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World’s first black professional footballer

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Tue October 21, 2014

Editor: The more one tries to hide the truth, the more it is revealed. So it is with the contributions of black people to human development, stifled and hidden over the years in order to justify racism and the continuing efforts to deny us our rightful place in history.{{more}}

Sport has been no exception to such discriminating practices and even today, in spite of the wonderful achievements of black people in the sporting arena, including many sports once considered the purview of whites, black people have excelled, giving the lie to their supposed racial inferiority. Yet, blacks still face racism in sport and almost every week there is evidence of racial attacks.

Football, the most popular sport, has not been able to rid itself of this scourge and on the biggest stages at the international level there are official campaigns to kick out racism from the sport. The English leagues are among the best known globally, but they have a long history of denying black footballers their rightful due.

It is only in the last 40 years or so that there became widespread knowledge of black footballers playing at the highest level in the English leagues and that British-born players were actually allowed to represent England at the international level. Viv Anderson it was who broke this unofficial ‘colour-bar’, becoming the first black player to get an England cap, in 1978.

But blacks had been playing professional football in the United Kingdom for almost a century before that, though such knowledge was a closely guarded secret. Now, however, the evidence is being revealed for the world to see. A 16-foot bronze statue has been erected in the town of Burton, in honour of the man reputed to be the world’s first black professional footballer.

He is Arthur Wharton, born in Ghana in 1865 and who migrated to England, became a goalkeeper, playing first as an amateur for Darlington and Preston North End before going on to play professionally for Rotherham and Sheffield United. He was also a wonderful athlete, who was reputed to have been the first man in England to run the 100 yards race in 10 seconds!

Following a campaign led by an artist from Darlington, Shaun Campbell, of mixed Barbadian and English parentage, and supported by the likes of Stevie Wonder and top black international players such as Rio Ferdinand, himself with St Lucian roots, and Andy Cole and Viv Anderson, the statue has been erected.

It is interesting to note that almost 10 years before Anderson put on the England shirt, another black footballer, Andrew Watson, became the first black footballer to play at international level, representing Scotland in the 1881/2 season. All these developments have remained hidden from us because of deep prejudice. In fact, more than a half a century before Anderson played for England, a prolific goal-scoring black forward, Jack Leslie, was raining goals, (more than 400 of them), for Plymouth Argyle in the English leagues. He was actually selected and should have played for England in October 1925, but received a communication revoking his selection on the grounds that they didn’t realize that he was “a man of colour”!

Such has been the shameful treatment of countless black athletes. Wharton himself was kept in the shades, because he was a man who “refuted racist theories in the time of adversity and prejudice”. His statue is another lasting reminder of not only how black people have contributed on field, but also how many barriers they have had to overcome to gain recognition.

Renwick Rose

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