Harriet Tubman, as well as contemporary activists like Nelson Mandela, she wanted to pass on this history, “I was going to let the children know that there were black people doing great things.”

Betty became head teacher in the 1970s, and began teaching previously overlooked topics including slavery, black history, and the South African apartheid system. She said: “I wanted them to be inspired too. I made it my mission to teach them about black history when I became head teacher at Mount Stuart.”

Betty served the wider community too, helping to create Black History Month, and holding workshops in Butetown on citizens’ roles and countries of origin in World War Two.

Beyond her 28 years of teaching at Mount Stuart and community activism, Betty represented Butetown as an Independent on Cardiff City Council from 1991-1995 and then again from 1999-2004 when it was rechristened Cardiff Council.

She took inspiration from and sought to contribute to black history, telling the Welsh assembly: “I was determined that I was going to become one of those people and enhance the black spirit, black culture as much as I could.” Her legacy shows us she achieved this.

Betty became a member of the Commission for Racial Equality and the Home Office’s race advisory committee. In 1998, on his only visit to Wales, Nelson Mandela sought Betty out. She was awarded an MBE in 2003 for services to education and community life.

Betty passionately served her community and created what was considered a template for multicultural education, all whilst bringing up four of her own children. Rising from humble beginnings, she achieved her dreams, proving all her doubters wrong along the way.

 

Credits


Author

Tom Kingsbury

Online Production

Sam Tilley

Publication Date

28 July 2020

Photo Credits
Title photo: Betty Campbell MBE – By Helen Wilson-Roe ©
Tiger Bay photo: Les Docks de Cardiff – By Lionel Walden (via Wikimedia Commons)

All images used with permission. Special thanks to Helen Wilson-Roe for the kind permission to reproduce her painting of Betty Campbell.

 
 
 

by Tom Kingsbury
 
In January 2019, it was announced that Betty Campbell, Wales’ first black headteacher and a community activist, had won a public vote held by the BBC’s Hidden Heroines campaign. The campaign sought to erect the first outdoor monument to a historic woman in Cardiff.­

In a time of civil unrest and public scrutiny like never before over who we enshrine for future generations, it is more relevant than ever to examine the figures our public monuments depict.

Leaving a Legacy

Gair Rhydd talked to the sculptor, Eve Shepherd, about the monument:

“It was a labour of love really. I’m hoping it will give a voice to a lot of people who have never been featured in a public monument – at least, not with dignity.”

“We know about kings and queens but we don’t know about the people that stood up against the system and said ‘Enough. This needs to change.’”

“I think we need to see these people – particularly Betty – and I hope it carries Betty’s message: celebrating difference, education and being curious about different religions, ethnicities and cultures.”

“Something’s needed to be done for a long time, and I think it’s about time that history started to be balanced out and involve more people that helped build it.”

Change is certainly happening, with some members of the public starting to take down monuments they allege to be symbols of oppression and subjugation of minorities.

“It’s very exciting that this wind of change is coming, and we’re getting different voices into the public domain”, Ms. Shepherd stated.

She attributed the change to a more socially and politically active young generation: “It’s down to students”, she said. “This is your time. You’ve been handed a poor deal from generations above. Previous generations have been apathetic, and this generation now is saying ‘Hang on a minute, this is not okay, and we need to change it’”.

She acknowledged the complexity of the situation though, adding:

“We’re still financially benefitting from that horrendous slave trade. I think we need to remember who’s back this wealth came off, and by erasing it I think we’re losing the ability to say, ‘We got it wrong. We got it royally wrong. And we need to sit with our mistakes now’”

While there is much debate over what to do with monuments linked to a darker side of history, monuments such as that of Betty Campbell provide a beacon of light, acknowledging figures who for too long have been overlooked and underrepresented.

What follows is a profile of the life and legacy of Betty Campbell.

The Life of Betty Campbell

The once thriving town – a melting pot enticing sailors and dockworkers from around the world – has languished, as the Great Depression grips the country.  Betty Campbell (born Rachel Elizabeth Johnson) is born to Nora and Simon Vickers Johnson.

