The First Black Footballer: Arthur Wharton – an extract

from the book The First Black Footballer: Arthur Wharton 1865-1930: An Absence of Memory by Phil Vasiliarthur wharton

…While Wharton, a resident of the industrial, proletarian North of England played football for working-class clubs and became a professional runner, the antithesis of the amateur ‘gentleman’ athlete.

It was much easier to forget Arthur because the communities in which he played his sport, lived and died did not have the means to ensure his posthumous survival. Working-class people and communities do not generally write their own histories, own printing presses, have editorial control within newspapers, commission art, erect statues, or have power over access to mediums of mass communication generally. While celebration of the defeat of enemies of the ruling-class – Remembrance Sunday, November 11, for instance – is seen almost as a social duty, working people do not in a similar manner collectively remember their victories, as a class, in a manner defined and constructed by themselves as a class.

The Peasants Revolt 1381; Ketts Rebellion 1546; Tolpuddle Martyrs 1834; Chartists of the 1840’s; 1919 Rebellions; Cable Street 1936; and the smashing of the National Front at Lewisham in 1977 are just a few examples of events, movements and battles that are not celebrated by the majority of workers in a carnival of joy. Where are the prominent statues, the physical representation of civic memory to honour these historic events of working-class action? Though this one-sided imbalance has token compensations: Winston Churhill has a prime site facing the Palace of Westminster. A constant stream of passers-by thus have a bird-arse view of the pigeons’ restoring  his pate to its natural white.

If momentous and inspiring working class acts are suppressed, erased or forgotten it is not surprising that the achievements of one individual are airbrushed out of the contested and congested space called ‘History.’ Wharton was made invisible because he became both Black and working-class.


To paraphrase an old anarchist warning: “if the working class aren’t careful their enemies will write their history for them”.  The gentrification of football means our history will be written by the middle class.



The First Black Footballer - Arthur Wharton Phil VasiliThe First Black Footballer: Arthur Wharton 1865-1930: An Absence of Memory
Phil Vasili
Frank Cass Publishers
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