Earliest Black Women at Cambridge

This blog presents short biographies of the six earliest black women we have researched so far, who attended the three women's colleges during the late 1940s and 1950s in Girton, Newnham and Homerton. The six women were trail blazers before joining Cambridge and after. Attaining university education for all women was difficult before 1960. It was a rare feat for these remarkable black women to succeed in education in a different environment, balance societal demands and thrive in their careers as their autobiographies attest to.

Gloria Claire Carpenter (Gloria Cumper), Girton 1945 was a lawyer, educationist and university lecturer. She is the earliest black woman found in the college records so far by the Black Cantabs team. Gloria Carpenter who later became Gloria Cumper was a Jamaican student who became the first black female law graduate who matriculated in Girton College in 1945. She went back to Jamaica and helped set up the University of West Indies Law department. Her daughter Patricia Cumper who also studied in Girton published a book about her trail blazing mother in 1998 (One Bright Child) and a film on Gloria Cumper.

Efua Theodora Sutherland (Homerton 1947). Efua Sutherland was a Ghanaian educator, publisher, artist, dramatist and writer who is one of the most celebrated African women playwrights and dramatists. Her well known literary works include Foriwa (1962), Edufa (1967), Marriage of Anansewa (1975) as well as many books she authored for children.Though she is best known as a dramatist, her work was informed by her belief in cultural education for social change. alt

Efua is one of the first African women to have been educated at Cambridge. She was born in Cape Coast, Ghana in 1924 and died in Accra in 1996. She studied for a B.A degree in Education at Homerton College and then specialised in English linguistics, African languages, drama at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London before returning to the newly independent Ghana in 1957, where she set up the Ghana Writers Society and a drama studio. In addition to her literary works other legacies include: Development of children's drama, The Efua Sutherland Drama Studio at the University of Ghana, the establishment of the Dubois Pan-African center, the Efua Sutherland Children's Park in Central Accra, the Efua Sutherlandstraat street in Amsterdam, The Netherlands among others.

Felicia Banjo (Felicia Adetowun Ogunsheye) Newnham 1949, is a Nigerian educationist and Professor of library studies. Felicia Ogunsheye matriculated in Newnham in 1949 and graduated with a degree in Geography in 1952. Felicia is the first Nigerian woman to study at the University of Cambridge. She was also the first female student of the University College Ibadan and the first female Professor in Nigeria. Professor Felicia Adetowun Ogunsheye was born on the 5th of December, 1926 in Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria. She had her secondary school education at the prestigious Queen’s College, Yaba, Lagos, and proceeded to Yaba Higher College, the then University College, Ibadan, where she bagged her Higher College Teaching Diploma as the first female undergraduate of the Yaba institution. Prof. Ogunseye won the prize for the best female graduating student and got a scholarship to Cambridge. alt

Prof. Ogunsheye completed her studies in 1952 and went back to Nigeria to become a teacher before studying for a masters degree at Simmons College, Boston, Massachusetts in 1961. She later became the head of the university press at Ibadan. She was a chairperson of the Banjo Commission on education review and she has initiated various educational programmes and associations to promote the empowerment of women in the society. In 1965, she was the President of the Nigerian Association of University Women and in 1973, she became a Professor of Library Studies. She retired in 1987 and she recently celebrated her 90th birthday in 2016.

Olugbolahan Modupefolu Olubunmi (Mrs Abisogun Alo) Girton 1958. Olugbolahan was a leading educationist in Nigeria. In 2003 she was honoured with the award of an Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR) in recognition of her immense contribution to the development of secondary school education in Nigeria. She was a recipient of many other national and international honours, including an honorary doctorate in education from the Lagos State University.

She attended Queen’s College and King’s College, Lagos and on the basis of her 1957 HSC results, she sat for the entrance examinations and was admitted to Girton College in 1958 to study history, a rare feat then.She was a contemporary of the Princess of Toro, Elizabeth Bagaya and Lulu Cocker from Sierra Leone. She writes about her Nigerian contemporaries at Cambridge in her memoirs, such as the late Hope Harriman, Dayo Akinrele, and Tunde Akinrele. Alaba Akinsete, Olumuyiwa Awe, and Sam Olaitan, were other Nigerian research students at Cambridge during her time. She recounts her time in Cambridge with nostalgia in her memoirs. She left Cambridge and married her husband Alo and was only able to resume work ten years after due to the travel demands of her diplomat husband. She subsequently had a distinguished career as a principal of several federal government colleges and eventually a director of education.

Princess Elizabeth Bagaya, Girton 1959 is the Batebe of the Kingdom of Toro in Uganda. She is Uganda's first female lawyer, politician, diplomat, model and actress. Princess Elizabeth was born in privilege in 1936 to His Royal Highness King George Rukidi III and Lady Kezia Rukidi. She excelled at Gayaza and Sherborne school for girls. She then joined Girton College, Cambridge. According to her memoir, she earned her place in history as being one of the first three African women to graduate from Cambridge (after Efua Sutherland and Felicia Ogunsheye). Armed with her law degree, she went on to pursue a legal career, was admitted to the English bar in 1965, and became a practicing barrister at law.She was the first East African female to be admitted to the English bar.

alt Elizabeth at Girton.

Following the death of her father, King George Rukidi III, and the accession to the Toro throne by her brother, Patrick Kaboyo Olimi VII, princess Elizabeth assumed her traditional role as Princess Royal to her brother, King Patrick Olimi VII. The mid-sixties were characterized by political upheaval in Uganda the kingdoms which were"abolished" in 1967. Princess Elizabeth left Uganda for the United States to pursue a career in high fashion modeling and acting. She attained supermodel status and graced the covers of high fashion magazines like Vogue and Harpers. She also starred in several motion pictures, including "Sheena" and Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease" in which she acted the leading female role.


After Obote's reign, Bagaya returned to Uganda and she was appointed minister of foreign affairs a role she declined a year later. She was later appointed the permanent representative to the United Nation's in New York by President Museveni between 1986-1988. She served as Uganda's ambassador to Germany and she was also a Senior Presidential Advisor on Culture. She is today one of the key players in the Toro kingdom reconstruction activities of The Batebe of Toro Foundation, to which she devotes most of her time.
Source: http://www.torokingdom.org/Bagaaya.htm

Akua Asabeea Ayisi, (Justice Akua Asabea Ayisi) Newnham, 1959). Akua Ayisi, first female journalist in Ghana, lawyer and one of the first female judges on the Ghanaian bench. Akua was a Ghanaian writer and and an early member of Kwame Nkrumah's Convention's Peoples Party(CPP) in Ghana. She was also one of the earliest female Ghanaian journalists with Mabel Dove Danquah.They wrote for the Accra Evening News founded by Nkrumah in the 40s and 50s. In 1949, Akua was jailed with other activists for their political roles. She later left Accra to join Newnham college in 1959 where she read History. She also read for the bar and returned to Ghana as a private legal practitioner in 1963.


AdamsThe Legacy of Efua Sutherland: Pan African Cultural Activism, a volume in her honour was published in 2007, edited by Anne V. Adams and Esi Sutherland-Addy.

Abisogun Alo, Olugbolan( 2011), This city girl: memoire of Olugbolan Abisogun-Alo.UP PLC

Cumper, Patricia (1998) One bright child.London: Black Amber, 1998.

Nyabongo,Elizabeth(1989) Elizabeth of Toro: The Odyssey of an African Princess. Touchstone Books.


Gloria Cumper Film