Arthur Wharton: The World’s First Black Footballer
Despite a decades-long campaign to stamp hate out of the game, incidents of racism still mar English football. But the story of Sheffield player Arthur Wharton shows that black footballers have been an intrinsic part of English football from its very beginning.
In the tradition of the great English all-rounder, Arthur Wharton could turn his hand to anything, whether that was cycling or cricket, sprinting or soccer.
In 1886 he became the first man in the world to run 100 yards in ten seconds, setting a record that lasted 30 years. He was also the first northerner ever to win the annual race at Stamford Bridge.
A subsequent career in football took Wharton through all the greatest clubs of the day, with spells at both Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday in the city where the rules were first written down.
He dabbled in professional cricket and set a record time cycling between Blackburn and Preston 15 years before the founding of the more glamorous Tour de France.
At the peak of his sporting career, he even found time to be the landlord of a string of pubs in South Yorkshire, all now long gone.
But what’s most remarkable about Wharton’s career is that he migrated to the UK from Ghana, going on to become the first black professional footballer in the world.
Wharton was born in 1865 in Jamestown, then part of the British Gold Coast colony. He emigrated to England at 19 to study to be a Methodist missionary but soon showed more promise as an athlete.
Wharton’s athleticism helped him stand up to the frequent incidents of racism he faced on and off the pitch.
“He was a proud man from a privileged background and was scornful of any racism aimed at him,” said Howard Holmes of the Sheffield-based organisation Football Unites Racism Divides.
“He once overheard two opponents in a sprint race querying why they had to run against a black man. He challenged them to a fight, which they sheepishly declined.”
Holmes says that it wasn’t just fellow competitors who discriminated against Wharton.
“His skin colour was regularly referenced by commentators, called a ‘brunette’ and, most commonly, ‘darkie’.”
As was normal at the time, Wharton would often have several drinks before a big match. Retirement worsened his drinking problem, and after working as a colliery haulage hand he died, penniless, at the age of 65.
“He died in 1930 and, following a burial at Edlington Cemetery attended by a large crowd, he faded from memory, without a headstone,” said Holmes.
“Football Unites Racism Divides raised the money to place a headstone on his grave in 1997 and helped spread his story across the globe.”
The organisation has since created the Arthur Wharton Archive at its base in the U-Mix Centre off Bramall Lane.
Wharton paved the way for other pioneers at Sheffield United. Rabbi Howell, the first Romany footballer to play for England, was signed to his hometown club and made 192 appearances between 1890 and 1898.
Although English clubs have fielded black players for almost the entire history of the game, a recent resurgence in hate crime has put racism in football back under the spotlight.
A recent Mancunian derby saw a fan arrested for abusing Manchester United player Fred, while a spate of similar incidents have led the government to call on football’s authorities to do more to tackle racism in the game. Fred said that the incident was evidence of a “backward society.”
From legendary midfielders like John Barnes to recent stars of the national side like Raheem Sterling, Arthur Wharton created the blueprint for the pioneering black players of English football.
Howard Holmes believes that his story will be forever tied with that of football itself. “As the first black professional footballer playing in the 1880s, Arthur demonstrates a black presence at the dawn of the pro game.”