Hidden Heroines: The story of Wales' first black headteacher and her letters to Nelson Mandela

  • Words from poet Taylor Edmonds, 'When I speak of bravery'

In the capital of Wales, Betty Campbell is fondly remembered by her granddaughter as "Nana Betty".

Her legacy is preserved in the form of the impact she had on communities, not just in Wales, but worldwide. Even Nelson Mandela sought her out on his visit to Cardiff.

Speaking about her grandmother, Michelle Campbell Davies said: "Nan was an amazing woman. She always spoke her mind. It's that which took her where she needed to go. You'd get her unfiltered view of how she saw things.

"When [Nelson Mandela] was in jail, she got lots of her pupils to write to him and to talk about their experience because I suppose, for him, living in an apartheid South Africa where you didn't get that level of integration, he had children who were able to write letters to say, 'My father is of Somali descent and my mother is of Welsh descent and we all live together in a great community here, there is hope.' And she got all of her pupils to send her letters of hope."

"And that's, in part, why it was so important that he came [to Cardiff]."

  • Michelle on how Betty Campbell encouraged pupils to write "letters of hope" to Nelson Mandela

A life full of learning and adventure

Mrs Campbell's love for travel and lifelong learning left indelible marks on her family.

From trips across Europe to the shores of America, she taught her grandchildren the value of expanding their horizons.

Talking about her fond memories with "Nana Betty," Michelle said: "As kids she used to take us away on trips with her, be it Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and America.

"We've got these really lovely great memories... She never stopped wanting to learn. She would say: 'Oh, can you teach me how to do this on the computer?' and 'How do I attach a photo to my computer?'"

  • Michelle Campbell Davies on her grandmother's fight for equality

Mrs Campbell was born in Butetown in 1934 and raised in Tiger Bay. Her mother struggled to make ends meet after her father was killed in the Second World War. 

As a resident and advocate of the Butetown community, Mrs Campbell was deeply involved in pushing for social justice and equality, especially during the Cardiff Bay development.

When asked where she got her determination and confidence from, her granddaughter said: "She could have moved out of Butetown, she could have moved out of the docks, but she didn't. That was where she wanted to be. That was who she was and that comes from growing up in Tiger Bay."

"If you go back to when the docklands were a thriving seaport, you had all kinds of people coming in from all different nationalities. A lot of people settled in Tiger Bay, and then the community became their extended family.

"So, they used to look out for each other and each other's kids. In that comes the sense that nobody is better than anybody else and everybody is equal. You had different people with different backgrounds coming together, living together and that gives a sense of self-confidence."

Betty Campbell with her granddaughter Michelle Campbell Davies and her great granddaughter. Credit: Michelle Campbell Davies

Educational legacy and taking up spaceMrs Campbell's passion for education and equality was displayed in her response to apartheid.

She was once criticised for teaching her students about apartheid and slavery at Mount Stuart Primary School in Cardiff.

Recalling the incident, Michelle said: "When the lecturer said that it wasn't appropriate. Nan said, 'This is my school, these are my kids and they have the right to know about their heritage too. And I will be teaching them what they need to know.'"

"When you go to Mount Stuart and you see the demographics, you see a wide range of nationalities and ethnicities in the school, and when you are a person of colour then you might feel there is only a handful of people of colour in the school."

She added: "She trail-blazed studying Black History Month within the school. One thing that I take away from nan's legacy is taking up space.

"She would say, 'If you have got as much right as anybody else to be in that space then you've got a voice, so use it.'"

Betty Campbell's legacy is immortalised in a statue that serves as a symbol of strength and inspiration for the community. Credit: Molyneux Associates

A statue and a legacyToday, Mrs Campbell's legacy is immortalised in a statue that not only celebrates her achievements but also serves as a symbol of strength and inspiration for the community.

Speaking about how the statue would have made her grandmother feel, Michelle said: "She would have been proud of it."

"People think sometimes that having a lone voice doesn't make a difference but it's about planting acorns," she added.

"If you look at the statue it has got little acorns embedded in it. That's about planting the seeds. It's about representing to people who and what you are and then, as a result of that, people are able to get that inner strength, and they grow into something that's strong."

"I love how inclusive the statue is. I love how it doesn't matter whether you are of Somali descent, Welsh or Sikh descent. You can go to that statue and see a reflection of yourself in the statue."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To know...