Black History Month Inspirational Figures

To celebrate Black History Month we asked New College staff and students to tell us about Black people that have inspired them in their life and work. 

Cornel West, Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy, Harvard University

"A true public intellectual, Professor Cornel West has contributed as much to popular debates on race and economic inequality as to the academic fields of Philosophy and Religious Studies. Politically, he is uncompromising in his insistence on justice. His intellectual energy lights up any classroom or lecture hall, and his exemplary kindness and warmth shine through his personal interactions. Professor West inspires us to think more deeply about the connections between academic work, public interest, and personal ethics."

Submitted by Dr Philippa Townsend, Chancellor's Fellow in New Testament and Christian Origins 

Professor Esther Mombo, Director, International Partnerships and Alumni Relations of St. Paul’s University, Limuru, Kenya

"I have been inspired by Professor Esther Mombo’s contributions to African and global Christianity and her commitment to build, support and nurture women and men in various pursuits.  She models an African sisterhood that accompanies those on the margins and makes theological education attractive and available for women, particularly, in East Africa. She is also the East Africa Coordinator for the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians. She works closely with the Programme for Christian and Muslim Relations in Africa (PROCMURA) and promotes networking among Christian and Muslim women leaders on issues of dialogue.  Esther has served on the Inter-Anglican Doctrinal and Theological Commission and was installed as a Lay Canon Theologian in 2017.  She is an alumnus of New College, University of Edinburgh, having obtained her PhD in Church History in 1998."

Submitted by Jessie Fubara-Manuel

Reverend Mgbeke George Okore (1934 – 2014)

"When Reverend Mgebeke George Okore accepted to travel to the University of Toronto, Canada for a BA in Religious Studies at the age of 42, she went against the norm. Women in Nigeria at that time did not leave behind 6 children and go to train for ministry when ordination of women was not on the agenda of their denomination. Her ordination in 1982 paved the way for female ordination in The Presbyterian Church of Nigeria and inspired women nationally to dream about things previously unheard of.  Reverend Okore takes away every excuse that may be based on age, gender, or marital status as reasons for women to tolerate unjust systems or limit their potentials.  Her legacies of strength, vision and courage lives on. As Minister and Trustee of The Presbyterian Church of Nigeria, as Rector of Hugh Goldie Lay/Theological Institute, Arochukwu, Nigeria, as Consultant to World Alliance of Reformed Churches, as Mother or as friend, Reverend Okore displayed a great sense of integrity, devotion and hard work."

Submitted by Jessie Fubara-Manuel

Reverend Dr Nyambura Njoroge, Project Coordinator, World Council of Churches/Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy, Geneva

"I often refer to Reverend Dr Nyambura Njoroge as a ‘spiritual mid-wife’ because of her ability to mentor and nurture people to aspire to and reach their full potentials.  As the first female ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (Kenya) in 1982, Nyambura understands what it means to challenge oppressive systems, to fight for gender justice and to seek for the wellbeing and healing of all. I am constantly inspired by Nyambura’s Christian faith which is her chief motivation to work with women and men for a world where all have fullness of life. Her enormous contributions in African women’s theologies and ethics, ecumenical theological education, HIV, gender, and sexuality provide valuable resources for scholarly and pastoral engagements. She is a founding member of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians and a member of INERELA+ (International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or personally affected by HIV and AIDS).  Nyambura obtained her PhD in Christian Social Ethics from Princeton Theological Seminary, New Jersey, USA in 1992."

Submitted by Jessie Fubara-Manuel

John Gatu

"John Gatu (1925-1917) was a Presbyterian minister from Kikuyuland in central Kenya who spent a brief period at New College in 1958.  Before commencing training for the Christian ministry, he was involved in the anti-colonial Mau Mau movement, administering secret oaths of loyalty to those agitating for an end to British rule.  Though he withdrew from Mau Mau on becoming a committed Christian, he continued as an active supporter of the cause of Kenyan independence.  He inspires me as an example of someone who shows that Christian belief in colonial Africa did not necessarily mean acquiescence with oppression."

Submitted by Professor Brian Stanley, Professor of World Christianity 

Professor Richard Newton

"Professor Richard Newton is a tireless worker, produces his own podcast, blogs regularly, and is one of the leading black scholars in the critical study of religion. He does a fantastic job of being both an excellent scholar and an engaged, innovative public engager. He does the field proud."

Submitted by Dr Chris Cotter, Marketing & Comms Officer and a Tutor in Religious Studies.

Professor Charles H. Long

"Charles Long was a pioneer US scholar in the Study of Religion who made multiple contributions on popular religion, millenialistic movements, and phenomenological methodology in the comparative study of religions."

