Slavery’s Legacy haunts first Black women rectors of Scottish universities

Here’s how they can make amends

NEWS VIEWS include Racist UK immigration laws / Reparations demand after royal Caribbean tour / Mina’s film of dignity and death / Black women busting beauty myths

By Thomas L Blair 1 June 2022©

Three Black women achieved historic milestones as rectors of Edinburgh, Aberdeen and St Andrews Scottish universities. But will they – can they — make amends for the slavery business which founded their historic institutions? The answer is they must.

Selected mainly by students, their real-world management experience and a heart for public service proved attractive.

Debora Kayembe, is the Rector of Edinburgh University that dates back to 1495. Congolese-born in Kinshasa, she is a human rights lawyer, linguist and political activist.

Martina Chukwuma-Ezike, of Nigerian heritage, is Rector of Aberdeen. Her managerial skills in the Asthma and Allergy Foundation enable medical students to work directly with asthmatics.

Somali born Dr Leyla Hussein OBE, the appointed rector of St Andrews University, is a psychotherapist, campaigner and global leader on gender rights.

Exploring the University’s Historic Links to Slavery

But in a smouldering political landscape  how will they cope with increasing demands to reveal the profits from the business of slavery? Profits based on the violent capture of Africans, transhipped to the colonial Caribbean for harsh plantation labour during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The slaver’s financial gifts shaped the very fabric of the rector’s institutions in ways that can still be seen today. Aberdeen’s benefactor The Reverend Gilbert Ramsay, an Episcopalian minister is one example. Edinburgh’s benefactor anti-abolitionist Henry Dundas is another. In addition, wealthy John Whyte Melville’s physical legacy marks the town’s constructed fountains, landscaped estates, and more in and around St Andrews.

The evidence for change

Now, the new rectors must learn to recognise and listen to the soundtrack of concerns. 

The Edinburgh Centre for Global History has evidence of the Africa-Caribbean-British connections of the slave trade and its remnants in the university.

Local residents and pupils have exposed the links between their parish of Birse in Aberdeenshire and the Aberdeen slaver Rev Ramsay.

Furthermore, the undergraduate-led Spence Project has uncovered the St Andrews links to the transAtlantic slave trade.

The rumbles of concern may sound revolutionary, but Harvard University, America’s oldest institution of higher education,  has created a $100mm reparations fund after a report detailed its centuries-old ties to slavery. The Harvard Law School was established in 1817 with a bequest from Isaac Royall Jr., whose family made much of its fortune in the slave trade and from a sugar plantation in Antigua.

Strategies for change

In Scotland, the task ahead for the three Black women rectors is clear.  But how can they get ready for it?

They must resist the urge to repress the “mischiefs of faction”. They should open their archives to researchers and public scrutiny. Painstakingly, they must amend their laggard institutional, physical and educational cultures. Moreover, they must lead a drive to create and implement a £multi-mm Legacy of Slavery and its Persistent Effects Fund.

As a result, they will not only boost the forces for change but inscribe their progressive rector ships in Scottish university annals. Success should be closely studied and replicated in the historic slavery and colonial-dependent universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, and all British degree-granting universities.


Photo collage left to right Debora Kayembe, Dr Leyla Hussein,  Martina Chukwuma-Ezike

The Rector is part of the ancient form of Scottish university governance since the 15th century. Elected by the students (and in the case of Edinburgh by the staff as well) their role is to represent the interests of students as chair of the University Courts.

Edinburgh University https:/533533/ 

Aberdeen University

St Andrews University     

Harvard University in the New York Times

Harvard University by Reuters


30 years of UK immigration laws curbed citizenship for non-white populations.

“The truth is out: ‘Britain’s immigration is racist, and always has been. Now let’s fix it’, says Diane Abbott, Labour MP. She stands for Hackney Borough that has a significant population of people of Caribbean and African heritage. Ms Abbott’s urgent tone came as a leaked report seen by The Guardian revealed that “During the period 1950-1981, every single piece of immigration or citizenship legislation was designed at least in part to reduce the number of people with black or brown skin who were permitted to live and work in the UK”.

Reparations demand after royal Caribbean tour 

One thing the disputed Prince William’s tour proved say West Indians. The Monarchy – like the British Commonwealth, born out of bloodshed in the British colonies – is a relic. The prince’s visit triggered the historic call for “reparations” for centuries of wrongdoings.

