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World’s first black pro footballer to be celebrated

Wharton's achievements included winning the 100 yards sprint in a world record time

Wharton's achievements included winning the 100 yards sprint in a world record time

The story of Arthur Wharton, believed to have been the world’s first black professional footballer when he played in England more than a century ago, is to be captured in full for the first time.

Black footballers today make up around 20 per cent of professionals in the English football leagues.

The Heritage Lottery Fund is giving £117,000 to Sheffield-based community organisation Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD) to help it reach out to local people and involve them in Wharton’s story.

Born in Jamestown, Accra, Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1865, he came to England to study in about 1882. He played professional football for Sheffield United and other clubs from 1889 to 1902 and was also a star sprinter and cricketer.

Wharton’s achievements included winning the Amateur Athletics Association 100 yards sprint in 1886 in a world record time of exactly 10 seconds.

?There are many gaps in the knowledge we have about Arthur Wharton and the material is currently scattered across several archives,” said Fiona Spiers, the fund’s Yorkshire and the Humber chief.

“This grant will enable his remarkable story to be preserved while offering many people the chance to gain valuable skills in the process,? she said.

Wharton’s father was half Scottish father while his mother was a member of the Ghanaian Royal family. This privileged background enabled him to be sent to England to study.

His footballing career started at Preston North End before he was signed professionally at Rotherham Town to become the world?s first paid black footballer.

His decision to enter professional sport brought him down to a lower social level. Rejected by the Gold Coast Colonial Administration for a civil service post, his sporting prowess was regarded as ‘inappropriate’ for a colonial official.

After he retired from football, he spent much of the rest of his working life as a colliery haulage hand in the South Yorkshire pits.

Despite his meteoric rise and an upper-class background, Arthur Wharton ended his days dying of emphysema in a workhouse sanatorium in the 1930s ? by which time he was poor and mostly forgotten by his 19th century fans.

FURD believes that football, as the world?s most popular game, can help to bring together people from different backgrounds to play, watch and enjoy the game, and to break down barriers created by ignorance or prejudice.

Activities planned include a film-making project that will document Wharton?s symbolic life to be distributed to schools, community groups and football clubs.

Dramatic workshops, a travelling exhibition, Victorian Sports Day, teaching packs and an interactive website have also been devised.

The players union, the Professional Footballers’ Association, have also backed the project financially.

FURD director Howard Holmes said: ?FURD has championed the incredible sporting life of Arthur Wharton for many years but there is still so much that remains hidden.”

Paul Blomfield MP, a long standing campaigner against racism and strong supporter of the project, said: ?The story of Arthur Wharton?s life is a powerful message that race and background should not be allowed to be a barrier for talent.”

©2011 AFP


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