Forgotten story of world’s first Black professional football player – who started in goal for Darlington
“The very beginning of the black presence in sport begins with Arthur Wharton.”
It is a name that has been forgotten in history for generations but now it is being shouted by some of the most prominent figures in the world – and it’s thanks to a passionate organisation founded in Darlington.
Arthur’s life is an inspiration to countless black stars like Usain Bolt, Marcus Rashford and even Stevie Wonder, who regard Arthur as the “number one”.
Meeting with founder Shaun Campbell, Bolt – the greatest sprinter of all time – said: “Without Arthur Wharton, there would be no Usain Bolt.”
Described as a “true sporting pioneer and trailblazer”, Arthur ‘Kwame’ Wharton – born in in Jamestown, Ghana in 1865 – has paved the way for black athletes in sport.
Arthur – who moved to Darlington aged 19 to train as a missionary at Cleveland College in 1883 – went on to become the world’s first black professional football player and the world’s first official fastest man, setting a record which would go unbeaten for 30 years.
Arthur, who gave his wages to those in need, died penniless in December 1930.
For decades, he was buried in an unmarked grave at Edlington Cemetery, Doncaster, until a campaign to recognise his achievements by anti-racism organisation, Football Unites Racism Divides, was successful in giving him a headstone in May 1997.
Now today’s England players walk past a 16ft bronze statue of the goalkeeper which stands proudly outside the FA’s national football centre thanks to a campaign by Shaun, who heads the foundation in Arthur’s name.
“If there’s one thing I can do with this is get as many people in the world to hear the name Arthur Wharton because I know when they hear it and start researching it and they start seeing the work that we’re doing and the videos and the celebrities… the key point is they start to understand how important his story is to today,” said Shaun.
“In order to understand where we are today we’ve got to go back to the beginning. The very beginning of the black presence in sport begins with Arthur Wharton.
“It was multifaceted with Arthur – but what a guy. He won in everything.
“It’s 135 years ago this month, 3rd July this month, that Arthur Wharton ran the world’s first ever fastest 100 yards. Where is that taught, why aren’t we seeing it?
“You’ll see it at the foundation, you’ll see us celebrate it. That video is out gift to the world for any school, any organisation – we just need you to watch it.”
So what did Arthur Wharton achieve?
His footballing career started in goal at Darlington Football Club but he went on to play for the Newcastle and District Team and Preston North End, where he joined as an amateur, and was part of the team that reached the FA Cup semi-finals in 1886/87.
On July 3, 1886, at Stamford Bridge, Arthur Wharton became the first sprinter to run 100 yards in 10 seconds in authentic championship conditions – a record which went on the stand for more than 30 years.
Arthur’s name is the first on the Amateur Athletic Association cup for 100m champions – or 100 yards in the early days – alongside sprint legends Linford Christie, Alan Wells, Don Quarry.
Arthur made history a second time when he signed as a professional for Rotherham Town in 1889 before moving to Sheffield United five years later.
That season he played three matches for the team including their First Division game against Sunderland – which made Arthur the first black/mixed race player in the world to play in the top flight.
A man of exceptional sporting talent, Arthur also played for Cannock and Darlington Cricket Club but earned a summer living in the Yorkshire and Lancashire leagues.
Greasebro’ hired his services for six seasons from 1889 to 1895 and he signed as a professional for Stalybridge Cricket Club in 1896.
Despite being a star attraction that season he played very little cricket after that until 1902 when he left professional football.
With all of his achievements in cricket, athletics and football, Arthur was also a star on the rugby pitch and played for Darlington, Rotherham and Heckmondwike.
What is the foundation?
With Viv Anderson MBE, George Boateng, Kim Grant, and Irvine Welsh among its patrons, the foundation – which is a registered charity in Darlington – was created to acknowledge and celebrate the life and achievements of a true sporting hero.
In 2007, founder Shaun Campbell was invited to give a talk at Middlesbrough Town Hall on the subject of ‘The History of Black People and Music’ as part of Black History Month.
It was at the event that he picked up a brochure containing a brief passage about Arthur Wharton which inspired Shaun to pay tribute to Arthur and bring him to the attention of the people of Darlington.
In 2008, legendary music icon Stevie Wonder invited Shaun and former Middlesbrough midfielder George Boateng on stage at his concert to unveil the first maquette of Arthur Wharton.
Two years later, Shaun launched the foundation which celebrates Arthur’s life and achievements through education and events “aimed at promoting equality and diversity in order to impact the hearts and minds of a generation”.
Now, at the foundation’s home off Widowfield Street, a striking mural of Arthur- by artist JayKaes and commissioned by BT Sport – looks out across Darlington.
Shaun added: “Cricket owes a debt of gratitude to Arthur, as do rugby, cycling, football and athletics. We’re the only organisation that has an icon that fits within all of that.
“It can’t stop with him. His legacy is to make sure others are celebrated, who have been forgotten.”