As Cambridge University African-Caribbean Society, our vision when we got 55 women together for the photograph was to highlight the abundance of black women who are thriving at the University 70 years on from the graduation of the first black woman at Cambridge in 1948. We wanted to give black women, who contribute immensely to ACS and University community, unprecedented visibility in the University space and national conversation. In doing so we also honour and shed light on the legacies of the black women who paved the way within the University and in their later life.
The likes of Gloria Claire Carpenter who studied law at Girton College in 1945, a social reformer who played a pivotal part in the foundation of the Law Faculty of the University of West Indies in Jamaica. Efua Sutherland, who studied Education at Homer ton College in 1947, who would go on to be one of the most celebrated African writers and dramatists. She set up the Ghana Writers Society and The Efua Sutherland Drama Studio at the University of Ghana, amongst any other achievements. Professor Felicia Adetowun Ogunsheye studied Geography at Newnham College in 1949 who would go on to be the first female Professor in Nigeria. Dr Olugbolahan Modupefolu Olubunmi studied at Girton College in 1958 and was honoured with the award of an Officer of the Federal Republic for her role in championing education in Nigeria. Princess Elizabeth Bagay, the Batebe of the Kingdom of Toro, studied at Girton from 1959. She is Uganda’s first female lawyer, starred in a number of motion pictures and graced the covers of high fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harpers. She was also appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in Uganda, the permanent representative to the United Nation’s in New York between 1986-1988 and served as Uganda’s ambassador to Germany.
Justice Akua Asabea Ayisi studied at Newnham College in 1959 and was the first female journalist in Ghana, an early member of Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention’s Peoples Party for Ghanaian independence and one of the first female judges on the Ghanaian bench.
The black women who pioneered our path to the University of Cambridge certainly left a legacy and it is our turn to contribute our collective vision for our University and wider community. Controlling our narrative is paramount and ensuring that we remain visible and have our voices heard is of the utmost important.
There is no better person to ask than the Black Women of Cambridge themselves, who both reflect on their experience as students at the University and their vision for the women who will inherit the University after them:
Nathania Williams, 1st Year, History, Trinity College
“We are the black women of Cambridge, but by no means are we a homogeneous group. We are all unique, intelligent and strong women who are united through a shared experience in Cambridge and in our culture. I have love for all of the black women here and I’m confident that every single one of us are going to make our mark on this world. Black girls are magic”
Hephzibah Adeosun, 4th Year, Law and Management, Gonville and Caius College
“It was excellence or nothing for me. I used my uniqueness as an opportunity to be a force for change. For example, the college caterers readily accepted my suggestion of serving Nigerian food at the college canteen and the college supported me in hosting its first ever BME conference. As my college’s access officer and women’s captain of the University’s athletics club, I was able to initiate the change that I wanted such as pioneering an athletics access scheme and fostering a community for women to encourage and support each other through sport. I hope that future black women of Cambridge will be unapologetic about their blackness and use it to shape their university experience for the better.”
“My first year at Cambridge has shown me that even though we may not find ourselves reflected in the curriculum, in the paintings on the walls of the dining rooms or even in the academics who teach us; black women are a strong force in this university and we will continue to make this space more welcoming so that fewer black girls in future will think that Cambridge ‘isn’t right for them’.”
Nina Grossfurthner, 3rd Year, Geography, King’s College
“As an international student it took me a while to settle into Cambridge. Culturally, this was a very different environment for me. My initial reaction was to keep a low profile and try and get through three years without standing out. That mind-set didn’t last long, as I started to meet more of the incredible black women and people of colour at Cambridge and find my community among them. They made Cambridge feel like home and enabled me to step out with more confidence. I also realised that being at Cambridge means having the ability to change the culture that made me feel so alien at the beginning. As King’s College Student Union President I was able to implement a yearly BME Open Day at my college as well as be involved in outreach and access around the UK and internationally. “
Fope Jegede, 3rd Year, English Literature, Homerton College
“For me, being a black woman in Cambridge has meant navigating tension between invisibility and visibility. On one hand, you often feel like your existence is erased as dominant narratives remain white and male but on the other, being the only black person a room is an experience you become well acquainted with, and blending in is somewhat impossible. If there is one key thing I have learnt, it is not to wait for external validation before seeing the worth of your own story. Don’t feel like you need to mince your words or assimilate your thoughts into what is deemed the norm. The way you think, speak, act, and understand is a unique and valuable contribution, adding vibrancy to what can often be a dull canvas.”
“As a black woman at Cambridge, you are hyperaware of your blackness and of your difference from the sea of white faces. From being one of only 2 people of colour in your course, to being the only black person in your matriculation photo… there’s no doubt about the public face of Cambridge. At times this has made me feel jaded about Cambridge. We definitely need more black women here at Cambridge. Cambridge is such a prestigious university and black women are so multitalented that this is exactly the place we need to be so that we can excel in our various fields. we definitely need more black women here at Cambridge. Cambridge is such a prestigious university and black women are so multitalented that this is exactly the place we need to be so that we can excel in our various fields. I would encourage black women to join societies like the ACS, Fly Girls of Cambridge, and the African Society to meet other like-minded, talented people.”
