Oh to be in Cardiff on a sunny day! It had been three years in the making and there was a real sense at the unveiling of the Betty Campbell statue that a momentous day had finally arrived. 

When Monumental Welsh Women first commissioned a statue of Wales’ first black headteacher – incredibly, the first real woman to be honoured in such a way; before Covid, before George Floyd – we all lived in a different world.

But this late Wednesday morning will live long in the memory. It was as if the city, and the nation, breathed a collective sigh of relief, and together remembered its past, recalibrated its future.

A crowd gathered, as easily multicultural as the city itself. 

And as The Oasis One World Choir harmonised Amazing Grace, civil servants in the UK Government building pulled up their blinds for a better view across Wood Street toward Central Square.

Cardiff Buses rumbled by, familiar jade and orange livery glinting in the sunlight. An open-topped tourist bus trundled past the statue, half an hour too early to see it unveiled from its blanketing in purple cloth.

The National Wales: Crowds at the unveiling. Picture: Glenn EdwardsCrowds at the unveiling. Picture: Glenn Edwards

BBC journalist Felicity Evans, genial compere, was also resplendent in the colour chosen by the suffragettes because it symbolised dignity.

She began by talking about the “blank spaces on our streets where the women should be”. And yet here that gap was being filled. She talked about the “invisible restrictions that tried to keep Betty Campbell small”. And yet we knew that ultimately they could not hold her back. That beneath the purple cloth, Betty was – fittingly – much larger than life.

“She didn’t hide the realities of prejudice and discrimination from the working class children of colour in her care,” said Evans, “she educated them about it.” 

The gathered assembly was a Who’s Who of Welsh public life, but here politicians and the media bubble mingled with the people. A vision of harmony – us at our best. 

Overhead, a pale half moon hung silently in an almost cloudless sky, high above a pair of flags. For this moment the union flag and y ddraig goch fluttered side by side atop a building that seemed momentarily to have relaxed its muscular unionism. 

The National Wales: Welsh Government minister Jane Hutt (left) and Huw Thomas, leader of Cardiff Council. Pictures: Glenn EdwardsWelsh Government minister Jane Hutt (left) and Huw Thomas, leader of Cardiff Council. Pictures: Glenn Edwards

Huw Thomas, leader of Cardiff Council, proclaimed “a momentous day for our capital city and for Wales”.

He recounted colleagues’ memories of Betty Campbell, who represented Butetown on the council between 1999 and 2004: “A formidable force of nature.” And he concluded: “She wasn’t mythological or nameless, but a real activist and educator.”

Amid the crowd political opponents stood side by side. Conservative David TC Davies rubbing shoulders with Labour’s Jane Hutt, who spoke next. “Proud to be your Welsh Government Minister for Social Justice.” 

Hutt and Betty Campbell went way back – to the minister's days as a Riverside councillor. Hutt recalled her former colleague’s “wisdom, strength, warmth, commitment” and called Wales “our nation of sanctuary, diversity and hope”.

On this sunny day in Cardiff, it seems like the glimpse of a dream that may one day really be fulfilled.

Elin Jones of Plaid Cymru, Llywydd – Presiding Officer at the Senedd – leans over a crash barrier. Behind her, construction workers in head-to-toe fluorescent tangerine continue reconstructing the city. 

“The Welsh make and remake Wales, day by day and year after year, if they want to,” said historian Gwyn Alf Williams famously. And as Taylor Edmonds recited When I Speak of Bravery – reminding us of Betty’s life and what she stood for – the day felt like one confident step forward in the long march of history.

The National Wales: Taylor Edmunds, poet in residence of Future Generations Commissioner. Picture: Glenn EdwardsTaylor Edmunds, poet in residence of Future Generations Commissioner. Picture: Glenn Edwards

Prince Charles sent a video message, reminiscing about visiting the Mount Stuart Primary School Eisteddfod in 1994. 

Singer and poet Labi Siffre – author of Betty Campbell’s favourite song – says: “The most discriminated against group in the world is, and always has been, women and girls.”

Julia Gillard, the former Australian Prime Minister who was born in Barry, says: “Betty was a leader who changed the lives of thousands of children.”

The National Wales: Olivette Otele, Bristol University. Picture: Glenn EdwardsOlivette Otele, Bristol University. Picture: Glenn Edwards

Novelist Sarah Waters says: “Her passion for education and political activism has always been such a big part of Welsh life.”

Olivette Otele, herself a trailblazer – the first black woman in the UK to be appointed to a professorial chair – says: “She believed that community knowledge is just as important as academic knowledge” and that “citizens are people [like herself] who could transcend social, cultural and racial barriers”. She also says talking to Betty was “an intense experience that made you sweat a bit”. 

The National Wales: Children from Mount Stuart School sing the Labi Siffri number Something Inside So Strong at the unveiling ceremony.Children from Mount Stuart School sing the Labi Siffri number Something Inside So Strong at the unveiling ceremony.

And then a group of current pupils at Betty’s beloved Mount Stuart Primary School, which Betty watched built ‘brick by brick’ before taking on the headship, lifted the occasion further with a beautiful, heartfelt rendition of Siffre’s Something Inside So Strong.

All that remained was for Betty’s family to regale us with more personal tales of this inspirational woman, whom sculptor Eve Shepherd called an “international treasure”.

The National Wales: Betty’s daughter Elaine Clarke (left) as the statue was unveiled. Picture: Glenn EdwardsBetty’s daughter Elaine Clarke (left) as the statue was unveiled. Picture: Glenn Edwards 

Betty ran a bingo club for OAPs when she was herself in her senior years. She was a pioneer of Black History Month, “and if you listened to Nan, she freed Nelson Mandela”.

Eve Shepherd wanted the statue to be educational, and across the morning on this sunny day in Cardiff, we learn lots about what made Rachel Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Campbell special. In the words of her graddaughter: “She shook up society, and was a hell of a dame; ahead of her time.”

The National Wales: Members of the Campbell family (left) taking a selfie with the statue, which was made by artist Eve Shepherd (right). Pictures: Glenn EdwardsMembers of the Campbell family (left) taking a selfie with the statue, which was made by artist Eve Shepherd (right). Pictures: Glenn Edwards

Above all else, her monument stands as ‘a beacon of hope’.

So it is perhaps fitting that in the place the bus station used to be, her daughter Elaine tells of how a passing driver had asked: “Is that Betty Campbell?” 

And putting his Cardiffian hand to his Cardiffian heart, he had said: “You look after her.”

That's all of our responsibility now.

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.