On difficult days, I ask myself what Mary Seacole would do.
Those who seek to denigrate her memory are more than mean – spirited. They not only question her nursing contribution in the Crimea – for which she was honoured by the British Army, the Times newspaper, Her Majesty Queen Victoria and 80,000 members of the public who attended celebrations in her honour. They also question whether she actually was a nurse. They say that she wasn’t really black. And having campaigned as hard as they could to undermine the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal, they now say that it is OK for there to be a statue to commemorate her, as long as it is small and not in a prominent position.
I will not stoop to naming these people nor to referencing the nastiness they have whipped up. Articles in The Independent and The Guardian have helped set the record straight. And today my dear friend Professor Elizabeth Anionwu CBE, Vice Chair of the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal, pictured with me above, will be on Woman’s Hour talking to Jenni Murray about the importance of Mary’s memory to all who believe in equality.
And today is the day that Mary’s beautiful statue, created by renowned sculptor Martin Jennings, will be unveiled outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London. Mary will proudly face the Houses of Parliament across the river. And she will be the first statue to a named black woman in the whole UK.
This is what will be written underneath:
“I trust that England will not forget one who nursed the sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed last offices for some of her illustrious dead.”
Sir William Howard Russell, War Correspondent, the Times Newspaper, 1857
We need Mary’s legacy now more than ever. The referendum campaign has unleashed xenophobia and racism. The poster of people with dark skin queuing for refuge with that hateful slogan underneath said it all. Some hoped such ugly days were over. Many knew this was not so. Fear and hatred for “the other” lie behind words such as “I’m not a racist but….”.
The NHS is not immune to racism. Or sexism. I have nothing against able and honourable white men. But when the NHS workforce is 70% female and 20% BME, why does the top look so male and so white? This excoriating report by Yvonne Coghill and Roger Kline tells us a lot. About unfairness and disadvantage and about how NHS staff who experience these things can lose hope. It was published earlier this month. It is in danger of sinking without trace unless we do something different now.
I have no personal experience of racism, although I have seen it in action. Sometimes I have done something about it. And sometimes I have not. For this I am ashamed.
I do have experience of anti-Semitism, of being teased for having a “funny” surname, and of sexism. I know about the stigma of mental illness. And I know that, had I stayed where I started, at a London teaching hospital, I would not have become an NHS chief executive. My face would not have fitted.
It was for these reasons that I, a white woman, felt I had something to contribute to the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal.
And now, trustees of our new charity, the Mary Seacole Trust, chaired by the brilliant lawyer Trevor Sterling, will be calling on Mary’s legacy to inspire those at risk of disadvantage. In schools, universities, communities and workplaces including the NHS. We will encourage people to work hard and do their best. To be compassionate AND entrepreneurial. To aspire to great things. To speak up for what is right. And never to give up.
Despite not bring born in the UK, Mary Seacole never gave up playing her part in helping those from a country she loved. Throughout her life she remained proud of her dark skin and her heritage.
I urge anyone in despair or need of inspiration to visit Mary’s statue. It depicts her coat furling around her as she strides defiantly into the wind to meet her destiny.
These are very difficult times. Let us join Mary Seacole. And let us never give up.
An earlier version of this article was published in the Health Service Journal. I have updated it for my blog and to increase access beyond the NHS. I will update it again with photographs of the statue.