Further information on Professor Charles H. Long can be found on the University of Chicago Divinity School Website.

Submitted by Dr Steven Sutcliffe and Dr Arkotong Longkumer

Professor Afe Adogame

"Professor Afe Adogame, Professor of Religion and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary and previously Senior Lecturer in World Christianity in the School of Divinity. 

Afe was a much valued colleague during his service in Edinburgh. He has considerable expertise in religions in Nigeria, in new and diasporic African religions, and in ethnography and phenomenology of religion/s."

Further information on Professor Afe Adogame can be found on the Princeton Theological Seminary Website.

Submitted by Dr Steven Sutcliffe and Dr Arkotong Longkumer 

Dr Opinderjit Kaur Takhar MBE

"Dr. Opinderjit Kaur Takhar MBE, Director of the Centre for Sikh and Panjabi Studies, Wolverhampton. 

Opinderjit is a pioneer female scholar of Sikh Studies in the UK, co-organiser of the 2015 BASR conference at the University of Wolverhampton, and awarded MBE in 2018."

Further information on Dr Opinderjit Kaur Takhar MBE can be found on the University of Wolverhampton Website.

Submitted by Dr Steven Sutcliffe and Dr Arkotong Longkumer 

Professor Anthony Reddie

"I feel honoured to have spent time with Professor Reddie during a previous role and his honesty, thoughtfulness, and passion caught me immediately. His surprise at being offered the role at Oxford exemplifies his humility, despite years of hard work and dedication to his subject. After persevering for years whilst feeling like his passion was falling on deaf ears, his work and talents are now being noticed and he's constantly being booked up to share his wisdom. Despite this, he is the most grounded man I have met. Professor Reddie always has time to talk to somebody about their work and his interests extend to all who are marginalised, including those from working class backgrounds, young people, LGBTQ+ folk, those with disabilities etc. He has empowered so many others who find themselves dominated in white, normative, heterosexual, aging, well-educated spaces to find their voice and speak against injustice and prejudice. His understanding of white nationalism inherent in Christianity really challenged me to see my faith in a different way and I will always be indebted to his patience and willingness to explaining his work to me. He is a credit to the church and to the academy. "

Submitted by Victoria Turner, PhD Candidate, World Christianity

Kimpa Vita

"Are you are interested in Kimpa Vita (c. 1685-July 2nd 1706) a prophetess of the ancient Kingdom of Kongo who found a religious movement dedicated to St Antony to restore the fortunes of the Kingdom and create a Christianity that drew upon African indigenous practices? Or perhaps you are curious about Janani Luwum (1924-1977) the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda who lost his life when he challenged the violent regime of President Idi Amin. The Dictionary of African Christian Biography introduces to you to hundreds of African people whose Christian faith continues to inspire today."

Submitted by Dr Emma Wild-Wood

Booker T. Washington

"I just finished reading ‘Up From Slavery’ (1901) by Booker T. Washington. I didn't know what to expect. All I knew was that famous picture of Washington wearing a classy tuxedo not so long after the abolition of slavery in the US, and looking at the camera with his piercing eyes. I guess I simply wanted to get one more testimony of North America under slavery? Yet another angle from someone who lived as a slave and went through the emancipation, to understand the country I now live in, and maybe get a perspective on the current racial tensions we are currently experiencing? My surprise is great as I have discovered much more. Booker T. Washington is one of the most inspiring persons I have ever come across. He saw the worst and the best of white Southerners and Yankees. Just like Solzhenitsyn, he understood wickedness as a part of human nature, and that it could express itself in certain sets of circumstances. Just like Sowell, his experience is that prejudices against minorities vanish as soon as minorities become part of commercial exchanges, and majorities and minorities become bound by offer/demand relationships, something that has been recorded even in South Africa during the Apartheid. He was also extremely positive and self-driven IN SPITE of the many obstacles he was facing. His journey to Hampton to become a student should motivate the laziest person to apply and/or commute to school to get education. His struggles to find work and his humility to get his hands dirty while aspiring for higher education are the most inspiring: his views on hard-work are literally galvanizing (you might to build an orphanage with your own savings after chapter 3). Lastly, his perspective on slavery as an unfortunate yet providential "school" both for black and white Americans is very thought-provoking, and was very controversial for other thinkers such as W.E.B. Dubois. In short, this is a must read if you want to understand yesterday's and today's America. Conversely, I would be very skeptical of anybody claiming to understand anything about America's racial problems without having read this book."

