Black History Month: “I felt that if we sit and watch the television and shout when we see injustice, it doesn’t help anyone. If you go out and put your head above the parapet, then a little change makes things better for people.”
We’re celebrating Black History Month #proudtobe with stories from Black people across Wales on lessons Black history can teach us about the future.
Here, Vernesta Cyril OBE, 80, honoured midwife from Newport, founder of South East Wales Race Equality Council, patron of Black History Wales and spokesperson for a new Windrush exhibition, talks about her childhood, her advice for future generations, and her treasured memento from Nelson Mandela…
“I grew up in Conway in St Lucia, and I had the most wonderful childhood - growing up in the Caribbean - playing ‘Ticky Tock’ with these nice little stones, going on the boats and by the beach.”
“We had lots of concerts and carnivals and celebrations on The Square where people would turn out in their nice dresses – we always had nice dresses. New year was when we celebrated a lot, and we’d take bus rides to meet up with friends. Christmas we spent more at home, and people came to visit, singing, and we’d give them a drop of rum and some food.
When we were children, there was this gentleman. I think he was a slave owner. His name was Barnard, and he lived in a white house on the top of a hill. There was lots of land all around, and we’d go over and the mangoes would be hanging down, so we’d throw stones and get the mangoes to fall down between the grass.
If there were holiday times coming, my aunt or my mother’s friends would ask me to help with the sewing, and I would help tying the threads and delivering the clothes to people. My mum would cook food for some older people, who we called Auntie or Grandma. We grew up with respect and we were always helping older people – and there was this resilience – if you wanted to do something, you did it, and if you couldn’t do it – you went back to it again.
That resilience came from my three aunts, and my cousin Cecelia. They were very talented women. Cecelia made our dresses for the new year. She cooked nicely, and she could sing, and they would all say, ‘Don’t let people keep you down, you must fight for what you want.’ I had that instilled in me, and when I came to Britain I had to use it for defence. I had to be bold, be brave, and be resilient.
My father worked on the ships; he was in the Merchant Navy. I’d wait for him sometimes when the ships would dock late in the night because he’d bring us nice stuff. I can remember having new pencils and pens and things on my school desk and showing off.
My school days were wonderful – I went to a Church of England school where I mixed with lots of people from different parts of the island. I remember our headmaster telling us, ‘read, and be well read,’ so I’ve always enjoyed reading and been interested in history.
Before the start of each assembly, I would salute the flag and the mighty empire, and I pledged loyalty to my queen – and you had to salute properly, no nonsense! School was lovely, it was a very busy time. Everything we learned was really all about Great Britain, and my knowledge about Great Britain was very good. But I think coming here, people’s knowledge wasn’t good about the places Britain owned. I think the knowledge here in Britain was that where we came from, people wore grass skirts, and they thought we didn’t know anything.
I’ve always had a thing about people, so I was always going to do nursing or teaching. Nursing was my forte, and I always had this thing about wanting to delve into midwifery. I was told that if I was to go to the UK, my nursing and experience was better than me doing it in the Caribbean. It was an adventure for me, coming to the UK, I didn’t think twice, but the experience in the beginning was quite harsh. Being, sometimes in an all-white hospital or an all-white ward, there was hostility at times, and it made you feel as though you didn’t know anything or couldn’t do anything. You’d done your work, done things properly, and you felt sometimes that you weren’t acknowledged or given the credit for what you were doing.
There’s a saying, that when you’re Black, you have to work harder to be acknowledged. I left no stone unturned, and looking back I feel that I gave it my all and I gave it my best, and no matter what they tried to do, I always bounced back like a tennis ball.
People ask me how I got over things back then. I had so many hobbies – I sewed, I baked, I knitted, I used to crotchet, I used to make all sorts of things. I’d go to London and buy material and I’d wear a nice dress everywhere. Because when you’ve grown up and you’ve always had nice dresses, it gets instilled in you. And that’s what helped me, because some people could have breakdowns – you couldn’t cope sometimes with the discrimination and the racism.
In the early days, my escape was Notting Hill Carnival. There I met friends I hadn’t seen for years, and we’d meet up and have a drink, and a dance. It was like you were back in St Lucia, you heard the accents, you heard people speaking the Creole language, it was so good.
With the younger people, I think they need to look at who they are and be themselves. Be proud of themselves. We need to teach them to be bold, to be brave, to be assertive, and to be strong, and hit discrimination and racism head on.
It doesn’t matter what obstacles come into your way, you can get over them by talking to other people. It’s not a shame if there’s something you can’t do. If it’s something you want to get over, chat to people, discuss with friends. Or other people, older people – older people are not dead – older people have got wisdom with what they’ve gone through and how they got over it.
I would tell somebody reading this, that nobody’s better than you. Sometimes you might feel, as a Black person, that you’re not good enough, but nobody is better than you. Be proud of yourself. Be proud whatever you do. Be resilient as well, and things will always go your way.
In the schools here, they don’t really teach about the prominent Black people. I think with the young people, and especially the young Black people, they feel there’s nobody to look up to, because they don’t know the story. But Maya Angelou, she had it tough. Look at Martin Luther King. Look at Nelson Mandela.
I met Mr. Mandela in Cardiff. I was chair of The Race Equality Council at that time, and I couldn’t believe it, I screamed when I was told.
I wanted an autograph, but I didn’t have a bit of paper for Mr Mandela to write on, just a bit of tissue. I normally had bits of paper in my bag, but this time I did not have a bit. I wrote on the tissue and gave it to the chap sat by me from the South African Embassy, and I said, ‘Can you do that for me?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know, security, security,’ but he gave it to him, and do you know, the man wrote me a letter – I’ve got it here – ‘Thanks very much, Mrs Cyril, good luck to you, Nelson Mandela’. I was so overcome to think of his fighting against discrimination and racism, and how he had come to Wales. I never thought in my life I would ever see South Africa dismantle apartheid. It was an exciting moment for me.
