It could be suggested that often Black people are victims of racism, this is the main focus in the media. However, some have risen above this to show the world that they can also be on an equal playing field with other races. One example is Christian Cole, the first Black student at Oxford University, though not much is known about him. A plaque was unveiled in his honour on Saturday 14th October, 2017.
Christian Frederick Cole (1852 – 1885) was from Waterloo, Sierra Leone. He was the grandson of a slave and later, an adopted son of a church of England minister in Sierra Leone. He had studied at Fourah Bay College in the country’s capital, Freetown. The college was established by Christian missionaries in 1827 and was known as the “Athens of West Africa” because of its academic reputation.
From there he went to University College Oxford as a non-collegiate student, where he studied alongside young men from the elite families of Victorian England, when he was twenty one years old. It must have been a challenge for him to live among the Whites. Also, according to historian, Pamela Roberts, his understanding of British English in England must have been challenging. Roberts, who authored the book Black Oxford: The untold stories of Oxford University’s Black Scholars initiated the Black Oxford project which included paying tribute to Christian Cole.
“The city must have been a daunting place for Cole”, said Dr Robin Darwall-Smith, an archivist at University College London. Of course, being in a completely different environment and different people must have been a culture shock for him. However, he still proved himself by graduating with a fourth-class honours degree in classics which Dr Darwall-Smith stressed is not a failure. Rather, Cole’s presence gave him a lot of attention such as being documented in cartoons. Also, attending Encaenia, Oxford’s honorary degree-giving ceremony gave him more publicity as many elite people would attend it.
After graduation, Cole returned to Sierra Leone, where he delivered lectures on education in Freetown, which were published in 1880. He also published a poem on the British policy in the Zulu war as “A Negro, B.A., of University College”, in 1879. He was also the first Black African barrister in an English court in 1883. He died at the age of 33 years due to smallpox in Zanzibar, Tanzania.
The master of University College, Sir Ivor Crewe paid tribute to Cole’s “remarkable achievements” and said he hoped the plaque would be “a symbol of our continued commitment to recognising and supporting the brightest students whatever their backgrounds.”
For more interesting reading see Oxford University’s attempt to increase diversity: