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Graysons celebrates Black History Month 2021

With its origin in the United States, where the first Black History Month was first celebrated in February 1970, the UK started to reflect the influence that black people have had on shaping the country in October 1987 and has celebrated Black History Month every October since then. 

Catherine Ross, editor of www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk, says:

“We wanted the theme of Black History Month 2021 to focus on celebrating being Black or Brown, and to inspire and share the pride people have in their heritage and culture – in their own way, in their own words.”

Here we’d like to share with you the stories of two of Graysons’ staff and the people who have been an inspiration to them.

Black History Month

Carol Simpson

Carol Simpson is a partner at Graysons and head of our clinical negligence team.  She qualified as a solicitor in 2004 after obtaining her law degree from Huddersfield University.  Carol joined Graysons in October 2018 and quickly rose to partner in December 2019.  She has a reputation as a tenacious and highly effective litigator and acts, in the main, on a variety of high-value cases.   She has been personally recommended in the Legal 500 for several years and in 2021 was described as “a good head of department, dealing with a caseload including difficult and complex matters, and doing so effectively”. She is also an AvMA (Action Against Medical Accidents) approved solicitor, having been assessed and accredited as a specialist in clinical negligence.

Carol’s parents came to the UK from Jamaica in the 1960s.  They worked hard and instilled good morals and values in their children.  Carol says

“They set the bar high and led me to believe that whatever your background, if you have a goal, a good work ethic and believe in yourself, you can achieve and accomplish your dreams.  I didn’t start my career in law.  I always knew that I wanted to work with and help people and worked for 19 years as a nurse and midwife with the NHS before becoming a solicitor.  The experience I gained in the medical field helped shape my future and led me to realise that I wanted to contribute to people’s lives in a different way, by helping vulnerable individuals and families who had suffered a serious injury as a result of medical negligence.  

There are so many Black men and women who I admire and who have inspired me, probably none more than Mary Seacole, a woman who, although not qualified, nursed victims of the  cholera epidemic in Kingston, yellow fever and the Crimean War, and the person I chose to celebrate last year.  However, a more current inspiration, and a woman in the legal field, is Dame Linda Dobbs.”

Dame Linda Dobbs

Dame Linda Dobbs was the first non-white person to become a judge at the UK’s High Court.  She was appointed in 2004, at a time when there were only 10 women in the High Court.

In 1958, Dame Linda came to England with her parents from Sierre Leone, where her father had been a High Court judge.   Initially, Dame Linda was not interested in the law and enrolled to study music at Edinburgh University.  However, she changed her studies after one year and graduated from the University of Surrey in 1976 with a degree in law and Russian.  This was followed by a Master’s degree in law and a Doctorate (Ph.D) in Soviet Criminology and Penology.

Dame Linda’s background was as a barrister.  During her training, she said she had experienced sexism and racism and that the clerks usually assumed that men were better than women. Even when solicitors asked for her specifically, her clerk would sometimes give the brief to one of the male pupils instead.  However, she persevered, undeterred, and was called to the Bar in 1981, specialising in criminal and white-collar crime cases.  She became a Queen’s Counsel in 1998.

During her time as a barrister, she was an active member of various Bar Council and other committees, including the General Council of the Bar. She also chaired the Professional Standards Committee, the Race Relations Committee and the Criminal Bar Association, where she set up its first Equality and Diversity Committee.  She holds six honorary doctorates.

Despite her position as a Black female role model, Dame Linda is not a fan of such celebrity and said of appointment as a High Court judge:

“It is a great honour to have been invited by the Lord Chancellor to become a High Court judge. Whilst this appointment might be seen as casting me into the role of standard-bearer, I am simply a practitioner following a career path. I am confident, nevertheless, that I am the first of many to come.”

Dame Linda retired from her role as a High Court judge in 2013 and has since continued to pursue her many other interests – particularly those in Africa and the Caribbean – such as:

  • Training judges and lawyers internationally.
  • Devising and delivering training in various legal areas.
  • Chairing various inquiries, including the Jimmy Saville/BBC affair.
  • Contributing to several legal publications.
  • Working with charities that help disadvantaged young people and promote diversity – including charities in Sierra Leone and South Africa.
  • Working with the University of Cape Town, where she is an honorary professor.
  • Sitting on a number of advisory committees.

