He’s recognised as one of Barbados’ national heroes.
But this campaigning doctor, labour activist and politician also made a mark on the cities of Sunderland and Newcastle.
As part of Black History Month, we’re looking at some of the rarely-told stories of black people who’ve had a big impact on life in the North East across history.
One man who certainly earns that title is the Right Excellent Dr Charles Duncan O’Neal, a former Newcastle physician and Sunderland councillor.
Born in Barbados in 1979, he left the island after school to study medicine in Edinburgh.
He then moved to the North East of England, practicing medicine in Newcastle.
According to the North East Popular Politics database project, Dr O’Neal was listed as living at Whitburn, now in South Tyneside, in the Medical Directory for 1905, and later lived in Fulwell.
Alongside his medical work, Dr O’Neal’s took part in political activism which still casts a shadow today. In Barbados, he’s recognised as one of the founders of the Democratic League, which fought for the rights of ordinary workers and helped push the island’s democratic system away from one which disenfranchised those who didn’t own land, towards the party political system in place today.
But he was also part of a significant moment in UK politics, being an active member of the Independent Labour Party under Keir Hardie, one of the groups which would go on to become today’s Labour Party.
He fought for the socialist cause in the North East, campaigning for workers’ rights and a system of better social support including housing and free education. He’s also said to have lived up to his ideals in his medical practice, offering free healthcare for local miners and shipworkers.
He was elected a councillor in the Sunderland area, and is said to have served the city from 1905 to 1910, when he decided to return to Barbados to spread his socialist message.
In 1932, he won a seat in the Barbados House of Assembly as a Member for Bridgetown, a position he used to fight for workers’ rights, free education and the rights of women, and against racism and child labour.
He held the seat until his death in 1936, at the age of 57.
In 1998, by an act of Parliament, Charles Duncan O’Neal was also publicly honoured by his mother country by being named as one of the ten official National Heroes of Barbados, which granted him the ‘Right Excellent’ title. Alongside other key figures in the nation’s history, he’s honoured every April on National Heroes Day.
His face also appears on banknotes and stamps in Barbados, and his name is given to a bridge in Bridgetown.
Although he’s received less recognition in his adopted home of North East England, Dr O’Neal’s contributions to the area are now being acknowledged by local historians, and he this year featured as one of the ‘nation builders’ listed in the ‘African Lives in North East England’ calendar, which celebrates black history in the region.
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