Wales’ First Black Headteacher and Champion Of Multiculturalism.
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Butetown, Cardiff 1934
Butetown, Cardiff 2017
Betty Campbell was told a working-class black girl could never succeed but she proved her doubters wrong in the most inspirational way. She became Wales' first black head-teacher and championed her nation's multicultural heritage throughout her life. No wonder Nelson Mandela sought her out on his only visit to Wales.
In our own unique way we were establishing an area where religion, colour didn’t matter – we all respected each other as people.
Born in Butetown, Betty was raised in the poverty of Tiger Bay. Her mother struggled to make ends meet after her father was killed in the Second World War.
Betty loved the escapism of reading – particularly the Enid Blyton tales of girls’ boarding schools. Winning a scholarship to Lady Margaret High School for Girls in Cardiff brought her dreams of an idyllic academic environment within reach. Here, she studied alongside mostly white, middle-class girls. But when Betty expressed the same ambitions as her classmates held, she was crushed.
Always near the top of the class, Betty told her head-teacher she too would like to teach but the response was: "Oh my dear, the problems would be insurmountable." Those words devastated her - but they also made her even more resilient and focused.
“I went back to my desk and I cried,” Campbell once recalled. “That was the first time I ever cried in school. But it made me more determined; I was going to be a teacher by hook or by crook.”
She overcame setbacks and racism to pursue her goal. In 1960 she was one of six female students at Cardiff Teacher Training College which was admitting women for the first time. Juggling a young family, she qualified as a teacher.
When a teaching job became available in Butetown, Betty felt it was made for her - but she still faced hostility from some parents. “They hadn’t seen a black teacher before,” she said. “It was as if you could do a job, but if you’re black you’re weren’t quite as good.”
Yet again she defied her detractors by becoming the first black head teacher in Wales.
She had made history. And now she wanted her pupils to know their history.
Inspired by a trip to America, where she learned the story of former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman and other civil rights activists, Betty put black culture on her Cardiff curriculum.
In a speech she later made at the National Assembly, she explained: “I was determined that I was going to become one of those people and enhance the black spirit, black culture as much as I could.”
Her pupils learned about the positive contribution to British society by people of colour. She also helped create Black History Month.
As she once explained: “I looked at black history, the Caribbean, Africa and slavery and the effects. There were people that said: ‘You should not be teaching that.’ Why not? It happened. Children should be made aware.”
Betty’s fame spread beyond Wales as her school became a template for multicultural education. And her influence on public life grew when she became a member of the Home Office’s race advisory committee and a member of the Commission for Racial Equality.
She also proved a passionate advocate for the people of Butetown as a councillor, as the community faced significant change through the development of Cardiff Bay.
She remained committed to the heritage of Butetown and the importance of its multiculturalism throughout her life: “In our own unique way were establishing an area where religion, colour didn’t matter – we all respected each other as people.”
No-one fought harder to celebrate Wales’ diversity than Betty Campbell.