In the past, Dame Linda has been named as one of the 100 great Black Britons and has regularly featured in the PowerList 100 of Influential Black Britons.  She is currently conducting a review of issues relating to the acquisition of HBOS by Lloyds Banking Group.

Carol continues:

“There is potential in everyone irrespective of race, colour or gender. I have faced obstacles in my career, but it only makes me stronger and determined to succeed. Although diversity statistics have got slightly better, the latest SRA figures in 2019 show that only 3% of lawyers in the legal profession are Black (21% are BAME),  so there is still a lot of work to do. I believe there are a lot of aspiring lawyers waiting to qualify if given the opportunity, and they should be judged on ability and merits. We need to embrace the richness of diversity and inclusiveness and that is what I promote and represent at Graysons.”

Black History Month

Shani Muir

Shani Muir joined Graysons recently in July 2021.  She is a conveyancing administration assistant and has worked in the field of law since 2015.

Shani has been inspired by her great-grandparents, who came to Britain from Jamaica. Both worked extremely hard despite the difficulties they experienced – her great-grandma in a hospital and her great-grandad in a factory. Shani says:

“My great grandparents are my role models.  They made a good life for themselves and their children in Britain, overcoming many obstacles at the time.  They have helped me to realise that no matter where you come from or what colour skin you have, you still have the same chance of achieving whatever you want from life, even if it does take you longer than others.  I am very proud of them and what they have helped me to achieve.

I find the lives of many Black people absolutely inspiring.  One such person is Madam C.J. Walker.  I am watching a series about her on Netflix at the moment.  Her life was truly inspirational, and I’d highly recommend watching ‘Self Made’ to anyone.”

Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker was an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist.  She was the first female millionaire in America and was self-made. She invented hair care products, especially for African American women, to treat hair loss resulting from a scalp issue from which she had suffered herself.

She was born Sarah Breedlove on a cotton plantation in 1867.  Her parents had recently been freed from slavery and Sarah was Owen and Minerva’s fifth child and the first to be born into freedom. Sarah’s parents died when she was seven years old, and she went to live with her sister and brother-in-law.

Her life was not easy.  She was mistreated by her brother-in-law and left the family to marry at the age of 14.  She gave birth to a daughter in 1885 and was widowed two years later so Sarah and her daughter went to live in St Louis, where her brothers worked as barbers. Sarah was able to send her daughter to school and attended night school herself whenever she could.  It was in St Louis that Sarah met her second husband Charles J. Walker.  Charles worked in advertising and was later able to help Sarah with promoting her hair care products.

During the 1890’s Sarah lost most of her hair due to a scalp issue she had developed.  She tried every remedy she could, including shop-bought treatments. Eventually, she developed a system that worked.  She named it the ‘Walker System’ and, at first, sold directly to Black women herself.  Then, with the help of her husband and her own entrepreneurial spirit, she set up a team of saleswomen that she called ‘beauty culturalists’, to sell the product for her.  The business grew and she set up the C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company and a beauty school.  By 1910, her profits were huge, equivalent to millions of pounds today.

After divorce from her husband C.J. Walker, Madam Walker moved to Harlem where she pursued her social and political interests and set up philanthropic organisations that focussed on the lives of African Americans.  Jobs for Black women were scarce and so she promoted Black female talent where she could.  Her company’s charter even stipulated that only a female could serve as the company president.  She set up clubs for her employees and rewarded them for giving back to their communities. She donated large amounts of her fortune to charities and in 1913, donated the largest amount of money by an African American toward constructing the Indianapolis YMCA.

Madam C.J. Walker died at the age of 51 in 1919 and her daughter took over the business.  Two-thirds of her estate was left to various charities. The business closed in 1981, but products bearing the name Madam C.J Walker Beauty Culture are still sold by Sephora retailers today.

You can find out more about Madam C.J. Walker at www.history.com/topics/black-history/madame-c-j-walker.

Author: Carol Simpson, partner and head of Graysons’ medical negligence team.

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