19 October 2017

Sierra Leone: Christian Cole - Oxford University's First Black Student Celebrated With a New Plaque

Photo: Oxford University/Facebook
New plaque celebrates Oxford's first black student in 1870s.

Not many know about the first black student who sat in lecture halls of the University of Oxford. The University of Oxford recently honoured Christian Cole, its first black student with a plaque. Cole was from Sierra Leone and he studied Classics, and he was called to the Bar in 1883, becoming the first African barrister to practise Law in the English courts.

In 1873 a 21-year-old student from Waterloo, Sierra Leone became the first black student at Oxford University. His name was Christian Cole. In 2017, 144 years later, Cole is being honoured with a plaque.

At a time when the topic of racism is rife and black people are reclaiming their history, giving honour to Cole comes at an apt moment. Pamela Roberts, the director of the project Black Oxford: Untold Stories collaborated with Oxford to honour Cole.

Cole studied Classics and graduated in 1876. He went on to become a member of University College in 1877 and became the first African to practice Law in English courts in 1883.

Roberts said, "The plaque will not only be a visible and permanent commemoration of Cole's time at Univ, it will also acknowledge the College's early black presence."

At a time when Cole's face was the only black face in a sea of whiteness, Dr Rebecca Dr Rebecca Surender, Advocate and Pro Vice-Chancellor for Equality and Diversity at Oxford, said he "deserves to be recognised and celebrated."

Dr Robin Darwall-Smith, the University College Archivist has been a long admirer of Cole. He said, "[Cole's] ambition and determination were remarkable, and I hope that he will continue to inspire future generations of students. It is very exciting to have his place in the history of Oxford celebrated in this way."

Cole's studies at the university came with its own financial challenges. He taught music lessons and helped students prepare for their divinity exams in order to augment his income.

Roberts further said, "Cole's achievements have a contemporary significance and impact; in particular for a younger generation. Young people, from all backgrounds and ethnic groups, need to be aware of the unlimited opportunities available to them."

Oxford University was caught up in the debate surrounding the Rhodes must fall movement last year. The university however didn't remove the Rhode's statue from the campus. The university released a statement saying it was committed to improving the experience of minority ethnic students at Oxford.

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