Arthur Wharton, Racism and Sport: Past and Present

By Isabelle Boulert

Key Facts

  • Football, racism and anti-racism.
  • Born in Jamestown, Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1865.
  •  Between 1885 and 1895 played as an amateur footballer for Darlington and Preston North End, then professionally for Rotherham Town and Sheffield United.
  • Recorded and verified at the AAA Championship in 1886 as running 100 yards in 10 seconds- the first amateur world record.
  • Between 1895 and 1902 played for Stalybridge Rovers, Ashton North End and Stockport County.
  • He is acknowledged as the world’s first black professional footballer to have played in the Football League.
  • Robert Walker of Queen’s Park and Scotland international Andrew Watson predate Wharton by a decade and are considered the first black amateur players.
  • On his death in 1930 he was buried in an unmarked grave in Edlington, Yorkshire. The grave gained a headstone in 1997 after a campaign by Football Unites Racism Divides (FURD) garnered contributions from the PFA and FA.
  •  In 1998 Phil Vasili published Arthur Wharton 1865-1930 First Black Footballer, building on research from Dr. Ray Jenkins and Wharton’s granddaughter Sheila Leeson.
  • In 2003 Arthur Wharton was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame.
  •  In 2014, a statue of Wharton was unveiled by the FA at St George’s Park National Football Centre in Burton upon Trent.

Introduction

Much more is needed before we can claim that sport and other areas of society have done enough to assert that attempts to eradicate racism from sport have been a political success. Racisms in sport are complex, contextually specific and not divorced from issues of status, class, sexuality and marginality. Like other forms of injustice, racism is often associated with maldistribution of resources, misinformation and mis-recognition.

Sport has the potential to make a difference but it is also a fertile ground for expressions of racism.More needs to be done to unearth the injustices in every aspect of British public life. Footballing institutions are presented with a chance to use the life of Arthur Wharton and others as an educational tool to fight discrimination, reform practices and celebrate diversity. Such opportunities are often hindered by the fact that the presence of early BAME players in British football’s collective memory has been marginalised.

As is the case with many BAME footballers playing in Britain before 1950, their names are not as widely celebrated as has been the case with footballers such as Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, Viv Anderson, John Barnes, Rio Ferdinand, Marcus Rashford, Jermaine Defoe, Chris Smalling and many others.

Wharton’s name stands tall alongside the likes of Andrew Watson, Walter Tull and Hong Y Soo as footballing pioneers who struggled and in some cases failed to move into the modern collective memory of football in the UK.

The reasons for this suppression, marginalisation and injustice are varied but modern football needs to recognise their courage. Today’s footballers can draw on such courage as they seek to foster change not just within the footballing community but also British society and beyond.

In Wharton’s case class based discrimination stemming from his move from an amateur to professional sportsman played a role in his suppression from the historical cannon. Racism has also had a long term impact on the recognition and remembrance of his achievements.

Firstly, discriminatory racial attitudes affected how his talent was perceived during his lifetime and thus how his legacy was engaged with following his death.

Secondly, when the disciplines of sporting history, discourse theory, cultural studies and subaltern studies were simultaneously gaining strength in the 1970s and 1980s football in the UK was rife with racially discriminatory sentiments and imperialistic right-wing behaviour.

It was not until 1997, that through a campaign organised by anti-racism activists FURD to place a headstone on Wharton’s unmarked grave, that Wharton became a more widely recognised figure. He was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

Arthur Wharton’s life and sporting career.

Wharton was born in 1865 to a middle class family of mixed Ghanaian and Scottish heritage. He spent his childhood in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, then under British colonial rule. His father, a Wesleyan Missionary, had strong connections with Britain. Following his father’s death in 1873 Wharton concluded his education in England as per his family’s wishes and began to embrace an ecumenical life.

However, in an interview given in 1896, Wharton admitted that while his father:

“intended him for the Wesleyan ministry [his] inclinations did not lie in that direction.”

The Victorian fascination with the use of sport to transform the young into morally upstanding citizens prepared to defend the colonial realm ensured that sport played an integral part in the school curriculum.

Wharton remarks in 1887 that-  “it was at Cannock School [Shoalhill College] that I first discovered that I was speedy.”

Wharton began competing in amateur athletics competitions while studying and despite his family’s reported belief that such a job was not appropriate for his station, he pursued a career in sport.

Wharton commenced as an amateur athlete before joining both Darlington Cricket and Football Club and Preston North End as a goalkeeper.

At Preston North End he joined William ‘Fatty’ Faulkes and the team of invincibles during their 1886-7 season FA Cup campaign in which they reached the semi-finals.

After setting the first known record for running the Amateur Athletics Association 100 yards sprint in 10 seconds in 1886 he was faced with the criticism that he was an athletic ‘shamateur’- that intensified when he won the same race in 1887.

In 1889 he signed for Rotherham Town as a professional footballer before going on to play for Sheffield United, Rotherham Town, Stalybridge Rovers, Ashton North End and Stockport County before retiring in 1902.

