The world’s first professional Black soccer player was honoured with the unveiling of a statue in England last week.
Cast in bronze, it depicts Arthur Wharton going backwards to tip the ball over the bar.
The project was conceived seven years ago when Shaun Campbell – a British artist of Barbadian heritage – was delivering a Black History Month presentation at Middlesbrough Town Hall where he saw a brochure of Wharton.
“I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” said Campbell. “This young man achieved so much and he did it in Darlington which is the town where I was living.”
On returning to his studio, Campbell painted a picture of Wharton.
“I just wanted to celebrate this remarkable young man and remember what he did,” he said.
With the support of American recording artist Stevie Wonder, who learned that Campbell was trying to erect a statue of Wharton while in Birmingham for a 2008 concert, the Arthur Wharton Foundation emerged to promote racial harmony, equality and diversity and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) donated almost $35,000 to help erect the statue.
A goalkeeper who signed as a semi-professional with Preston North End in 1886, Wharton made it to the Football Association (FA) Cup semi-finals a year later where his club succumbed 3-1 to West Bromwich. There was speculation at the time that he was good enough to play for England but he was never considered mainly because of racial prejudice at the time.
Wharton inked his first professional contract with Rotherdam United three years later.
In addition to being an outstanding goalkeeper, Wharton was a world-class sprinter and excellent cyclist. In 1886, he ran the 100-yard dash in a world record 10 secs. and a year later set a record time for cycling between Preston and Blackburn which are about 10 miles apart.
Born in Ghana in 1865 to parents with Grenadian and Scottish roots, Wharton moved to England at age 17 to train as a missionary. Bored with the academic and religious life, he quit school to pursue sports.
After he retired from soccer in 1902, Wharton’s life spiralled downwards and he died penniless in a workhouse sanatorium in 1930. His grave in South Yorkshire remained unmarked until 1997 when a headstone was placed on it.