Marie Costa has lived in Portsmouth since 1969, having immigrated from Nigeria in 1957 aged just 18. She is known as the Grandmother of the City, part of its cultural fabric and celebrated for her tireless battles for racial equality and women’s rights. She studied at Portsmouth Polytechnic in the 1970s, was made a governor in 2016 and a Fellow of the University in 2018.
Portsmouth in the 70s
Arriving in Portsmouth was a pleasure. I left a bedsit with two young children and was given a three-bed maisonette. My first impression was ‘Amazing, this is wonderful!’
In those days, the Guildhall Square and many University buildings didn’t exist - it was all houses to be knocked down. The city was dominated by the Navy and dockyard. You knew not to go out at 4pm, as that’s when the workers came out on their bicycles and the streets were full of them!
Diverse cultural activities were non-existent and there were fewer ethnic minorities. The Caribbean members were really into music and we Africans joined them to take part in the Lord Mayor’s parade annually. Their float was loud and colourful and won the cup many times.
The first time I encountered any feeling of “hey, where am I?” was at work. The midwife in charge of the GP Unit welcomed me with a stern-face saying, “Do you realise you are the first black midwife we have ever had?”
I stood there, mealy-mouthed, and just asked where my patient was. She pointed and I went to the ward. I never spoke with her again.
I enjoyed being a midwife but felt I needed a change. I went to evening classes studying A Levels. I wrote to the history department at the Polytechnic because I’ve always been interested in history. I was amazed they thought I could do a degree if I passed my A levels!
In the first year, I wanted to leave many times as I felt out of my depth and looked after two very young children with very little money. But my tutors supported me through.
I didn’t feel part of Freshers’ Week because everyone was so young. I eventually joined the Badminton Society and played in the team at ‘home’. Although the team travelled to play in other places, I couldn’t go as I had children and I couldn’t afford babysitters.
Rose, another History student, and I played squash all the time. She was 19 and I was 36, but we were a good match and that friendship has continued until today. Being among young people, their confidence rubbed off on me. They included me in all the things they did.
The Polytechnic was vibrant and it was easy to make friends with people half my age. Some I still meet today.
Being a mature student, I could talk to the lecturers who were aware I had children, no family here and encouraged me, something I am grateful for.
I enjoyed being a student. I was looking to start a life away from nursing and wanted another challenge. Studying gave me time to think about what else I could do that was interesting.
When I graduated in 1977, my first job was teaching local history to adults. I learnt a lot about Thomas Ellis Owen, who built many ‘posh’ houses in Portsmouth. Eventually, I got a post at Bay House school and then at South Downs College, where I taught History, Economics, Sociology and Health Studies until I retired from teaching.
I’ve got to know many good people in the city - people who have supported me over the years. I had to earn trust and I treasure it. I know I can go to people across the city who will trust me to deliver.
Marie Costa, BA (Hons) Historical Studies
Giving voice to diverse cultures
I felt I needed to be a voice for those who didn’t have one. I was Chair of Portsmouth and South East Hampshire Multicultural Group for ten years. We fielded cultural awareness afternoons and then started a Multicultural Festival on Castle Fields.
I started the African Women’s Forum in 1995 because I felt we had nowhere to meet and our children had no role models. I wanted our children to know they could be professionals such as teachers, scientists, engineers or anything anyone wanted, with hard work.
Most of all, we needed somewhere to come together as African women and support each other. We started celebrating Black History Month and took it to schools to showcase African cultural activities. But I wanted our culture to be part of the fabric of the city, not just showcased for the month of October.
2007 was the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slavery and I secured £84,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council England. The whole community of Portsmouth partook in the commemorations in sites around the city and fieldtrips.
I have been in professions where people looked up to me so encountered fewer racial abuse but my children and friends suffered racism and I had to go and fight it.
I have come so far to be accepted as one of the leading ethnic minority figures in Portsmouth and could never have imagined being given an honorary degree or to be on the board of the University.
I don’t think anyone who came here as an African Caribbean in the 1970s could have thought we would come so far. It is changing for the better and I hope as more black children are born in the city, they will carry that further.