Submitted by Igor P. Sobkowicz

Nana Asmau (1793-1864)

"Nana Asmau was a female teacher and healer during and after the Fulani Jihad (1804–08) which established the Sokoto Caliphate in West Africa. In her day, she was known as “Mother of All” for her guidance of the Islamic community, and for her empowerment of women. She wrote and taught in four languages, wrote poetry which quoted from the Quran and included moral instruction on how to fear God, maintain piety, and act according to Islamic tradition. One work, entitled Sufi Women, named several other contemporary women that Asmau hailed as exemplary role models for her students – showing that she was not alone in her status as a powerful and respected female leader. It was noted that she exuded baraka (spiritual potency) and it was even said that she had saved her brother’s life during the war. She sought to lead people away from traditional religious practices by composing a manual – drawing greatly from the Quran – which instructed women on how to cure illness, treat wounds, and avoid “the evil eye”. Owing to high rates of illiteracy amongst women in the area, she designed prose which could be easily remembered and recited in the home or in the fields thus developing a strong oral tradition amongst the women too. However, she also worked as a scribe for the elite of the Caliphate too, showing her respected position amongst men. Both genders regarded her as a ‘malama’ – a female teacher, healer, and leader."

Submitted by Chloe Gardner, PhD Student in Religious Studies & Equality and Diversity Student Officer

Ida Bell Wells (1862-1931)

"Ida Bell Wells was an American feminist, civil rights activist, and journalist. She was one of the pioneers of intersectional activism. The image of her walking arm in arm with her white suffragette sisters is a powerful and important one. She knew that black women suffered the double blow of sexism and racism, and that to keep them disenfranchised was detrimental to the empowerment of the black community as a whole. She was unafraid to call out the double standards of white feminism (something which remains an issue today) and of white male sexual aggression. Ida also knew the power of the press in shaping racism, xenophobia, and intolerance. Ida put herself in harms way to highlight her plight as a black woman and in doing so successfully shattered both gender and racial stereotypes. Even in her marriage, Ida set a standard for how women should be treated and made sure that every action, word, and relationship counted. Ida made history and left an undeniable record of the history of racial violence and sexual hypocrisy in American society."

Submitted by Chloe Gardner, PhD Student in Religious Studies & Equality and Diversity Student Officer

Olive Elaine Morris (1952-1979)

"Olive Elaine Morris was a Jamaican-born community leader, writer and British feminist, black rights, and squatter’s rights activist in the 1970s. She was a key organiser in the Black Women's Movement in the UK, co-founding the Brixton Black Women's Group, the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent in London and the Black Women’s Mutual Aid and Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative in Manchester."

Submitted by Chloe Gardner, PhD Student in Religious Studies & Equality and Diversity Student Officer

Sarah Mapps Douglass (1806-1882)

"Sarah Mapps Douglass was an American Quaker, teacher, abolitionist, writer, and public speaker. Her painted images on her written letters to other women may be the first or earliest surviving examples of signed paintings by a black American woman. Sarah is another example of intersectionality– who used both her feminist and abolitionist principles and her privileged status as a wealthy and educated black woman for the advancement of the rights of both women and the free and enslaved black community. Her belief in the power of education as a means of bettering and empowering oneself and society is one that I strongly relate to and support, and her efforts at both are valiant, especially at a time when even white women struggled to receive recognition or power in the social or political spheres."

Submitted by Chloe Gardner, PhD Student in Religious Studies & Equality and Diversity Student Officer

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)

"Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmental activist, politician, feminist, scientist, and human rights campaigner who shaped modern Kenya into the nation it is today. She was also the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. As a student/teacher, as a feminist/empowerer, as a politician/campaigner, as a defender of democracy and the planet, an environmental acitivist, Maathai is not only an intersectional polymath, but a hero in so many different ways. Her work screams of the importance of protecting the planet, which is obviously an increasingly important cause. However, her story also depicts the misogyny that has plagued her throughout her life – from her husband, from the ruling elite, from the media, and the military/police/legal authorities of her lad. She stood up to all of the men who sought to silence her, and spoke on behalf of Mother Earth and the countless women in Kenya and beyond who need financial and emotional support to smash the patriarchy and rise up out of oppression. Her bravery and defiance in the face of government hostility and a very real threat to her life are inspirational and her success in uniting the opposition and bringing democracy to Kenya despite all the hurdles she faced in doing so make her a treasure not just of Kenya, or wider Africa, but the whole world."

Submitted by Chloe Gardner, PhD Student in Religious Studies & Equality and Diversity Student Officer


School of Divinity Equality and Diversity Blog