In the UK the Global Afrika Congress (GAC)  led by Glenroy Watson supports this view. The dispute bolstered the reparation claims sworn to at the Afrikans and Afrikan Descendants World Conference Against Racism, 2-6 October 2002 Bridgetown, Barbados.

Moreover, the multi-Caribbean states organisation (CARICOM) has mobilised a Reparations Commission. It urges compensation for the native genocide of the region’s first people, as well as the descendants of chattel slavery Africans and Asian indentured peoples. In their sights are Britain and the European Union (EU) member states that participated in and benefitted from the Slave Trade.

But what to do and how to do reparations? In my view, “Reparations” should mean creating an institution, be it a government commission or a private legacy, tasked to recommend and implement an apology to descendants of enslaved Africans. The debit account must include their plundered kingdoms, stolen resources and artefacts. Moreover, add the horrors of the cruel transshipment of 12 millions over the centuries. Plus the unpaid plantation labour that created the economy and prosperity of their American and European colonial masters.  

Reparations in modern times
Though some might say “they don’t like talking about our ancestors in dollars and cents”, nevertheless reparations, sought and awarded, to aggrieved American and German minorities are a major feature of recent history. These include:

  1. US compensation to Japanese-Americans unlawfully interned during World War II
  2. Indian Claims Commission to compensate for land seized by the United States  
  3. Black survivors of Chicago police violence and torture abuses to obtain confessions.
  4. Black victims of US eugenics forced sterilization program;
  5. Student action at Georgetown University to benefit descendants of the 272 enslaved Africans sold by the  Jesuits to secure its financial future;
  6. Black residents of a Florida town burned by a murderous white mob.19 Jun 2019, and
  7. Germany is still making $multi-mm reparations payments to 400,000 Jews who survived the Holocaust.

Planning Reparations
The Reparations Plan must look to the future. Enhancing social and economic development is most important. This means several things. One, using high-efficiency models to improve educational and technological capability. Two, raising productivity and wages. Three, reducing artificial restrictions to citizenship, land owning, commerce and trade. Thereby instilling a sense of hope and self-reliance. ____________________________________________________________________


Mina’s film of dignity and death.
The Venerable Mina Smallman, the Church of England’s first Black female archdeacon, has filmed the story of her overwhelming grief after the 6 June 2020 murder of her daughters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. They were killed in a London park and pictures of their bodies were shared by the officers who were supposed to be guarding them. Why the filmed story? “I wanted to show up the people who let us down”, she says in quiet reflection.

Black women busting beauty myths.
Small independent entrepreneurs are challenging notions about what’s right — from size and shape to shade and hair texture to health and beauty — for women, mainly of colour. 

Roots to power. Charlotte Mensah is the go-to Afro Hairdresser for women, stylists, celebrities and business owners at her salon, Hairlounge @charlottemensah.  Leader of the natural haircare movement for Natural Afro and Mixed textures, her Curly Power Workshop “MAKES UNRULY CURLS A THING OF THE PAST”, she says.

This marks a rediscovery of traditional African and diaspora braids and cornrows and the use of contemporary hair extensions.

Kemi and Ronke Ajayi’s website features Quality Handmade Lingerie for the Fuller Bust at

Lottie Pole Rowlatt, Head of Learning @Haeckels is acknowledged by Vogue Britain magazine as a force for change in professional skincare education. Her new “Facial Treatment of Skin of Colour” training course aims to meet the needs of women in skin tones and textures. (Instagram lottie_rowlatt)

In this era of embracing natural hair, Halima Aden, the first African hijab-wearing supermodel and millionaire own brand entrepreneur, captured the attention of Muslim Black British women. Now, under their required head scarf, they express their African-ness. With Afro-styles they can adorn, shape, control and beautify their African hair and enhance their self-esteem, according to Aisha Yusuff, a Nigerian activist for the Bring Back Our Girls Movement (@yusufu4868).

Clearly, Black British women are creating the transformative essentials for safe, authentic images that marketers will scramble to sell. Thereby, opening up a space for diversity and inclusion in the industries, adverts, media, partnerships and employment.

A future foreseen by prominent advocate Dija Ayodele, publisher of the Black Skin Directory, aesthetician, small businesswoman and GLAMOUR magazine columnist.

The Chronicleworld – for incisive coverage of the issues, ideas and institutions that matter to Black Britons and the Diaspora since 1997. @chronicleworld1,