Cambridge University exhibition celebrates black graduates

Portraits of prominent alumni curated by current students go on show in university library

Diane Abbott, Naomie Harris and Thandie Newton are among the black graduates of Cambridge University who will be celebrated in an exhibition created by current students.

Black Cantabs: History Makers includes 14 portraits of Cambridge graduates – known as Cantabs – which will go on display in the university library from Wednesday. The display has been curated by the Black Cantabs Research Society, a group set up to explore the stories of black former students.

The university has come under fire recently for its failure to promote racial diversity, with some colleges admitting no black students or accepting as few as one a year between 2012 and 2016.

The exhibition also features the novelist Zadie Smith and Francis Williams, Cambridge’s first black scholar, who studied there in the 1720s.

Zadie Smith’s portrait is installed
Zadie Smith’s portrait is installed. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

The Jamaican, the son of a freed slave who acquired property and independent wealth, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, Latin and literature. After returning to Jamaica, he set up a free school for children.

His portrait – an oil painting showing him with a globe, dividers and other instruments indicating his education – has been loaned to Cambridge by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Cambridge’s first black female graduate, Gloria Carpenter, who graduated with a degree in law from Girton College in 1945 and went on to become a prominent social reformer, also features.

President of the Black Cantabs Research Society Surer Mohamed (left) and University of Cambridge Librarian Jessica Gardner view a portrait of the university’s first black female graduate Gloria Carpenter
The president of the Black Cantabs Research Society, Surer Mohamed (left), and the University of Cambridge librarian Jessica Gardner view a portrait of the university’s first black female graduate, Gloria Carpenter. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

After she returned to Jamaica, Carpenter helped set up the University of West Indies’ law department, as well as contributing to the foundation of Jamaica’s family court. Her daughter, Patricia Cumper, also went on to study at Girton.

The exhibition also features an image of an individual who is not a Cambridge alumnus. Stormzy, the rapper, who last month launched scholarships to help black students at Cambridge, will appear. The first two recipients of his scholarship will start their courses in October.

The British Army’s first black officer Lieutenant David Clemetson
The British Army’s first black officer Lieutenant David Clemetson Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Established in 2015, the Black Cantabs Research Society was created by students to uncover and document the histories of Cambridge’s black alumni. The group’s president, Surer Mohamed, 24, a PhD student at Cambridge, said of the exhibition: “It’s not to say ‘look who made it’, it’s to say this is part of the Cambridge story.”

The exhibition runs from 1 October to 31 December; it is free and open to the public in the university library.


Damien Gayle

The GuardianTramp

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