Pioneer headteacher traces Black history in Newham

Lorna Jackson reveiving her award at the VITAL EET Black History Month event

Lorna Jackson reveiving her award at the VITAL EET Black History Month event - Credit: Archant

A woman born in Jamaica who became one of the first black headteachers in Newham says attitudes to race in the borough have become more tolerant.

Maryland Primary School's first black student with his class in 1965

Maryland Primary School's first black student with his class in 1965 - Credit: Archant

Lorna Jackson, headteacher at Maryland Primary, in Stratford, has taught children in Newham for 35 years.

She was honoured with an achievement award at a Black History Month event at the school on Saturday, organised by the group Vital EET, where she spoke about her personal journey.

Lorna was born in a rural town in Jamaica.

After coming to Britain in 1961, growing up in Neasden, she worked at the Bank of England, before deciding to pursue her dream of teaching by studying at Goldsmiths College in 1976.

Headteacher Lorna Jackson at the VITAL EET Black History Month event

Headteacher Lorna Jackson at the VITAL EET Black History Month event - Credit: Archant

Lorna started teaching at Hartley Infant School in East Ham in 1979, when she moved to Newham, as one of a handful of black teachers in the borough.

“When I was teaching in East Ham in the early 80s, the school was picketed by the National Front because we celebrated our first assembly on Diwali,” said Lorna.

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“In those days it wasn’t uncommon to be abused racially, but there were no easy reporting mechanisms.

“When I first started teaching, the Asian and black community had a lot of opposition, which came to a head in 1984, when the then Greater London Council declared this to be the Multicultural and Anti-Racist year.

“Ethnic minorities formed self support groups – I started Newham African Caribbean Teachers’ Association – in order to fight racism.” Lorna said things have improved – though with some bumps in the road.

“Challenges still exist,” she said. “My white deputy headteacher and I are frequently amused when unthinking visitors automatically assume that she must be Mrs Jackson and therefore the head.

“Once corrected they suffer profuse embarrassment, which is the best lesson learned.”

She added: “Communities are much more tolerant. We see interracial marriages between all our ethnic groups.

“But I ensure that all our communities appreciate this country, and so we have a Heritage Day celebration every May to pay tribute to the wonders of Great Britain.”

Lorna said the borough has changed, but similar problems arise, with eastern European children having obstacles to overcome which in the past affected black people.

She said: “The demographics have changed and the eastern European migrants are facing some of the challenges that my community used to face without the issue of racial name-calling due to skin colour.

“I have more white eastern European children at my school entering with no English than those of colour.”

She added that students categorised as needing extra help with speaking English are “no longer synonymous with dark skin”.

Asked to name a figure in black history who has inspired her, Lorna said: “Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Coleman – a little known black female aviator who overcame poverty and racism and became one of the best pilots in America.

“She was born in 1892 and died in 1926 after falling thousands of feet from her plane. Her determination to achieve was quite astounding.”

School children will learn about people like Bessie Coleman throughout Black History Month, though Maryland does not limit its curriculum to certain times of the year.

“We don’t let the calendar rule how we celebrate the achievements of black achievers,” she said.

“We hosted the conference and have a Black History display up in the hall, but all our visitors and commemorative tributes happen throughout the year.”

Saturday’s Vital EET event featured a range of black speakers, including Dr Mark Richards, physics lecturer at Imperial College London, and Cllr Terry Paul, Newham Mayoral adviser on skills and adult learning.

Lorna said: “There were some inspirational speakers at the event who spoke about the role of parents, motivation, resilience, having a strong foundation, learning from black achievers past and present.

“There was some quite delicious Caribbean food too.

“I spoke about how at Maryland we integrate learning about black achievers not just through BHM but through the curriculum, assemblies, visitors.

She added: “I also spoke about my own journey, literally and metaphorically, from a rural town in Jamaica in 1961 to becoming headteacher of Maryland school.”

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