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The UK’s history is populated with a number of hidden voices that have made great strides towards equality. It is important that we keep learning from their stories so that we can improve our own morals. It takes one strong voice to change the world. That is why we wish to end our article series on a more modern case study. This is Tunji Sowande, the first black judge.

Now, as discussed in our recent articles, BAME figures in the law faced a struggle against racism in British society. This made it difficult to be accepted in the 1800’s. It paved the way for others to follow in their footsteps into the following century. However, the 1900’s were also rife with racial tensions. Although people from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia were often encouraged to return to England after WWII. Those who came over often met with abuse and discrimination from those who they lived and worked with. Racial discrimination was not illegal until 1965 with the Race Relations Act, which shows how many obstacles Tunji Sowande had to face.

Imagine coming over to the UK in 1945, a time when the face of Britain was changing with the end of WWII and the birth of the post-war consensus. It was a time of turmoil, but the success of Tunji Sowande in the legal system was a triumph for equality. As the first Nigerian judge in the UK, Tunji Sowande stood as an icon of justice but also as a figurehead of BAME youths all over the country. This is his story.

Who is Tunji Sowande?

Tunji Sowande History

Tunji Sowande was born in 1912 in Lagos, Nigeria, to a very successful family. Not only was his father, Emmanuel Sowande, famous for his contributions to church music in Lagos, but his brother, Fela Sowande, became a MBE and practically the father of modern African classical music.  Having this stable background behind him, it is not surprising that Sowande went on to accomplish great things. But what is surprising is that law was not his first choice. In fact, not only did he obtain a Diploma in Pharmacy in 1940. He worked with Lagos’ Public Health Department as a dispensing pharmacist.

Sowande’s career goals then changed to law as a stable profession, aiming to go to the UK to start practicing and also pursue his musical skills. Clearly, what we can learn from this is that he was an extremely well-rounded man. He had many interested and had the passion and drive to pursue them. Britain became a land of opportunity for those in the BAME community and still is to this day. Therefore, a question comes to mind: how do we support people in similar situations, for example, today, perhaps in poorer socio-economic circumstances? Law is not an easy profession to get in to, especially with the amount of debt that students can get into. Have a think about how you, in a strong position as a member of the legal profession, can make an impact on the life of someone who needs that help.

A man of many talents

Now, it is clear that Sowande was someone who possessed an immense amount of talent. Not only were his scholarly pursuits at the CMS Anglican Grammar School and Yaba Higher College extremely successful, but he proved to be an excellent business man by setting up his private Pharmacy business alongside Adeyinka Oyekan, the Oba/King of Lagos.

Just to add to this growing list of talents, Sowande was also an extremely talented musician. Not only was he a fantastic baritone singer, but he could also play the organ and later the drums and saxophone. He wanted to hone in these skills by coming to the UK, however he understood that he could not live on music alone. That is why he decided to pursue a career in Law, as this would allow him a change of scene and allow him to follow up his primary passions.

The passion behind his ambitions is something that we can admire today. Isn’t it inspiring to see people chase after the things they want without being held back? Nowadays, we have progressed to the point where we can do that, and find our own ways of making sure people are not held back. So, imagine the struggle endured in order to pursue his dreams. During this period of racial tension, it was certainly not an easy job.

Britain & Racism in the 1900’s

To add some context behind Sowande’s story, it’s important that we also take a look at British history. That way you can empathise with Sowande’s experience and understand some of the struggles he went through. As more and more people immigrated to the UK, in 1919 more large racist attacks began to hit BAME communities in London, Liverpool, Hull, Manchester, South Shields and in Scotland and Wales. Although the influx of migrant workers provided a boost to Britain’s economy, racism still prevented certain people from gaining jobs in specific fields, such as the armed services. Some British laws were also extremely racist, including the Coloured Alien Seamen’s Order of 1925 and the 1981 British Nationality Act.

Due to the spread of racism in the UK, it was not surprising that resistance to these laws began to rise. These resistance groups began to organize political demonstrations, such as Grumwick Strike in 1976 and Black People’s Day of Action in 1981. There were also a number of demonstrations protesting police violence and racism in the 1970s/1980s. The 1900’s is an era of turmoil and rising tensions between different communities of people. That is why it was such a breakthrough when Sowande became the first black judge in the UK. It was a symbol of what justice in the UK should look like and that everyone was equal under the eyes of the law.

Tunji Sowandes’ Legal Successes

Sowande studied law at King’s college in London and managed to pass his Bar Finals at Lincoln’s Inn. He was then offered a full tenancy at the 3 Kings Bench Walk Chambers after he was called to the Bar in 1952. This left him in shock, as tenancies in these prestigious chambers had not previously been permitted to Black Barristers due to a racial restriction. Although he initially refused it on account of his music career, he was eventually persuaded by his Pupil Master who claimed that his exceptional intellect would serve him well in a career at the Bar.

Racial tensions aside, it is clear from this that we can see the conflict between Sowande’s passions and his career prospects. Although he could have been a successful musician in the UK, his Pupil Master’s faith in his abilities gave him the push he needed to move forward with his career.

Criminal Law & The Future Career of Tunji Sowande

Specializing in Criminal Law, Sowande handled complex criminal matters and rose to Head of Chambers in 1968. This made him the first Black Head of a major Barrister’s chambers set. Not only that but in 1978, his hard work earned him the title of the first Black Deputy Judge in Snaresbrook, and eventually in the crown courts of Corydon, Inner London and Knightsbridge. It was then that he was promoted further to a “Recorder of the Crown Court”, or in other terms, the first black judge.

