Scotland’s first black professor

Apologies that it has been so long between posts!

Today I want to write about a leading Caribbean scientist / educator who I came across while I was researching this blog a few months ago.

Like most of the people I’ve written about on here, I’d never heard about him before, and again I think this is a failing of the British education system which IMO does not provide black and ethnic minority students with enough positive role models or information about our rich, diverse and amazing history.

http://www.100greatblackbritons.com/bios/professor_palmer.htm

Sir Geoffrey Palmer

Sir Geoffrey Henry Oliver Palmer was born in St Elizabeth in Jamaica in 1940 and moved to the UK in 1955 to join his mother who had emigrated to Britain a few years earlier to work as a dressmaker.

When he came to the UK just a few months before his 15th birthday he was apparently assessed as educationally subnormal and placed into a secondary school in North London, but he was recognised for his cricketing abilities and played sports at a high level while also gaining six O’levels and two A’ levels.

Just a quick internet search for Sir Geoffrey will provide you with enough information to justify his inclusion on this website as yet another sterling example of how Caribbean people have been, and are continuing, to make a difference to the fabric of British society.

Here is a quick list of some of his achievements outside of his specialisation in grain science and technology:

  • In 1989 Sir Geoffrey became Scotland’s first black professor
  • In 2001 he wrote a short story / fable about racism called ‘Mr White and the Ravens’
  • In 2007 he was named among ‘the 100 Great Black Britons’ list
  • In 2014 Sir Geoffrey was knighted for services to human rights, science, and charity

I first heard about Sir Geoffrey when I read an article in March in The Telegraph in which he said that claims Scotland is ‘more tolerant’ of immigration is a myth.

I wasn’t surprised to read what he had to say on the issue as obviously I live with racism and discrimination on a daily basis, but it was interesting to know what someone who has done so well and made such an important contribution to the UK, thinks about the issue of prejudice.

In one part of the article it says: “Sir Geoff told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme that when he was interviewed in 1964 by Sir Keith Joseph, who later became an architect of Thatcherism, he told him he should “go back to the Caribbean and grow bananas”.

Sir Geoffrey added: “That sort of prejudice no longer exists, but if you want to know whether prejudice exists against immigrants per se, just look around your office and see how many immigrants you have working next to you.”

Now Sir Geoffrey is recognised as one of the world’s leading experts in his field and it’s inspiring to know that someone who came to the UK as a teenager from the Caribbean and was almost written off in terms of his educational ability and several more times because of his colour, has achieved so much professionally and personally.

Further reading:

100 Great Black Britons – Sir Geoffrey Palmer

‘Times Higher Education’ article on Sir Geoffrey

A 19th century black footballer

When it comes to the contribution of black Caribbean people to Britain I think most people would agree that sport seems to be where we have been most successful in making our mark, and this is especially evident in terms of the national game – football.

If you asked any fan who follows English football to name three inspirational players with Caribbean roots, past or present, I don’t think they would find it too difficult.

It certainly doesn’t take too much research to find footballers of Caribbean origin playing now at the very highest levels of the game which is why I think we take it for granted that this was always the case. But the fact is there had to be someone who was first, and that person undoubtedly suffered some discrimination and prejudice to get the chance, and then finally the recognition, they deserved.

I was amazed to find that the first black Caribbean footballer who is believed to have played professionally in the UK actually started his career in Scotland and his name was Andrew Watson.

Copyright: Scottish Football museum

Copyright: Scottish Football museum

Watson actually had a Scottish father, Peter Miller Watson, and a black mother, Hannah or Anna Rose, who was from Guyana (or British Guiana as it was known before 1966) which is where Watson was born in May 1856.

According to research Watson left Guyana with his wealthy father when he was quite young and moved to Britain where he was schooled at Kings College in London. He is said to have excelled at his studies, but nothing matched his skills on the football pitch, and he soon made a name for himself as a strong, dependable full back.

When his father died in 1869 Watson was left a small fortune and moved to Scotland sometime around 1875 where he joined his first amateur football club Maxwell FC. In 1876 he played for Parkgrove FC where he also became the club’s administrator organising their fixtures among other duties.

Copyright: Scottish Sporting History

Copyright: Scottish Sporting History

In about 1880 he joined what was the biggest club in Britain at the time, Queens Park FC, and also became the club secretary.

A year later he gained his first International cap for Scotland and played on winning teams against England and Wales. He moved back to England to find work, which made him ineligible to be picked for Scotland, and became the first black player to play in the English Cup when he turned out for a side called Swifts. He would later play for another English team called Corinthians and also return to Queen’s Park for a brief period.

In 1887 Watson played for Bootle, who were based in Liverpool, and as they were known to pay their players wages and a signing fee it is believed that this is when he became the first black professional football player although unfortunately there are no records to prove it.

Watson was married twice and had four children and despite the belief that he died after moving to Sydney in Australia, he is actually buried in Richmond cemetery in Surrey.

There is no doubt that Watson would’ve suffered racism during his life and career but it is testament to his spirit and skill that he has a place in the history books. His story shows how far people of Caribbean ancestry have come in Britain, especially in the world of sport, and how much they have had to endure to earn a place on the field.

References / further reading:

http://www.furd.org/default.asp?intPageID=37

http://www.scottishsporthistory.com/

http://www.scotsman.com/sport/football/latest/fate-of-scotland-s-first-black-footballer-revealed-1-2845754

http://edition.cnn.com/2011/12/22/sport/football/football-watson-black-players/index.html