The remarkable story of Britain’s first black newspaper editor, who made Sunderland his home

Born in Dominica around 1858, Samuel Celestine Edwards was an editor, a scholar and a campaigner, and one of the people who brought the cause of anti-racism to Wearside.

Believed to be Britain’s first black newspaper editor, he’s one of the people we’re celebrating as we explore the many stories of black people in the North East as part of Black History Month.

According to The Black Heroes Foundation, Celestine was educated at a chapel school in Antigua, stowing away on a French ship at 12 and becoming a sailor.

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After some time travelling the world he moved to Britain, arriving first in Edinburgh, before moving to Sunderland, where Seagull City, a website exploring the literary and cultural heritage of Sunderland, says he began work as an insurance agent, earning a then-impressive sum of £80 a year.

Having become a devout methodist while sailing, he had embraced the temperance movement, and lectured in the city on the dangers of drinking.

He became a regular speaker at the new Assembly Hall on Fawcett Street, as well as speaking at the Bethesda Chapel on Tatham Street and at other venues around the city.

There, he would speak on points of theology and argue passionately against imperialism and racism, in speeches which, according to the Sunderland Daily Echo in 1891, were “listened to with great attention”.

Celestine then moved to London and his editing work began, helping former slave Walter Hawkins to write his autobiography, and becoming editor of Christian magazine ‘Lux’ and the anti-racist ‘Fraternity’ monthly magazine. He’s believed to be the first black editor to have worked in the UK.

The power of his writing remains striking, and he delivered uncomfortable truths and powerful critiques of Britain’s imperialist actions to the public.

Sunderland City Council’s tribute to Celestine Edwards
(Image: David Wood)

As quoted in Seagull City, in 1892 he wrote in Lux: “If the British nation stole no more, they have stolen enough and have sufficient responsibility at home and abroad to occupy her maternal attention for the next hundred years. If the British nation has not murdered enough no nation on God’s earth has.”

And in 1893 he wrote: “We think it no crime for Africans to look with suspicion upon the European, who has stolen a part of their country, and deluged it with rum and powder, under the cover of civilisation.”

He also spoke against lynching in Amercia.

Highly educated and obviously driven, he not only studied theology but became a medical student during his time in London.

Although he only lived for two or three years in Sunderland, because he moved around throughout his life it’s thought the city is one of the few places he settled in for an extended period.

Last year, Sunderland City Council unveiled a blue plaque honouring the writer and campaigner, to be installed the old Midland Bank building, where the Assembly Hall once stood.

Working tirelessly for his cause, Celestine refused to stop campaigning even when warned by a doctor to slow down, as his health was deteriorating.

In early 1894 he returned to Sunderland as part of a ‘farewell tour’ of the UK, speaking at the Coffee Tavern on High Street West about the evils of slavery – but also speaking with pride and optimism for the future for free black people, saying: “To their future I look with confidence.”

Celestine Edwards returned to the West Indies, after supporters raised money so he could return home to be with his family, and died with on July 25, 1894, aged only in his thirties.

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