Student turned away from medal in 1940s “because he was black”


Fourah Bay College, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Founded in 1827, it was central to the city’s colonial image as the “Athens of Africa”. The first western-style university to be established in Sub-Saharan Africa, its raison d’être was the provision of training for “Africans as schoolmasters, catechists and clergymen.”

There is little left to the structure of the College’s old home to hint at its prestigious past. But then appearances can be deceiving- both William Broughton Davies and Africanus Horton, Sierra Leone’s first ever medical doctors, began their academic careers here before going on to receive their medical training in London in the 1850s.

Two decades later, in 1876, Fourah Bay College became affiliated to Durham University, the genesis of a partnership that would last nearly a hundred years. It was this partnership that led a young man by the name of Charles Harding to move to the north-east of England in the late 1940s.

The new climate, and the new country, didn’t faze him. Like Davies and Horton before him, it was in medicine that Harding made his mark. After taking exams in London, he excelled at King’s College in Newcastle, then the home of Durham’s medical school, which later went on to play a crucial role in the founding of Newcastle University in the 1960s.

In 1946 Harding won the Sir Thomas Oliver Prize, awarded for exceptional work on physiology dealing with food and nutrition.

The prize entitled him to both a medal and a cash prize. Class prizes and medals were awarded by the college council.

But Harding — now a professor —and his family claim that he never received the medal.

“What happened with the medal has become a symbol of the injustices he faced.”

Georgiana Lisk, Prof. Harding’s stepdaughter

As one of the only black students attending the University at the time, Harding was up against a society that was often either reluctant or downright opposed to the recognition of the merit of its minority groups.

Speaking to Palatinate, Prof. Harding’s stepdaughter, Georgiana, said that he was called to receive his medal three times, but on the first two occasions he was “turned away […] because he was black.” No one would believe that someone with such an English name could be a black man from Sierra Leone.

“The last time someone was sent to escort him to the dean’s office” so that he would be seen, but this time he was simply told that his case would be dealt with later on. Harding says it never was.

Now 98, Harding is living back in his native Sierra Leone. He has had a long and illustrious career that took him first to further study in Belfast before returning to West Africa, where his wife, Marjorie, tells me he became a fellow of and worked as an examiner for the West African College of Surgeons. She went on to say that he later worked in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa between 1991 and 1998 as the Rainbow Nation emerged from the Apartheid years, before retiring to the UK.

Despite his career success, what happened with the medal is something that his stepdaughter says has always weighed on him.

He is “never bitter” about what happened, Georgiana explained. “The value he places on education and the belief he has that it is the only thing that can never be taken away. But from having to be smuggled into buildings from which he was barred, to sitting through lectures in which he was told that the black brain was inferior, what happened with the medal has become a symbol of the injustices he faced.”

Prof. Harding has not contacted the University to seek the medal up to this point — he didn’t believe he would get anywhere with it, and didn’t necessarily want to relive the trauma that he had experienced in his youth.

It was Georgiana who finally convinced him to come forward; “guess I have inherited his stubbornness”, she says.

Durham University commented on the case, saying: “We are working to build an environment at Durham University where equality, diversity and inclusivity is valued and difference celebrated and where everyone feels comfortable to be themselves, to belong and to flourish. We have explored this matter and have not yet been able to find any record of it. If anyone has any information that can help our exploration, we would be glad to hear from them directly and will look into it carefully.”

Correction: The print edition of this article said that Professor Harding won both the Sir Thomas Oliver Prize and a Gold Award. It was in fact only the former that he won, and for which he claims the medal was not given.

Image (small): Georgiana Lisk. Image (large): Jared & Melanie & Huxley Ponchot via Flickr

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