And when I received the OBE – I thought, ‘Who’s done that?’
When I saw the letter and it had a stamp, I thought it was the police. I wondered what had happened, and I stood there with it in my hand, and it seemed official, and when I opened it, it said I’d been given the honour for bringing the community together and for my work as a Midwife. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘Whose done that?’ because I don’t like going around saying, ‘Oh, I got this,’ you know, and I think I was the first Black woman in the [NHS] trust in Newport who was honoured for the OBE.
When I stood in Buckingham Palace, I was so full up with tears and I told myself, ‘You mustn’t cry, Vernesta.’ I never, ever would have thought, starting the journey of nursing and midwifery, that I would ever be somebody they would look to honour.
But the pièce de résistance is Midwife of the Year. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would get Midwife of the Year in 2006. And my colleagues, the write-up on me from my colleagues – tears came to my eyes because, it’s a long journey as I say to people, a very long journey, and I always thought I didn’t do well. But to be nominated, and for me to be awarded Midwife of the Year, I just thought, ‘Well, I must have done something good.’
Things have moved on a bit more since I first arrived here, but when I saw how sometimes people’s discriminatory attitudes affected others I decided to get involved in a body, somewhere, in race relations, because I felt that if we sit and watch the television and shout when we see injustice, it doesn’t help anyone. If you go out and put your head above the parapet, then a little change makes things better for people. So, that’s why I got involved in looking at non-discriminatory methods and supporting people, because some people didn’t have the courage or the strength to speak out.
A lot of change still needs to happen, because I think when people join big organisations like the police and the NHS, they are told something about discrimination and racism, but then, a few years down the line, that’s all forgotten. There should be a programme for refreshing people and really understanding those questions – ‘Did you see anything that made you think that that was racism? Was that discriminatory?’ Bring it on once a year. I think that should be the best way forward because people do have their biases, and it takes work to remedy them. Some people grew up in families who voted for the Brexit thing when they were talking about ‘immigrants’ – and nobody really understood what that word meant.”
I’m an immigrant, and I was invited to Britain – we were invited, and that’s what the Windrush was all about. But people here didn’t know that, and we often heard, ‘Oh, you’ve come to take our jobs,’ and other horrible things, but we were invited – we were asked to come to Britain.
We had British passports, the same passport everybody uses in Great Britain. We were given the opportunity to come to Britain, to come and help, to come and work. Britain wanted nurses, doctors, and teachers. Teachers in the Caribbean taught the same syllabus, but they weren’t accepted. They didn’t get teaching jobs.
I think it is so horrible, but things are coming out of it, now – people are asking questions and looking at who the Windrush people were and what was done to them.
Black history is important to the community. I think the school curriculum should include all the people and places and cultures, all the facts about Black history. When I was in school, I knew the history of Britain – I knew about King Bruce of Scotland, ‘try and try again,’ you know, I knew all the English literature. We had to recite The Pied Piper of Hamlin, The Charge of the Light Brigade, but nobody here ever knew that. They thought we didn’t know anything.
[The new curriculum framework for schools in Wales is making the teaching of Black, Asian and other ethnic minority groups’ cultures and heritages mandatory from September 2022.]
And it’s not just sea, sand and laughter, in the Caribbean. We’ve produced two Nobel Prize winners on our little dot of an island. There’s a lot of people with wonderful skills. I go back there, and I look at the things people are doing and making and selling. The seamstresses, the milliners, the tailors, the shoemakers as well – they didn’t go to college. They didn’t go to any university for the arts, for doing clothes, and all this fashion. They learned from each other. These people had talent.
My auntie was a brilliant cook and she worked in the American Embassy in Martinique – they took her over to America, and she didn’t go to a college for cooking! Cecelia didn’t go to any university for learning how to knit or make dresses, and do this and that. People are so talented. And there’s no nonsense in the schools. The children want to learn, and they’re aiming to get high, but what you hear about young Black people is the negative. The killing, the stabbings in London.
We need to put out there that there are lots of Black people doing extremely well, over London, Manchester, Liverpool, in Newport, Cardiff as well, all over – researchers, artists, musicians, teachers, you name it – it’s something to be celebrated.
But I do love Wales, and Wales reminds me of St Lucia, the greenery, the mountains, and I love the people of Wales – it’s come a long way. You still have nonsense going on, but I made some very good friends in work in the end, very good buddies. If I’m not feeling very well, they pop in to see me, we meet up together. Things have come along, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
Some things should not be put aside – slavery happened – but obviously we see what happened when we were emancipated, we show that we’re resilient, we can do things, you know, we’re wonderful people, and that’s why it’s so important for young people to know all these stories and find out where they came from. It will make them better people – it will make them look at the world larger than looking at a small world, just Wales – it will make them look at the different cultures all sides, and the cultures are so good.”
As told to Emma Evans.
As told to Emma Evans.
You can find Vernesta’s story here and at a new exhibition: Windrush Cymru – Our Voices, Our Stories, Our History, at St Fagans National Museum of History until October 31.
It then moves to National Waterfront Museum November 4 2021 until January 2 and on further dates across Wales until 2022. Click here for more information.
We believe Black history should be celebrated all year round. Wales’ Well-being of Future Generations Act puts a legal obligation on Welsh Government and public bodies to take action to improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales and create a more equal Wales and a Wales that promotes and protects culture and heritage.