Black History Month: The black Midlands icons you should know about

Denise Lewis
Every October, there is an annual celebration of the history, achievements and contributions of black people in the UK Credit: PA

People with African ancestry have played a vital role in our history but despite thousands of documents celebrating the lives and legacies of people who have influenced the world, many important figures have been left out.

This month is black history month. Every October, there is an annual celebration of the history, achievements and contributions of black people in the UK, but many believe that black British history remains overlooked - i.e. largely ignored in schools and public history.

Here we highlight the lives and achievements of iconic black people from the Midlands:

Reverend Eve Pitts is Britain's first black, female vicar.

Reverend Eve Pitts

Reverend Eve Pitts is the vicar at the Holy Trinity Church in Birchfield. She is also Britain's first black, female vicar.

The Church of England has long been a male dominated institution where the representation of both black people and women is slowly improving- but there are still many barriers to overcome. Reverend Eve Pitts is changing attitudes by challenging the religion she preaches.

She says that as a black woman she has great struggles with god and in terms of her history, and the history of her people, he has really tried her faith.

Speaking about her work the reverend states "it takes batty people to change the world".

When asked if she could have one prayer for humanity answered by god Reverend Eve responded: "To get rid of the demonic forces of racism. That's what I fight about. Dream about. Sing about. Cry about. I refuse to believe in a god that doesn't care that my race is diminished."

Benjamin Zephaniah is an award-winning writer, listed in The Times list of Britain's top 50 post-war writers. Credit: PA

Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin Zephaniah is a British writer, dub poet and Rastafarian. He was included in The Times list of Britain's top 50 post-war writers in 2008.

Zephaniah was born and raised in the Handsworth district of Birmingham, which he has called the "Jamaican capital of Europe". His poetry is strongly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica and what he calls "street politics".

He has described the racist attacks he experienced as a child in Birmingham, including having a brick thrown at his head and having racist insults shouted at him. He says his mother sat him down at a young age and had to explain that there were some people that didn’t like people who were not white, and wanted them to 'go back home'. He says he spent the next few months wondering where his “real” home was.

Zephaniah won the BBC Young Playwright's Award. He has also been awarded honorary doctorates by the University of North London, the University of Central England, Staffordshire University, London South Bank University, the University of Exeter, the University of Westminster and the University of Birmingham.

In 2003, Benjamin Zephaniah was offered an OBE but he declined it, condemning the award as a 'legacy of colonialism'. At the time, he said that the word 'Empire' 'reminded him of slavery and thousands of years of brutality.

Denise Lewis won the Olympic gold medal in the heptathlon in 2000 Credit: PA

Denise Lewis

Denise Lewis is a British sports presenter and former athlete, who specialised in the heptathlon. She won the gold medal in the heptathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, was twice Commonwealth Games champion, was the 1998 European Champion and won World Championships silver medals in 1997 and 1999. She was also the first European to win the Olympic heptathlon.

Lewis was born in West Bromwich to Jamaican-born parents and she grew up in Pendeford, Wolverhampton. She says she started taking athletics seriously as a young teen and would travel to Birmingham's Alexander Stadium three times a week on her own.

Lewis was voted "Sportswoman of the Year" by the Sports Journalists' Association a joint-record three times. In 2001, she received an OBE having already been appointed MBE in 1999.

In 2000, she was also presented with the Freedom of the City of Wolverhampton.

Sir Lenny Henry is one of the country's best-loved entertainers Credit: PA

Sir Lenny Henry

Sir Lenny Henry is one of the country's best-loved entertainers. He shot to stardom as a teenager when he won the TV talent show New Faces, back in 1975, and has since become famous as a successful stand-up comedian, actor, singer, writer and television presenter. He's also known for co-founding the charity Comic Relief, and he's currently the Chancellor of Birmingham City University

Henry, who was born in Dudley, was the fifth of seven children. He has written a book about his early life, in which he describes suffering racist jibes at school. He explains how he countered them with humour, developing random impersonations of a Jamaican Scooby-Doo and Deputy Dawg from Dudley, moving on to David Bellamy, Tommy Cooper, Max Bygraves and Frank Spencer.

Soon, he honed his impressions to entertain punters at the Queen Mary Ballroom in Dudley, local pubs and clubs and eventually got himself an agent.

Sir Lenny Henry was given a CBE in 1999. He was then knighted in 2015 and became Chancellor of Birmingham University in 2016.

Henry has been listed in the Powerlist of the 100 most influential Black Britons. In 2016, Henry was awarded an honorary doctorate from Nottingham Trent University in recognition of his significant contribution to British comedy and drama, along with his achievements in international charity work.

Emile Heskey is a former professional footballer who made over 500 appearances in the Football and Premier League and played for England Credit: PA

Emile Heskey is an English former professional footballer who made more than 500 appearances in the Football League and Premier League over an 18-year career, and represented England in international football.

Born in Leicester, Heskey started his career with Leicester City after progressing through their youth system. He then went on to play for Liverpool in 2000, Birmingham City in 2004, Wigan Athletic in 2006, Aston Villa in 2009, Newcastle Jets and finally Bolton Wanderers.

As a young footballer Heskey looked up to John Barnes, Cyrille Regis and Ian Wright but once he stopped playing he says there was a lack of black people in roles he wanted.

Looking back on his career, he said "racism was considered the norm".

Heskey recently said it’s time for a racism action plan in the sport as he revealed that, even today, people cross the street to avoid him.

Despite being one of the country’s best known football stars he says some are scared to be around him because of their perception of black people.

"I don’t feel comfortable with certain people because they feel uncomfortable with me. And you can feel it, it’s a feeling that you know. You might not be able to see it but I feel it. All I want people to feel is comfortable with me.”

Emile Heskey earned 63 caps for England. He also enjoyed some success coaching at Bolton but was left in limbo when they faced financial meltdown. Opportunities were rare after that and he hopes to now take matters into his own hands by aspiring to join a boardroom.

“It’s more to do with 'why can’t I aim high?' I would love to be able to affect the club a little bit more. Be part of hiring and making decisions.

His book ‘Even Heskey Scored’ has also been shortlisted for Autobiography of the Year.