Tiwalolu Adebayo, 2nd Year, Theology and Religious Studies, Sidney Sussex College
“Cambridge is certainly the best decision I have ever made. Every day I feel honoured to have the attention of world renowned academics, compete in the same vests as Olympic champions and walk in the footsteps of some of the world’s greatest minds. These last two years have been unforgettable and I would strongly recommend applying. This is a place for YOU”
Tenage ‘Tiggy’ McDowell, 3rd Year, Psychology, Sidney Sussex College
“Home and Cambridge were once two polar opposite environments for me, but with the love and support of a wonderful ACS and college community, I now sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between the two. Shout out to Dr Tony Lyons of Loreto College, Manchester, for seeing my academic potential and motivating me to fulfil it. Thanks to him I have experienced three fun, self-developing, sometimes testing, but above all, worthwhile years that will facilitate future success. My hope is that the potential of many other BME students is seen, both by the individuals themselves and by the university, which will hopefully be shown in higher admission rates in the future.”
Laura Hamilton, 3rd Year, Human, Social and Political Sciences, Queens’ College
“Being the only black girl in my College year group has at times felt quite isolating and challenging. I’ve realised that being able to see yourself reflected back in prestigious institutions such as Cambridge is both a privilege and underestimated in the effects it can have. Support systems and spaces of representation like the Afro-Caribbean Society are thus incredibly important and testament to the fact that we can and should be here, even though this institution was initially not built with us in mind. That is what this picture stands for. Hopefully through this photograph, more Black women will be encouraged to apply and believe that Cambridge is for them. As the world becomes more globalised, institutions such as Cambridge need us more than we need them.”
Chantelle Caines, 3rd Year, Medicine, St. John’s College
“Being one of only a few black or mixed students at St John’s and Cambridge in general, with the pressures of living in a white and particularly male dominated environment was at first incredibly daunting. However, I don’t believe this ever played to a disadvantage for me, in fact it made me feel empowered. I felt even more triumphant to have made it to Cambridge. Yet I also felt incredibly angry. Angry that certain ethnic groups, for whatever reason are discouraged to applying to and are under represented in Cambridge and perhaps other elite universities. Alas, today I stand side by side with a group (albeit it small) of some amazing and intelligent women, all from beautiful backgrounds, who are starting to rock the old fashioned ways of Cambridge, and bring about change that is well overdue. For this reason, I could not be prouder to say that I go to Cambridge University.”
Aizraelle Clark Headley, 1st Year, Human, Social and Political Sciences, Girton College
“If there’s something that you want, or is integral to your life goals, go for it! As women we should not be afraid of failure as it can fuel our desire to overcome. I applied to Cambridge twice, and while this should by no means be everyone’s story, it is one of growth and resilience. Know yourself and know your goals. What’s more, being a black woman at Cambridge is a journey of growth and resilience. Not all of us are refined, perfect, geniuses. We are all actively working to better ourselves and grow. So if you want to be in an institution that requires you to grow past your preconceived limits, Cambridge may be the place for you.”
Soraya George, 1st Year, Land Economy, Trinity Hall
“The celebration of this anniversary is so great for women in general but for black women especially. The black community is so small in Cambridge and you do notice it, but that doesn’t mean we are any less than anyone else here in any way. I was so shocked to read recently that black students make up 1% of admissions across years here, so obviously black women in particular represent even less than that. It means so much to have this solidarity in the black community and I am so proud of what we have achieved over the last 50 years. Black women in Cambridge have been inspiring and we will continue to be so. We may be the 1% here but we are absolutely excellent.”
Iona McPherson, 1st Year, Music, Fitzwilliam College
“For a long time I didn’t think I’d be able to get into Cambridge – I didn’t think I was good enough and I didn’t think I’d fit in. I know that’s a common feeling for many black girls, from all around the country, who come to this university not knowing what will await them and thinking that no one will understand their experiences here. But in my first year here, I’ve found that the opposite is true. It’s black women who have been my rock during my first year. They have been my friends and mentors – we support each other, look after each other, and celebrate each other. I know many of us didn’t think we could get here but here we are; we’re strong, powerful, highly melanated, and just as worthy of being at this university as anyone else. “
These statements serve as just a snapshot into the breadth of achievements and experiences of black women in the University. It is clear that 70 years on we are not there yet but we have definitely made progress and that, we believe, is worth celebrating. The University’s support and publicity of our initiative is a clear indicator of positive change for years to come. Sophie Huskisson, 1st Year, English Literature, Magdalene College put it perfectly, “In the future, I won’t have to come up with a statement about my experience as a black woman at the University of Cambridge. My statement won’t be any different to anyone else’s.”
Cambridge African-Caribbean Society
Toni Fola-Alade, President