Cambridge to celebrate black alumni with University Library exhibition

The exhibition, entitled ‘Black Cantabs: History Makers’, will be on display along the UL’s Royal Corridor throughout Michaelmas term

The University is planning an exhibition of 14 portraits of black Cambridge students and alumni, celebrating their contributions and legacies.

The temporary exhibition – entitled ‘Black Cantabs: History Makers’ – will run for the entirety of Michaelmas term, from 1st October to 31st December. The 14 portraits will line the walls of the University Library’s ‘Royal Corridor’, and the exhibition will be open to the public free of charge.

Famous faces, including novelist Zadie Smith and MP Diane Abbott, will feature, alongside several prominent figures in music, entertainment, literature, and law.

New portraits will be taken by Sir Cam, whose photographs regularly feature on the University’s social media and have gathered several thousands of likes on Instagram. For historical figures, archive images have been sourced.

The exhibition builds on an ongoing research project undertaken by the Black Cantabs Research Society, a student group dedicated to chronicling the stories of black students at Cambridge.

Speaking about the upcoming exhibition, the society’s President, Surer Mohamed, said: “This exhibition shows the indelible mark that black alumni of the University of Cambridge have left here, and across the globe, and hopefully demonstrates to prospective black students that they do have a home in Cambridge.”

Earlier this year, in June, more than 50 black female Cambridge students posed for a photograph in front of Senate House, marking the 70th anniversary of the first black woman graduating from the University. Gloria Claire Carpenter, who is thought to be the first black woman to have attended Cambridge, is among the 14 alumni to be featured in the upcoming exhibition.

The exhibition follows the recent launch of the Stormzy Scholarship, which will completely fund four black undergraduates’ tuition fees and maintenance costs for the duration of their degrees. The arrival of the first Stormzy Scholarship recipients to Cambridge in the fall will coincide with the exhibition’s opening.

An A1-sized photograph of award-winning grime artist Stormzy posing with members of the Cambridge University African Caribbean Society (ACS) will join the 14 portraits in the exhibition.

ACS President Toni Fola-Alade praised the exhibition and its focus on the legacies of black Cambridge alumni: “Black Cantabs have been tirelessly documenting the black experience at Cambridge for years and it’s great to see this level of exposure been given to the project.” He noted that “it’s important that the histories of Black students at the University are being showcased and we look forward to interacting with their legacies.”

Cambridge has long been criticised for admitting disproportionately few black students. Analysis by Varsity in 2017 revealed that acceptance rates for black applicants over the past decade averaged less than half the overall rate, and last year’s admissions cycle saw persistent disparities in acceptance rates for certain BME groups.

The 2016 admissions cycle was the first instance on record where Cambridge accepted more black men than Etonians, with 22 and 21 students admitted to the University respectively.

In May of last year, photographs of 14 black male Cambridge students posing in St John’s College went viral, attracting national attention and featuring on the BBC, Channel 4, ITV News and Buzzfeed.

These photos, published by ACS, intended to improve the visibility of students from ethnic minorities in Cambridge. In a comment published with the post, Robinson College student Dami Adebayo said: “Young black men don’t grow up thinking they’ll make it here. They should.”


The 14 Black Cantabs featured in the exhibition


Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is an award-winning novelist, essayist and short-story writer. She studied English at King’s from 1994 to 1997, during which time she published short stories in The Mays and began working on her first novel, White Teeth.





Diane Abbott MP

Diane Abbott is a British Labour Party Member of Parliament and is currently Shadow Home Secretary. She was first elected as the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in 1987, becoming the first black woman to hold a seat in the House of Commons. She studied History at Newnham from 1973 to 1976.





Errollyn Wallen

Belize-born British composer Errollyn Wallen studied composition in London and earned an MPhil from King’s. Her music has been performed in leading concert halls and theatres across the world and she was the first black woman to see her work performed at The Proms.





Thandie Newton

Thandie Newton is a BAFTA-award-winning actress who has featured in many successful British and American films. Since 2016, she has starred in the science fiction-Western television series Westworld, earning a Critics’ Choice Award, and Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Emmy Award nominations. Between 1992 and 1995, she studied Social Anthropology at Downing.





Naomie Harris

Naomie Harris has starred in many famous films, including the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Moonlight, for which she earned multiple accolades, including Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Academy Award nominations. She graduated from Pembroke in 1998 with a degree in social and political sciences.





Archie Mafeje

Professor Archie Mafeje was a South African writer, academic and activist. He obtained a PhD in Anthropology from Cambridge in 1966, and served as an assistant lecturer at the University. He was later refused a senior lectureship at the University of Cape Town, due to sustained pressure from the apartheid government.





Bez Adeosun

HSPS student Bez Adeosun was among the 14 black male Cambridge students to feature in now-viral photographs which ACS published with the aim to “capture just some of the black men who contribute to one of the world’s most innovative intellectual spaces.”





Justina Kehinde Ogunseitan

Justina Kehinde is an award-winning writer, jazz singer and director. She studied English at St John’s and made theatrical history in 2012 by directing, acting in and co-producing the first all-black all-female production on a Cambridge stage, Ntozake Shange’s ‘For Coloured Girls…’.





Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is an American literary critic, teacher, historian, filmmaker and academic, currently serving as the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He studied English Literature at Clare, where he earned his PhD.





Source: Trinity College, Cambridge

David Louis Clemetson

David Louis Clemetson served as a soldier in the British army during WWI. He was admitted to study law at Trinity in 1912, but left his studies on the outbreak of war to enlist, rising to the rank of lieutenant before being killed in action. He was posthumously awarded both the Victory Medal and the British War Medal.






Source: The Mad Monarchist

Elizabeth Bagaaya

Elizabeth Bagaaya – Princess Elizabeth of Toro, one of the traditional kingdoms in Uganda – is a lawyer, politician, diplomat, and model. She graduated with a law degree from Girton in 1962 and became the first female East African to be admitted to the English Bar.






George Bridgetower

George Bridgetower was an Afro-European musician and virtuoso violinist. He made his professional debut aged nine, and went on to a successful musical career, earning a bachelor of Music degree from Trinity Hall in 1811. Beethoven dedicated his Kreutzer Sonata to Bridgetower, and he performed in its debut.





Francis Williams

Francis Williams, born around 1700 in Jamaica, was a scholar and poet, and is thought to have been Cambridge’s first black scholar. His father was freed from slavery shortly before his birth and succeeded in gaining sufficient individual wealth to provide his children with an education.






Gloria Claire Carpenter

Gloria Claire Carpenter, born in Jamaica, was a lawyer, educationalist and lecturer, and is thought to have been the first black woman to attend Cambridge. She studied law at Girton, and went on to help found the Law Faculty of the University of West Indies in Jamaica.



First published by Stephanie Stacey, Varsity. Available here

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