The Second World War brought tragedy to Betty’s family, when in 1942 a torpedo hit her father’s ship, killing him. Her mother struggled to provide for herself and Betty, sometimes working as an illegal bookmaker. Still she provided important lessons to Betty, who remembered vividly her mantra: “You’re no better than anyone else but then again no beggar’s better than you either.”

From a young age, Betty had a passion for reading. She especially enjoyed Enid Blyton’s ‘Malory Towers’, about a girls’ boarding school, began an exciting chapter of her own education when she won a scholarship to Lady Margaret High School for Girls. One of her keen interests there was tennis. She never had her own racket but got one from the school and loved being on the tennis team.

Even then, Betty knew what she wanted to do when she grew up: she was going to be a teacher. She told her dream to her head teacher at Lady Margaret. Yet despite always being near the top of her class she was met with discouragement, being told: “Oh my dear, the problems would be insurmountable” due to her race.

Though disappointed, she refused to give up. In a typical show of intent, Campbell promised that “it made me more determined; I was going to be a teacher by hook or by crook”.

It was a message she would transfer to the children she went on to educate and inspire – if people doubt you, prove them wrong.

On a bus to a dance in Pontypridd, Betty met Rupert Campbell, who like her father had come to Cardiff from Jamaica. She became pregnant with her first child at 17 while studying for her A-levels, and soon had two more.

“I had my first three children within three years”, she said,” but I’d never given up on my dream of being a teacher”.

In 1960 Betty heard the Cardiff Teacher Training College had started to enrol female students. She applied to go and made it, one of six women to do so. She said, “I had ambitions of running my own school. People would have said it was all pie-in-the-sky but I thought ‘no, let’s have a go’”.

By the time she had started the degree, she had given birth to her fourth child, who had special needs and was prone to seizures. With significant help from her mother, family, and friends she carried on her studies, and eventually found a teaching position in Llanrumney.

But Betty longed to teach in her own community, and when she got the opportunity it was with pleasure that she returned to Butetown to teach at Mount Stuart Primary School.

Though excited to fulfill her dream of being a teacher, she was met with hostility from some parents, who doubted her ability because of the colour of her skin. She noted that “they hadn’t seen a black teacher before. It was as if you could do a job, but if you’re black you weren’t quite as good.”

Fueled by her own struggles and inspired by learning about past contributors to black history such as Harriet Tubman, as well as contemporary activists like Nelson Mandela, she wanted to pass on this history, “I was going to let the children know that there were black people doing great things.”

Betty became head teacher in the 1970s, and began teaching previously overlooked topics including slavery, black history, and the South African apartheid system. She said: “I wanted them to be inspired too. I made it my mission to teach them about black history when I became head teacher at Mount Stuart.”

Betty served the wider community too, helping to create Black History Month, and holding workshops in Butetown on citizens’ roles and countries of origin in World War Two.

Beyond her 28 years of teaching at Mount Stuart and community activism, Betty represented Butetown as an Independent on Cardiff City Council from 1991-1995 and then again from 1999-2004 when it was rechristened Cardiff Council.

She took inspiration from and sought to contribute to black history, telling the Welsh assembly: “I was determined that I was going to become one of those people and enhance the black spirit, black culture as much as I could.” Her legacy shows us she achieved this.

Betty became a member of the Commission for Racial Equality and the Home Office’s race advisory committee. In 1998, on his only visit to Wales, Nelson Mandela sought Betty out. She was awarded an MBE in 2003 for services to education and community life.

Betty passionately served her community and created what was considered a template for multicultural education, all whilst bringing up four of her own children. Rising from humble beginnings, she achieved her dreams, proving all her doubters wrong along the way.


 
 

Author

Tom Kingsbury

Online Production

Sam Tilley

Publication Date

28 July 2020

Photo Credits
Title photo: Betty Campbell MBE – By Helen Wilson-Roe ©
Tiger Bay photo: Les Docks de Cardiff – By Lionel Walden (via Wikimedia Commons)

All images used with permission. Special thanks to Helen Wilson-Roe for the kind permission to reproduce her painting of Betty Campbell.

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