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  • Writer's pictureJude

Touching On A Little Bit Of Everything #8 – A History Of Racism By Football in Britain Part 1

Arthur Wharton (28th October 1865 – 13th December 1930) was the first Black professional footballer. He came from Jamestown, Accra, Gold Coast (Ghana) born into a family of mixed Ghanaian, Grenadian and Scottish heritage. He moved to England at the age of 19 with the intentions of training as a Methodist missionary, though quit to dedicate himself to becoming an athlete. Wharton participated in many sports. A mixed raced Black Victorian, an Athlete, Footballer, and Cricket player. His Teacher took notice of his stunning pace and entered him in the Amateur Athletic Association Championships which was hosted at Stamford Bridge. He won the 1886 and 1887 Championships and the 1888 World Premier Championships. In 1886 he set a 10 second first ever recorded World Record in the 100-yard dash. At times he raced with a standard handicap, speedsters like himself were burdened with to increase other chances by fairness. At the time he also played football for Darlington United, moving to Preston North End playing as an eccentric and fascinating goalkeeper. He was famed for his skillful moves, crouching in the corner and pouncing to save any shot. The blistering pace that outwitted his opponents, during these times where the game had extreme rules. Keepers could be hit whilst holding the ball, they could only punch the ball out but also could hold the ball within their own half. Adapting around the harsh rules he made himself known as a speedster on the pitch, stunning audiences with inventive tactics around the rules. Innovative, leather worker gloves protected battered forearms and his track & field history injected into his craft as a keeper. Utilising the crossbar to hold and bend it from incoming balls, using it as leverage to parry away incoming shots. Wharton was part of the first Invincible’s at Preston North End, though not staying in the end to stake a claim in winning the double. He was also a spectacular cyclist, winning the Tricycle Racing Championship from the 10 miles stretch of Blackburn to Preston.

Arthur Wharton, The First Black Football Player. Here with a Championship Trophy he won during his athletics career

During the period of his life, scientific racism was an overruling factor in perception and historicization. Documenting, tackling or protecting such people during these times must have almost been non-existent. Not to demand we should project our same qualms in how Society is structured today, though the lineage of experiences amounts to an insightful way to see racism within our Society and our game. So, I believe our story begins here, with Arthur Wharton’s legacy and how we witness his journey. In St Georges’ Park, Burton upon Trent, a statue was erected to honour his legacy. Sepp Blatter has also presented a statue of Wharton which is displayed at the FIFA Headquarters. Rotherham United also have a statue to honour his checkered history outside their stadium. The importance of his story was how he was perceived and the battle his career went through. Having come from an African background he was often depicted by skin colour, reduced to impeccable physicality as opposed to being honoured for his ideas. The mark of Empire was always to host themselves at the top, with others believed to be lesser evolutionary life forms. Including the Africans and Irish Iberians, who were thought to have stemmed from Africa by false claims on phrenology, which is a pseudoscience based on measurements of the skull. Imagine this all at a time after the abolishment of slavery, belief in the mental formation of people dictating how we conceive them. Scattered history leaves Wharton’s life in fragments after retiring from Football around 1902, with his athletics and cricket career going on for more years. He was buried in an unmarked grave only given a gravestone in 1997. It appears he is somewhat a Northern Legend, respected in many fashions. There is the Arthur Wharton Foundation which has efforts to encourage diverse and spread the lore of his name. An interesting documentary called The Arthur Wharton Story: An educational documentary shows the work being done to maintain his legacy. A class performs a poem in his memory, explaining how the trials and tribulations he faced in his journey even with accomplishing so much is moving. A role model for diversity and effort, especially in areas there are not so many moving ethnic figures.

An FA guided erected statue in remembrance of Arthur Wharton

Walter Tull (28th April 1888 – 25th March 1918) was one of the first Black outfield Football players. Born in Edwardian times in Folkestone, Kent, he was orphaned by the age of 9. He played for Clapton FC, eventually playing for Tottenham Hotspurs and Northampton Town. During his career, he was often heckled for his colour, including an infamous moment at Bristol City where people were so astonished by the racism the press considered Football and its Colour Prejudice. Though racism stemmed from such dark projections, it made its way to the reigns of War. Enlisting in the British Army Tull joined the Football Battalion, the 17th and 23rd Battalions from the Middlesex Regiment. Racism during World War 1 saw men from the colonies as lesser lives, often forcing battalions from Caribbean Asia or Africa to handle dirty work under hazardous conditions. Utilised as porters, weapon handlers, Soldiers commanded to do the riskier work – mostly utilised as objects of European strategy. Whether Britain or France or even the then enemy Germany, the racial hierarchy was maintained and propagated by order. Though Tull was the first Black man in the Army to become an officer, reaching the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. A memorial was raised in Northampton Town in 1999, as a mark to remind us the work Black Britons have done for the country. With dozens of articles highlighting his efforts during a gross period, the 100th anniversary of his death on 25th March 2018 saw modern day Football player Danny Rose, who plays for Tottenham, and David Lammy, an MP, inquire into his representation. He has not been provided a military cross for his services, honouring his past and efforts likewise with most Officers from World War 1. Danny Rose pointed out the lack of knowing this man as a shame, having learned an Americanised history of Blackness in School – the Rosa Parks and Martin Luther Kings. Mostly unrelative to this Black British journey, where our past is riddled with holes and no clear line of history.