Described as a “first class all-round athlete” by the Ashton Herald in 1896, Wharton was also known to have played cricket, rugby and (albeit rather unsuccessfully) cycled.

While he is recorded as continuing to play sport well past his retirement, Wharton spent his final years working in collieries before his death in 1930.

Victorian engagement

In a Victorian society where scientific racism and social Darwinism shaped thinking about race and supported racism Wharton’s endeavours challenged many of the ideas of the day. Racism shaped views of black athleticism as being brutish and uncontrolled as a result of a perceived lack of self-restraint and intellectual ability.

However, in 1886 it is reported in the Darlington and Stockton Times that Wharton was warmly lauded at a Darlington Cricket Club dinner, when players performed a self-penned song in his honour. Wharton “received cheers of the heartiest, loudest and most enthusiastic in character” in a display of appreciation “of an athlete by athletes.”

His exceptional talents were warmly praised and upon his death representatives from his previous clubs were present at his funeral despite his alienation from football in his later years.

Crabbe and Solomos describe sport as a “passport to inclusion within [the Northern] version of local patriotism.”

An obituary in the Doncaster Chronicle states that Wharton “took a keen interest in all kinds of sport in the village [Edlington] and was very popular.”

While members of Wharton’s local community may have seen him as a talented and well-liked individual, this is not to say that Wharton avoided racial discrimination or abuse in society more broadly. Neither does it suggest that he was considered equal in the eyes of a fundamentally racist society where nationalism was shaped by a number of factors including imperialism and white superiority.

In 1888 it was reported that two of Wharton’s competitors were overheard questioning “Who’s he that we should be frightened of […] him beating us?”

When faced with Wharton’s undeniable talents a narrative forms to explain away any superiority that threatens white supremacy. When Wharton was described as “a born goalkeeper,” in Athletics News there is an underlying inference that his skill is unworthy of respect as it had come from the luck of birth and not the dedication and perseverance lauded as traits of the Victorian gentleman.

Much of the discrimination experienced on a daily basis went unrecorded by sources as it would have been considered the norm at the time.

What is clearly recorded is how his sporting superiority was explained through a narrative of moral and intellectual inferiority. In an obituary written after his death it was stated that “like many other West Africans, Wharton preferred a sporting to an intellectual career. “

Cultural assumptions made about Wharton’s race contributed to his suppression because they were based on his inherent inferiority. Berger and Niven are under no illusions that the promulgation of certain viewpoints in the writing of history are often conveniently linked to the consolidation and augmentation of power for certain dominant groups in society.

As the historical narrative is in part shaped by memory, and memory is filtered by what is considered most pertinent, even if Wharton regularly beat white men in the sporting arena he would have been seen as irrelevant and thus suppressed in the collective memory and historical cannon because his perceived superiority threatened the racial discourses that supported the dominant white narrative of the time that accompanied the history of sport in the UK.

Arthur Wharton’s relevance to-day

Many have argued that English football was rejuvenated in the 1990s. The creation of organisations such as Show Racism the Red Card and Kick It Out played a significant part in forcing football’s reticent institutions to directly challenge racist behaviour. Additionally, the transition from the 1986 Public Order Act to the 1991 Football Offences Act ensured that legislation specifically targeted racial abuse.

Racist behaviour is now condemned more readily and clubs are increasingly willing to undertake community outreach and grassroots projects to engage with the communities that they previously excluded.

However, the footballing community is still challenged by structures that support institutional racism. The disproportionate number of BAME coaches and managers stands as an embarrassing testament to this. Football institutions have a responsibility to address the issue and speed up not just the process of social change but social justice.

Widely propagating the history of a BAME footballer playing at the birth of football as we recognise it today provides an example of the importance of BAME people at the very heart of football’s early development in the UK. In doing so, it could further encourage an institution with a chequered past to advance its efforts to eradicate racism in football.

King quotes a black course member on an FA run UEFA coaching badge qualification course as saying that:

“I feel this course is just a minor image of the personalities who run it. They are backward thinking, racists and colonialists.”

Echoes of the racial stereotyping Wharton faced based on black athleticism not intellect may be part of an explanation as to why more BAME players are not transitioning into managerial roles.

If footballing clubs and institutions were to actively re-engage and celebrate the long-standing history of BAME contributions to British football perhaps more effective transformative gains could be made in the efforts to reduce discrimination.

Conclusion

The broken link between past and present should be championed in order to increase the number of role models and their stories  ( e.g from Wharton to the modern day) about actively struggling  to combat experiences of racism in sport.

Racism and anti-racism in and through sport remain contribute to our understanding of contemporary life in at least two senses:
In a socio-economic sense, anti-racism policies and practices remind us that racism remains central to a complete understanding of sport, social inequality, justice and social policy.

In a geopolitical sense, different attitudes across Europe, towards the 2016 refugee crisis, for example, also remind us that sport is both implicated and a resource of hope, whereas racism continues to be a source of conflict between states, nations and communities that fail to act on the ideal of many cultures but one humanity.

The marginalised experience, voice and account of Arthur Wharton is but one of the many athletic encounters that can be activated in educational, social and political struggles against racism in and through sport.