Sowande held a lot of power in this position and used it well. Understanding that now he was at a place of authority and experience, he helped promote the careers of a number of successful lawyers from BAME backgrounds. This included Kim Hollis QC, a popular female Asian lawyer, who Sowande offered a tenancy and mentored at the very start of her career.

It is important that we learn from this example. We can all progress to dizzying heights in our careers, but does that really matter when there are still inspired youths at the start of their careers that need a little bit of guidance to push them forward? The youth are the future. If they come from BAME communities then they may not have all of the opportunities that other people have had. You could have more impact on someone’s life than you realise.

Sowande & Racial Discrimination

As we look through Sowande’s past, it is important to think of the struggles that he went through whilst pursuing his career. This was a period of turmoil between different spheres both culturally and professionally, therefore Sowande needed to become an amalgamation of the two.

An example of blatant discrimination that Sowande did experience in his career was during an interview in the barrister’s chambers. It is odd to think that in such a place of professionalism, the interviewer outright said to him that he should return to ”bongo-bongo land.” Take a moment to imagine that. You are an established barrister with a wide range of professional experience and talents that shows that you are an extremely well-rounded person. Yet it still is not enough in the eyes of a judgemental community.

We need to consider the wider contexts at play that affected Sowande’s career progressions. Sometimes there are simply factors that are out of our control that can impede people’s growth both personally and professionally. What is important is not to stoop to the same level, instead it is our job to change the minds of others through persuasion, kindness and empathy. You can change the world if you change your mind. This is the ultimate moral behind why it is so important to know Sowande’s life.

Creative Pursuits

Although Sowande’s main claim to fame are his achievements in the world of law. It’s important not to forget about his other passions. His main aim coming to the UK was to pursue a career in music, using a legal pathway to support himself financially. During his time at King’s College in London, he focused on Jazz, Classical and Choral music, also collaborating on live sets with contemporary musicians like Johnny Dankworth, Paul Robesons, Ambrose Campbell, Edumondo Ros and Ronnie Scott.

It is clear that his music was inspired by his family and cultural roots. Rita Cann, a famous Black Singer and Pianist, partnered with Sowande on several projects. Together, they joined a group of Black intellectuals and musicians. This was at the flat of John Payne, an African-American musician, in Regent’s park.

Charity & Music

A lot of the music he did make throughout his life was for charitable purposes, including entertaining elderly audiences with Rita Cann around the UK. Creativity and kindness were important values in his life. To provide happiness to those who were in a more vulnerable situation was an act of kindness that could inspire others to follow in his footsteps. This is what we need to think about when we think about BAME communities in the present. How can we be kind to each other and what can we do that can truly help each other? Most importantly, how can we truly listen to one-another so that we can develop and learn from the experiences of others. These are all important lessons to think about.

Sport & Social Communities

As you can see from Sowande’s life, he was not a man to simply sit around. This man had a wide range of passions that kept him busy. They helped him develop connections in a number of different communities- something that would be incredibly difficult during this time of racial tension. He was an extremely active member of the Hurlingham sports club, the Marylebone Cricket Club and the Crystal Palace Football Club. What is interesting about this is the fact that Sowande chose not to solely be a member of his own ex-pat community. Instead, he expanded himself to pursue every passion he could. In turn, this proved that he was any man’s equal. There was no divide. Instead, sport provided a facility for people to meet as equals on the playing field.

The Together in Football Foundation

We move away from the life of Tunji Sowande for just a moment. That way we can talk more about the impact of sport on community and growth. Here at Gowing Law, we think it is important that we support everyone. That is why we have set up “The Together in Football Foundation”. This is a charity where children of all backgrounds can enjoy a game of football together. We aim to unite all communities under a game where they can get to know each other. This is where everyone can grow bonds by having fun against other teams.

If you are interested in supporting this cause, please follow the link below to our foundation page:

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The impact of Tunji’s Sowande’s life on the UK

It is a shame that the life of Tunji Sowande has not received more attention. He is an example of a multi-talented man who achieved so much in his lifetime. His life serves as a reminder of why everyone deserves respect. Everyone deserves the chance of obtain success for themselves and their families. We cannot just hide away from the fact that he was from a well-off background. He was eligible for more opportunities than others may have had. However, he used these opportunities to become a figure of justice in the UK. These opportunities were then passed along for the next generation.

We, as a nation, should celebrate the progression we have made for equal opportunities for people of all races. However we should also use it to reflect on the past and what we need to improve on. Everyone deserve justice and to feel safe and secure in a nation that treats everyone’s rights with respect.

Gowing Law hopes you have enjoyed our blog series!

Here at Gowing Law, we believe in equality. We will support everyone who comes to our trained solicitors for help. That way they can get the justice that they deserve.

We hope that our series has shed some light on a few of the many BAME law figures. These are the voices that paved the way for others in present-day Britain. It is important that we celebrate their achievements. However we also need to listen to the voices of minority figures. That way we can hear them express their own experiences and make important changes to our society.

If you have enjoyed our series, our blog page also has a number of detailed law blogs. They are perfect reading if you are interested in pursuing a legal issue. Make sure to read them before you leave our website!

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