Walter Tull, donning his Officer uniform as one of the members of the Football Battalions

This brings us to the times of Jack Leslie (17 August 1901 – 1988) one of the first outfield Black Football players. He was mixed, considered coloured back then, an inside left striker who played for Plymouth Argyle. His skill caught the attention of the England team, who called him up to play for them. Only to be dismissed after his ethnicity was discovered, a coloured man could not represent England.  He told a journalist in an interview: “They must have forgotten I was a coloured boy” – a term which seems to have plagued the livelihoods of Black Brits over this country’s history. It reminded me of a talk I once went to about Slave Ancestry. Hosted by Black History Walks, a historian who traced his history back to slave ownership on lands in England found his lineage in a countryside mansion. It made me consider the truth behind such accounts, but the insightful research and documentary showed made this endeavour truthful. The Historian showed how many of these slaves were buried in unmarked graves, many of these buildings and homes were built by slaves. The idea of reparations was rampant at the time but for me the historical inaccuracy or wilderness of the story is as important, to empathise and realise these unmarked lives.

Jack Leslie, a striker alongside Sammy Black for Plymouth Argyle. The duo scored 320+ goals together for the club

The Historian spoke about the idea of “Sambo”. and consequentially Sambo’s Grave. Sambo was a racial term used to refer to people of African descent. Sambo’s Grave marked a burial of a cabin boy or slave, illiterate and frighteningly behaved in his final days. His tale is riddled with maybes, but the idea is strong enough to steer sympathy for such days and tragic ways of slavery. Sambo died on board a ship, and was laid to rest in a grave with only his clothes encasing his body.  Money was ironically raised by the brother of a Lancashire based slave trader, James Watson, who was a retired headmaster of Lancaster Boys Grammar School, to give Sambo a memorial and epitath to be cherished by. Like the jaded memory of Sambo’s life, Wharton, Tull and Leslie’s stories should not be reduced to realised niceties by respective clubs or touched individuals.

Sambo’s Grave, located in a small village in Sunderland, Sunderland Point. It is marked as a tourist attraction

Speaking on being objects of European strategy the theme continued into World War 2. The British used troops from colonies in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. The propaganda of the era saw radio streaming notions of Hitler, the Nazi’s and the imposing enemy. Planes that soared over skies believed to be German planes harmful to anyone in the British colonies. Though mentally at the time, the accounts of racism and the era speaks volumes for the varying mentality. I have been reading Windrush, The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain by Mike and Trevor Phillips – a book that compiles the insightful experiences of the Windrush Generation given the periods and events that occurred by real-life tales. In an interview with Dudley Thompson, a Jamaican man who joined the RAF, he notes the circulation of press regarding the War influenced your decision. Hearing about Coventry being bombed through the radio encouraged a reaction. There was a duty, Thompson claimed, to participate in the War. Born into times the British Empire was fabricated with a Golden allure, the colonies worked to provide materials for this great nation. Though awareness of the status quo with race relations was building, Thompson claimed a passage from Mein Kampf of Hitler describing Blacks and Asians as inferior races inspired him to prove his worth. The hierarchy had become a norm, with colourism rife in parts of the Caribbean dictating beauty ideals and acceptance. It was a standard for White Politicians and figures to control the livelihoods of Black citizens and enforcers within the colonies. With the Windrush Generation migrating to the country for many different reasons, educational, financial, adventurous or work purposes the reactions by their stay dictated racial perceptions. Despite the colonies helping Britain’s efforts to win the War, the lack of standardised honourable recognition makes their struggles go missing. We do not appreciate the horrible nature of their times. Cries for the migrants to return home after WWII regardless of their ties and hard work saw a sense of Humane brotherhood unravel. It is a fascinating book that challenges general assumptions, the angles of scientific racism were not always overruling. Accounts of unity, acceptance, and fascinating stories within the difference invited to the country are enlightening. Though tend to turn sour after there is no longer a return to how life was before the War. Unappreciative of the help their own country received.

Walter Tull playing for Spurs

I often consider what life must have been like, as a Black individual then. The Windrush book also gave me an account of the Caribbeans holding more respect than their African American counterparts, which is wayward but understandable. The differences in racism clashed via World War 2, an accumulation of different discriminatory factors and perceptions of people – grouped and exacted by systematic tactics. It is strange to consider how a Jack Leslie or Walter Tull with their fairer shades considered themselves, unapologetically British by their surroundings. While in whole, they existed alongside this racial phenomenon.

Caribbeans, on the Windrush

In the next part of this article I will move beyond the Windrush generation and witness the racial history in much more of a Football context.

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