Pioneering first Black headteacher ‘inspired everyone she met’
The words of her favourite song, Something Inside So Strong, rang out in the sunshine this week as Betty Campbell took her place in history.
The former head teacher – the first black woman in Wales to hold such a title – also became the first woman in Wales to have a public statue unveiled in her memory.
The bronze monument in Central Square, Cardiff, depicts Betty, who died in 2017 aged 82, as the strong and proud woman her family knew and loved. Talking about the unveiling ceremony, Betty’s daughter Elaine Clarke says: “It was a very emotional experience. It was very touching and the artist captured my mother so well – it was almost as if she was going to open her mouth and speak.
“We’re very proud of her. She was one of a kind. A fantastic mum, an amazing educator and an inspiration to everyone who met her.”
Betty was one of the greatest champions of Black History Month, which begins today. But she was also determined to celebrate the huge contribution and achievements of people of African or Caribbean heritage all year.
Betty herself once said: “When I was a head in my school I looked at black history, the Caribbean, Africa and slavery and the effects. “That was just a junior school, but there were people that said, ‘You should not be teaching that’. Why not? It happened. Children should be made aware. Even now I have ex-pupils in their 60s saying, ‘Thanks for the black history that you taught us’. What should come out is that you can eventually rise up from these depths.”
Betty’s remarkable life began in Cardiff in 1934. Born to a Jamaican father, Simon Johnson, and Nora, her Welsh Barbadian mother, she grew up in Tiger Bay, the diverse docklands area of the city. Betty was evacuated to the country during the Second World War, but tragedy struck when her dad, a merchant seaman with the Ocean Vanguard, died when the Germans torpedoed his boat. She returned to Cardiff to be with her mother, as she felt: “At least if we die, we’ll die together.” Aged 11, Betty gained a scholarship to Lady Margaret High School for Girls in the city, and it was there her dreams of teaching were born, only to be knocked down by a head teacher whose other pupils were all white and middle class. Despite Betty being a fixture near the top of her class, when she revealed her desire to teach, she was told: “Oh my dear, the problems would be insurmountable.”
Betty once said: “I went back to my desk and I cried. But it made me more determined. I would be a teacher by hook or by crook.” Married to Rupert in 1953, aged 18, Betty had daughter Elaine and three sons.
In 1960, the busy young mum signed up to teacher training school in Cardiff, one of nine women in the first female intake of trainee teachers, and the only black person in the class. Elaine, 68, says: “It was really incredible. My father supported her, and her mother helped too in looking after the children. My mother was determined to make it happen, and she did it.”
Once she qualified Betty started out at a school in Llanrumney, in Cardiff, before moving to another and then finally Mount Stuart Primary School in Butetown, in the south of the city, where she became head in the 1970s. Elaine says: “When eventually she reached her dream and became a head teacher, she wanted to ensure the children had opportunities. “It was a multicultural school and she wanted to ensure the curriculum she delivered reflected that and the pupils’ identities.
“She looked everywhere to find positive images to give them. She looked across the world to America and people like Martin Luther King. She looked to Nelson Mandela in South Africa and talked about those people as role models. The impact she made meant Nelson Mandela sought her out on his only ever visit to Wales.”
“There were lots of elements to what she did, and what she wanted to the children to know. The experience she’d had herself as a child, evacuated out of the city, and how her own father, a man from Jamaica, had died in the war, those things were parts of history she wanted the children to hear. She would seek out the stories of people from every background who had made an impact on the world because she wanted them to realise their dreams as she had. The children loved it. For some, what she was doing, drawing things in to essentially make a curriculum of her own, seemed radical. But when people started realising just how important what she was doing really was in an increasingly diverse society, they came to her for advice.”
Betty, who was awarded an MBE in 1977, became an independent county councillor in Cardiff’s Butetown ward and joined the preparation committee ahead of the Welsh Assembly’s opening in 1998.
She was a governor of BBC Wales from 1980 to 1984 and sat on the Home Office race advisory committee. In 2003, she became an honorary fellow of the University of Wales Institute – now Cardiff Metropolitan University – for services to education and community life.
At the time of her death, then First Minister Carwyn Jones described Betty as “a true pioneer”. But Elaine, who also became a primary school head, says at home Betty was simply “Mam”.
Elaine, who now lives in London, says: “She was a wonderful mother. “She was extremely inspirational and I went on to follow her into education, as did my own daughter Rachel who is a deputy head. “I’m retired now, but Rachel carries on and we’re very proud to have had someone like my mother to look up to.”
Betty’s monument, by sculptor Eve Shepherd, was commissioned after the Hidden Heroines campaign run by Monumental Welsh Women. Betty topped a public vote to decide who would be the first statue of a named, non-fictional woman in Wales.
And on Wednesday, while pupils from Betty’s old school sang Something Inside So Strong, Labi Siffre, 76, who wrote the song and had a No4 with it in 1987, also made an appearance on screen. Elaine says: “It was very special. My father, who is 90, was there as well and it was a very touching experience for us all.
“My mother really loved the song. The lyrics are so hopeful and they really reflect the person she was. Some of the lyrics are inscribed on the statue as well, and it’s something we’re all very moved by. The moment the statue was unveiled was really powerful. People were moved to tears.”