The Black princess who took on a white Southend community and caused national uproar
Main image: Elsa James, an artist from Southend, recreated Princess Dinubolu in her ‘Forgotten Black Essex’ exhibition (Image: Amaal Said)
Princess Dinubolu arrived in Southend to take part in a beauty pageant.
The year was 1908. Pageants were popular attractions, particularly in Southend where up to 5,000 people could fit inside the town’s Kursaal to experience the shows.
But news of this young woman’s entry into the competition caused an international frenzy, so much so that it made the front pages as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
It was because she was Black.
The idea of a person of colour entering a beauty competition was virtually unheard of, highlighted in the Princess’ own telegram to the manager of the Kursaal at the time – Mr Bacon.
“Was not allowed to compete Yarmouth beauty show on account of colour,” she wrote. “Have you any rule barring me? I am light chocolate.”
To which she received the response: “Don’t enter: local prejudice.”
But enter she did, and she arrived at Southend Victoria station in August 1908 ready to prove people wrong.
Mystery surrounds who Princess Dinubolu really was, where she came from and where she went, but there is no doubting the bravery and pride she showed in what was a momentous moment for Black communities around the world.
Taking on the establishment
More than 100 years on, her story has been retold by Elsa James.
A British African-Caribbean artist, producer and activist based in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, Elsa wanted to bring Princess Dinubolu’s story – an event hidden from the public eye for over a century – back to life.
She featured the Princess in her 2018 Forgotten Black Essex exhibition after being inspired by her story.
“I found it extremely uplifting,” Elsa said. “What a woman to take on what would have been a white, male media establishment.
“There were no women let alone people of colour.
“She caused a national frenzy with her presence wanting to enter this competition.”
It all started in Great Yarmouth.
A young woman sent a telegram to Mr Bacon at the Kursaal asking if she could enter the upcoming beauty pageant at the venue.
As reported in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on August 18, 1908, the woman explained that she had been turned away from a similar event in Yarmouth due to the colour of her skin.
She asked if Southend’s competition had a rule preventing her from entering, before describing herself as “light chocolate”.
She claimed she was Princess Dinubolu of Senegal, and while the local and national press were keen to highlight her title, it remains unclear to this day as to whether or not the women was exactly who she claimed to be.
But her supposed title seemed somewhat irrelevant, as the telegram she received in response from the Kursaal simply read: “Don’t enter: local prejudice.”
And there was reason for Mr Bacon’s concern. Two years earlier, a Black baby had been crowned the winner of one of the Kursaal’s baby shows.
It reportedly caused unrest amongst local mothers who, according to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, discussed the prospects and conditions for “some days”.
Mr Bacon was “mobbed” following the result and was clearly anxious to avoid a similar fate this time around, so the decision on whether to allow the Princess to compete fell on a local committee headed, reportedly, by the Mayor of Southend.
But the Princess was given permission to compete, and the news spread like wildfire not just in Essex, but around the world.
“Then the whole of the UK, and even as far as Melbourne, are up in arms about this woman,” Elsa explained. “She described herself as ‘chocolate’.
“I suppose I was thinking back about this, even the term Black, I grew up in the 70s when the term was ‘coloured’. I don’t think she would have used the word Black.
“That was her way of letting Mr Bacon know she was a person of colour. She wasn’t white, basically.
“There are no pictures or images of her, we just know from the different newspapers.
“It was a big deal, the Kursaal could seat 5,000 people. One of the competitors came from Philadelphia so it wasn’t a small thing.”
“She was uplifting and liberating for Black women”
The Princess reportedly entered all three categories on offer.
According to the Torquay Times on August 21, 1908, as reported in the Daily Express, she “was so anxious to win that she wished to enter not only the competition for brunettes, but those for blondes and for the finest head of hair as well”.
She arrived at Southend Victoria after travelling in third class, as to avoid the reporters who had gathered to cover the news.
She was taken to see Mr Bacon, and following their meeting she was escorted to the town’s Palace Hotel – now the Park Inn – where she stayed.
“The news spread around Southend and in 15 minutes everyone knew she was here,” Elsa said.
“You enter a competition to win so that might have been a goal, but she was aware of the colour bars and racism and being othered because of the colour of your skin so you might not get the same treatment.”
It’s unclear how far the Princess progressed in the competition, but reports on her story appeared to die down soon after the competition finished.
She didn’t win any of the categories she entered, but the fact that she secured a spot in the first place is a victory in itself.
Elsa added: “As far as I know this story wasn’t really picked up again. It wasn’t picked up until I told the story in 2018.
“I love the fact she took on this white, male media establishment and did her thing.
“It didn’t matter if she won or not, she got more than her 15 minutes of fame.
“She was uplifting and liberating for Black women because historically we’ve been objectified.
“It’s been around for years but for me she was Britain’s first #blackgirlmagic.”
“I wish to prove them wrong”
It would be another 62 years before Jennifer Hosten, of Grenada, became the first Black woman to be crowned Miss World.
Who knows if she was aware of Princess Dinubolu’s story, but regardless, she would have been well aware of the noteworthiness of her own achievement at the time.
The significance of entering a beauty competition as a Black woman was clear, even for the Princess back in 1908.
Talking about Southend, she said in the Torquay Times: “I wish to show my people that you are fair to all comers, even if they are chocolate-coloured.
“People have told me that only cream-and-pink little English misses can win, and that your judges have no eye for any other sort. I wish to prove them wrong.
“I have heard that a Black baby won a prize in Southend, and I feel sure that here they will be kind to us all alike.”
Elsa’s Princess Dinubolu film was shown at Big Screen Southend throughout October 2018 to celebrate Black History Month, alongside her second piece – Hester & Hester Woodley – from the same exhibition.
The pilot project was funded through a research and development grant from Arts Council England as well as an additional small grant from Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, and shone a light on Essex’s forgotten Black stories.
Elsa was inspired by Princess Dinubolu’s experience and is now planning more work into the hidden stories of Essex’s past.
In the final words of her exhibition piece, Elsa, addressing the Princess, said: “I salute you.”