Stella Thomas

1906 - 1974

The first Black African woman to be called to the Bar, the first female magistrate in West Africa and the First Chief of the mid-western region in Nigeria.

Stella Jane Thomas was born in Lagos in 1906, a Yoruba Nigerian and daughter of a businessman, John Claudius Thomas who was the first African to head the Lagos chamber of commerce. Stella was educated in Free Town, Sierra Leone, where she attended the prestigious Annie Walsh Memorial school for girls. She travelled to England in 1929 to study law at Oxford and there she joined Middle Temple, and in 1933 became the first African woman to be called to the bar.

While a student, she was an energetic and committed activist and was active in part of the West African Students’ Union. She was also a founding member of the League of Coloured Peoples; a multi-racial civil rights organisation with a Christian liberal-humanitarian ethos which aimed to promote the rights and interests of African, Asian and Caribbean minorities in Britain and the Commonwealth.  The organisation also sought collaboration with sympathetic organisations and attracted a large number of white supporters, such as Sylvia Pankhurst. 

In 1934, she famously challenged, historian Dame Margery Perham after one of her lectures at the Royal Society, while also addressing Lord Frederick Lugard the former Governor of Nigeria who was in attendance. She criticised imperial approaches to African problems without consultation or involvement of local people, in her word,

you have made puppets of African chiefs. Progress shall come from real understanding and cooperation. not by your dictating to African nations. We do not need you to send anthropologists to advise on development. We Africans with education, are able to develop our own systems and determine what is best for us.

She practiced in the UK for a short period then returned to West Africa where she enrolled at the Sierra Leonean bar. In December 1935, she established her own law firm in Lagos Island, where she worked on criminal cases and family matters, amongst a range of legal matters.

Stella became West Africa’s first woman magistrate in 1943, and served in different courts during her legal career. In 1944 she married fellow legal professional Richard Bright Marke.

Stella Thomas retired in 1971, at the time she was serving as a magistrate in Sierra Leone. She died within a few years at the age of 68.