In honour of Black History Month we want to celebrate a pioneer in the teaching in the UK. 1969 was the year the UK met the first Female Black Headteacher called Yvonne Conolly who was a pioneer for the black community.
We want to highlight the importance of Yvonne’s resilience and why she helped us to understand why you should chase your dreams regardless of any backlash you are facing.
Facing Racism and Death Threats
Yvonne Conolly first moved to Camden in London from Jamaica as part of the Windrush Generation with only £36 in her pocket.
She trained for 3 years in Jamaica in teaching & managed to secure a supply teaching job when she moved to London. On top of her teaching, she had taken a job as a baby sitter, cleaner and typist.
When speaking with Camden Journal she added: “I have a special memory of the Swiss Cottage pub. It was there that the District Inspector of schools in Islington took me for lunch to celebrate my appointment to the headship of Ring Cross school. The daughter of the landlord then, Alison Pickup, was in my class at George Eliot.”
After accepting the job at Ring Cross in December 1968, Ms Conolly was subjected to repeated attacks in national newspapers and would receive hate mail at home.
The pioneer spoke with Camden Journal “Ms Conolly said she faced threats to burn down her school after taking over at Ring Cross in Eden Grove and had to be escorted into the building with a security guard.
She had said: “It was on that basis that I decided to create the Caribbean Teachers Association. “I realised at the time there were not many black teachers in the system, and if there were, they weren’t being promoted. We sat down and looked at strategies, how you write an application, and do interviews.”
Leading the way for black educators
Ms Conolly, who lived in Finsbury Park, was in October awarded the 2020 Honorary Fellow of Education award at The Naz Legacy Foundation by Prince Charles, who described her as “a pioneer of the Windrush generation must be cherished by us all”, adding: “I cannot begin to imagine the character and determination she must have shown to lead the way for black educators 50 years ago.” She was made a CBE in the new year’s honours list.
Ms Conolly had backed las year’s campaign for Beckford Primary School to be named after its former headteacher Beryl Gilroy.
The school had agreed to change its name – after a major Jamaica sugar plantation slave owner William Beckford – following the Black Lives Matter protests.
But a vote of parents and pupils saw the West Hampstead School be chosen instead.
On the concept of changing buildings names, Ms Conolly had said: “I have a theory that you are never ever going to get rid of racism completely. We are not going to get rid of burglary, or fraud. Let’s not kid ourselves. Wherever human beings go, there will be some discrimination, prejudices and lack of empathy.
“I remember when one school inspector asked me whether they could touch my hair. And I remember people looking at me washing my hands, thinking the water would run brown. Were they being racist, or just ignorant?”
She said racism “used to be crass – ‘no dogs, no Irish, no blacks’”, adding: “Now it is very different, more subtle. That’s why institutions have to question themselves at every point. They need to think about how fair they are really being.”
Yvonne Connolly is a true example of a strong black leader and must be acknowledged for Black History Month as she was true to her passion and determined to show that education can be taught by any race or gender.
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