David Oluwale: Blue plaque unveiled - 'the legacy created after his death is one that deserves to be highlighted'

A blue plaque has been unveiled in memory of a Nigerian-born Leeds man, whose tragic life story would ultimately become an emblem of the Black Lives Matter movement.

By Richard Beecham
Tuesday, 26th April 2022, 7:46 am

David Oluwale had travelled to the UK from Nigeria in search of a better life, but was tragically targeted because of his mental health, homelessness and race, before his death in 1969.

The blue plaque was unbeiled by author and academic Caryl Phillips, and follows the dedication of a new bridge, now named the David Oluwale bridge, which was recently lowered into place across the River Aire, connecting Sovereign Street to Water Lane.

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Prof Caryl Phillips at the unveiling of the David Oluwale blue plaque. Pic: James Hardisty.

In 2020 the trust commissioned an independent review of its blue plaques scheme, following the murder of George Floyd, and subsequent Black Lives Matter movement. The trust was keen to facilitate a blue plaques scheme that was transparent, open and committed to sharing the city’s diverse stories.

With a new criteria which crucially enabled plaques for those whose legacies developed posthumously, a plaque for David Oluwale was now possible and supported by the trust

Trust director Martin Hamilton said: “A blue plaque scheme should be more than a pat on the back for famous, high-achieving people. It should also tell the story of significant points in history that risk being forgotten or overlooked. 

“David Oluwale did not have the opportunity to achieve his potential in his own lifetime, but the legacy created after his death is one that deserves to be highlighted.”

The David Oluwale Memorial Association soon mobilised and launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the plaque, with an overwhelming outpouring of donations from members of the public.

David Oluwale was a British Nigerian born in 1930. In 1949, he hid onboard a cargo ship destined for Hull arriving in Britain in 1949 before heading to Leeds. Despite settling in the city, he struggled with homelessness and was regularly harrassed. In 1969, he was last seen running from two police officers before drowning in the River Aire.

His death led to the first ever prosecutions of British police involved in the death of a black person.

Max Farrar, DOMA Secretary, said: “The Remember Oluwale charity has its origins in 2008 as a committee in the Community Partnerships and Volunteering Office in Leeds Met University (Now Leeds Beckett).

"We formed the charity in 2012 and have steadily utilised the arts and public education events to raise awareness of the “Oluwale issues” — mental ill-health, racism, rough sleeping and police malpractice. The blue plaque initiative is another indication that Leeds is coming to terms with the difficult story of David Oluwale.”