After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Sky Sports did a segment on racism, using testimony from veteran West Indies cricketer Michael Holding and former-England women’s cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent. Whilst the story of racism and West Indies cricket is known to me through films like Fire in Babylon, the inclusion of Brent, showed me how little media attention women’s sports receives, particularly cricket. This is still a man’s world, even when men and women have been victims of the same pandemic of racism.
When I look at the history of sports in England, the inclusion of women is presented as a new phenomenon, despite a 1921 ban on women’s football by the FA in England that lasted decades. A ban on women’s football matches taking places on pitches owned by the Football Association. Institutional violence in sports in the 1920s. Furthermore, is there a Black women’s history here too? I have heard whisperings of an Emma Clarke of the 1890s who may be the first Black woman footballer. Interesting indeed.
Men’s football (and sports), also however, go back over a hundred years. Football has been the go-to for stories of racism in sports and the story of Walter Tull has almost become folk tale and a token symbol of racism in football for Black History Month campaigns up and down the country. Walter was born in Folkestone, Kent, in 1888 and went on to have a glowing career playing for both Tottenham Hotspurs and Northampton Town (Cobblers). Additionally, he was the first mixed-race officer of African heritage in the British Army. At Northampton in 1911, he would have
started under Herbert Chapman – “a manager sympathetic to the additional pressures faced by the few players of colour in the professional game” (Vasili, 2010: 102).
Whilst Walter Tull has been the token for examples of men of colour in team sports, historically, he by far wasn’t the only the Black or Brown player, in late Victorian early Edwardian Britain. Unknown to many, looking at how his story is told in popular consciousness, he was also an avid cricketer and was one of many men of colour that played during this time. One of the big fish of Victorian cricket was K. S Ranjitsinhji, “a thin-built Indian prince who used his willow bat and body to produce fleeting moments of wonder and lasting memories of beauty” (Vasili, 2010: 127).
Vasili also writes of English-speaking Caribbeans playing cricket in England. We must remember this contradicts populist memory of Caribbeans first coming to England in 1948. In early Edwardian Britain, there was a thriving population of Black middle-class doctors:
With the existence of other Black and Brown sports players, with their accomplishments, I would argue the constant parading of Walter Tull is problematic. His story is an achievement in the face of adversity but it offends me that our schools do not all look past his story at other Black/Brown sports players in late Victorian/Edwardian Britain. We also know of a Manchurian James Peters, playing rugby for the England team in 1907 and 1908. This narrative in Britain goes as far as there was enough for them to make an argument, the constant focus on Tull is without merit:
“African-American racing cyclist Marshall Taylor beat British and continental opponents in 1902; South African boxer Andrew Jeptha won a world title in 1907; and ex-slave Bobby Dobbs fought in Britain 1898, returned in 1902 […]” (Vasili, 2010: 129).
While today we have Black boxing champions like Anthony Joshua, the legacy of Black pugilists goes back to the 18th century in Georgian Britain, where men like Bill Richmond would be enticed by Britain’s boxing culture, not before “he began his independent life in Britain serving as an apprenticed cabinet maker” (Olusoga, 2017: 98). It was later in life he starts his rivalry with Tom Cribb. In a sport that made the careers of Black activists such as Muhammad Ali, “not only did early pugilists fight without gloves, but practices outlawed in modern boxing, such as shoulder-charging […] were all regarded as legitimate tactics” (Williams, 2015: 63).
Now, in this time where many celebrate Black excellence, the common argument is there are not enough positive Black male role models in history for young Black boys today because Black British history is one enveloped by slavery and immigration. But the existence of Black sports players – those that came here and those that were born here – tell stories of free Blacks, ex-slaves and their descendants that are part of British history and succeeded, from football and rugby to athletics, cricket and cycling.
Positive Black role models for Black men today are there in British history books. Simply, they are needles in haystacks, on the outside of the frame as something “other” or “different – not seen as worthy of academic scholarship or interrogation. However, those interested only need to make the effort and look for it. We cannot be what we cannot see and my references also speak to a profession (History) that is dominated by (white) men and in its lack of diversity is an indictment on the industry at large.
Black men’s (hi)stories in sports go back 150 years. Yet, what about the Emma Clarke and Rainford-Brent characters of today, for young Black girls that want to see themselves? History is written by the conquerors, not the conquered, and the conquerors, even in sports, are almost always men.
Olusoga, D (2017). Black and British. London: Pan Books.
Vasili, P (2010). Walter Tull, 1888 – 1918: Officer, Footballer. London: Raw Press.
Williams, L (2015). Richmond Unchained. London: Amberley.